Starbucks is doing what it can to prepare employees for potentially uncomfortable customer encounters as anger grows at former CEO and chairman Howard Schultz, who is considering running for president as an independent centrist candidate.
The coffee chain’s “Barista Need-To-Know” update for the week of Jan. 21-27 included instructions on how to “diffuse [sic] the situation” should anyone “share aggressive political opinions,” as well as what to do if someone asks about Schultz’s “political intentions.”
From the weekly update (emphasis not ours):
“… partners [i.e., employees] may be asked questions by customers or hear media speculation about Howard’s potential political intentions. We encourage you all to take a moment to review the talking points below with your partners.
If a customer asks if we are selling Howard’s book at Starbucks:
No, the books are available at bookstores and online.
If a customer attempts to investigate, or share aggressive political opinions, attempt to diffuse the situation by sharing:
We respect everyone’s opinion. Our goal is simply to create a warm and welcoming space where we can all gather, as a community, over great coffee.
If asked about Howard’s political intentions:
Howard’s future plans are up to him.
The company’s weekly updates are sent to its store locations, where management initials the document, “essentially agreeing to deploy whatever instructions the update holds,” said one shift supervisor, who reached out to HuffPost after a callout on Twitter.
Another Starbucks employee said that management at her store had rephrased the Schultz instructions ― and did so in a way that bothered her.
“We were told not to talk to customers about it,” said the employee, who added that workers were told that “if we are asked about his political goals or our opinions on it that we’re to say he was a great CEO to work for but that’s where our opinions end.”
The rephrased instructions irked the employee, who saw them as part of a pattern of stifling employees’ opinions. The shift supervisor felt similarly about the written instructions, finding it frustrating that Schultz was able to publicly discuss his politics when he worked at Starbucks while they were not.
“[I wish] we would be given the same opportunity to express our beliefs,” the supervisor said.
The instructions came as part of a larger section in the weekly update about Schultz’s new book, From the Ground Up, which the former CEO said in a note to the company is about “Our Mission.”
“I wrote it about you, and for you,” he said. “My hope is that From the Ground Up makes you proud to be part of a company that is about so much more than coffee. It’s about finding new ways to balance profit and a social conscience.”
Schultz stepped away from Starbucks last summer after more than three decades of building the company into a global powerhouse. At the time, he said, “One of the things I want to do in my next chapter is to figure out if there is a role I can play in giving back.”
Now, Schultz is publicly weighing an independent presidential bid as he tours the country promoting his new book. His potential run has already provoked condemnation from Democrats who fear he could split voters and pave the way for President Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020. Hecklers interrupted Schultz’s Manhattan book event twice on Monday, one of them yelling, “Don’t help elect Trump, you egotistical billionaire asshole!”
Some Starbucks employees feel the same way.
“I find Schultz running to be extremely awful,” said a third Starbucks employee, who asked not to be named because he relies on the job for health insurance. “I just know he’ll splinter the Dem vote in 2020 and that he’s in it for himself.”
In an interview that aired Sunday, “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley asked Schultz whether Starbucks stores would play a role in his campaign should he run: “Is there going to be a Schultz 2020 button on every green apron across the country?”
“Uh, no,” Schultz responded. “There would be a complete separation between me and the company.”
But that separation has yet to occur. Starbucks noted in its employee update that it had shipped “one copy [of Schultz’s new book] to each of our U.S. stores this week for partners to share” and that employees would get a 50 percent discount on the book through Jan. 27 as part of a “partner-only presale.”
The third Starbucks employee told HuffPost that another one of Schultz’s books, Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, is currently “in our stores over the work computer.”
A Starbucks spokesperson noted that the company has been sending books to stores since 2007 ― two recent examples being Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah.
The coffee chain has already dealt with Schultz’s potential foray into politics in other ways. One day after Schultz’s “60 Minutes” segment, current Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson noted in an open letter to employees that while people will “inevitably” ask “if the company supports a possible presidential candidacy of Howard,” “we don’t get involved in national political campaigns.”
All Starbucks employees have “an opportunity to make our own informed decisions about politics and the future of our communities and our country,” Johnson added. “And as Starbucks partners, we have a responsibility to always recognize and respect the diversity of perspectives of all customers and partners on these topics.”
Beyond the potential boost to Trump’s re-election hopes, Starbucks employees who reached out to HuffPost expressed other concerns about a Schultz presidency.
“Just because you’re a businessman does not mean you’re also a stellar leader,” said a fourth current Starbucks employee. “We learned that from our current president.”
Jess Svabenik, a Starbucks barista in Washington state, also wouldn’t want to see Schultz elected president, noting that Schultz once opposed legislation to increase the minimum wage in Seattle to $15 per hour.
“I can only say that as someone who works for a working class wage it would be foolish of me to support a Schultz presidential bid,” she said. “I would be voting against my family’s economic security if I were to support him.”