DO NOT LICK THE BRAIN! and other obvious stuff

Authored by Fiona W. Ong at Shawe Rosenthal
June 12th, 2018

This blog was written by Fiona Ong at Shawe Rosenthal, author of our Maryland Human Resources Manual. You can find the original blog post here and their Labor & Employment Report newsletter (which is excellent) here.

Starbucks – Training Employees on the Obvious?

I have a friend who is a high school biology teacher. A few years ago, her class dissected a sheep’s brain. After class, one of her students confessed to her that he had licked the brain!!! (I’ll pause here for a moment so you can wrap your own brain around that….) Unsurprisingly, this caused an immediate uproar. The school nurse was appropriately concerned about possible health issues (prions that can cause horrific diseases, poisonous chemicals, etc.). On the other hand, an administrator questioned whether my friend had failed to preemptively instruct her students NOT TO LICK THE BRAIN. Um, what? I think we can agree that is one of those things that is so glaringly obvious you should not have to spell it out as a general matter.

What else is obvious? Well, I’d say the direction that Starbucks gave to its employees to call 911 if they observe a customer using or selling drugs. Or there’s a fire or robbery. This is associated with Starbucks’ new policy on non-paying guestsin its stores. The issuance of the policy follows the well-publicized arrest of two Black men in a Philadelphia store and the company’s subsequent announcement that it would close all stores on May 29 for anti-bias training.

The new policy welcomes all to Starbucks spaces regardless of whether they make a purchase. However, it does contain the following provisions:

In situations where a customer is behaving in a disruptive manner that does not maintain the third place environment and interferes with the Starbucks Experience for others, Starbucks partners should follow the “Addressing Disruptive Behaviors” procedure.

If a situation presents an immediate danger or threat to partner or customer safety, Starbucks partners should call 911.

The Washington Post reports that the “Addressing Disruptive Behaviors” procedure identifies eight instances of when 911 should be called, including: a gas leak or fire, robbery, a threat of violence, the use or selling of illegal drugs, the destruction of store property, a medical emergency, or a physical assault (Yes, I know that’s only seven. I can’t figure out from the article what the eighth one is). I frankly find the specific identification of these examples to be unnecessary (and a little paternalistic) because, well, they’re really pretty obvious. I would hope that a Starbucks employee (and anyone else) would understand that they can call 911 if a guest is having a heart attack, or the store has been robbed or is on fire – without a written procedure to instruct them to do so.

I also raise an eyebrow at another reported part of the procedure – that before taking action against disruptive behavior, the employee should ask another employee to “observe and verify” the behavior. As a general rule, that seems pretty ridiculous. In most cases, the disruptive behavior is going to be obvious and an employee would likely be able to determine that all on his/her own. Requiring “verification” would often be unnecessary, and may, in fact, delay a response to the disruption. Of course there will likely be situations in which case an employee might be unsure of whether the behavior is actually a problem, and it would be completely appropriate to involve another employee to assess and help deal with the issue. But to require it every time? (Although I wonder if that requirement is intended as a check on rogue employees…)

Now, I want to make clear that I really appreciate the fact that Starbucks is trying to be proactive in training its employees on bias and guest relations, as well as how to deal with potentially problematic guests. But from a practical standpoint, I don’t think all of the pieces have been very well thought-out. Starbucks, in an excess of caution, seems to be taking an overly regulated approach. And I suspect that employees will comply with some degree of eye-rolling.

Just as my friend does, when she now warns her students each year before the sheep brain dissection lab, “DO NOT LICK THE BRAIN!”