A Starbucks employee locks the door of the coffee shop on the corner of Oliver Avenue and William Penn Place in Pittsburgh, at 2:30 p.m. ET, for the chain's anti-bias training, Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Jessie Wardarski/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
INTERNATIONAL - Carla Ruffin, 57, spent all of her working life wearing her hair straight, the kind of decision black women make to fit in in the mostly white corporate world.

She’s worked at Starbucks for 14 years and was considering starting to wear her hair natural but it wasn’t until Tuesday that she and her colleagues discussed the idea of doing so at work. “It represents freedom in embracing your ethnicity,” she said.

Natural hair was just one of the topics that came up in the racial-bias training session attended by Ruffin, a regional director who oversees more than 100 Starbucks stores in New York City. The interactive training provided prompts for small groups of staff to discuss their own experience of race.

Starbucks shut its roughly 8000 company-owned stores for the closed-door training, but it let a few reporters interview some senior managers, including Ruffin, after they went through the four-hour session in Brooklyn.

Ruffin oversees nine district managers and said she hopes the training frees her staff to address racism directly in the future. “People circumvent talking about bias, it’s very uncomfortable.”

How and if Starbucks changes day-to-day is the big question for the company, which is trying to address one of the most bedevilling challenges in the US.

Starbucks said that with the training it was trying to tackle nothing less than the casual, everyday prejudices that many of its staff and customers experience. Whether it’s successful depends on a long list of decisions the company and its leadership have yet to make, including how anti-bias training will be integrated into new employee orientation.

The issues facing Starbucks have changed since the company’s founding as it has expanded across the US with thousands of stores, forcing it to confront thorny societal problems like the racial divide, opioid abuse and homelessness, chairperson Howard Schultz said.

“We are serving and interacting with many different types of customers and many different types of people who systemically are dealing with things we didn’t deal with when we were a much younger company,” he said.

The anti-bias training comes after public outcry when two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. On April 12, a store manager summoned the police after the men waited for a meeting without ordering. A video of the encounter went viral and chief executive Kevin Johnson later apologised for the arrests. “Watching that video was hard to do,” Johnson said last week. “It hit home. It was a wake-up call.”

In a matter of days, Starbucks announced the plans for the afternoon store closures to train their staff.

While it was anti-bias training broadly, much of the content revolved around racism, specifically anti-black racism. Starbucks says 66percent of its US staff are women and 43percent minorities.

Heather McGhee, president of Demos, who was an unpaid adviser to Starbucks for the initiative, said Schultz prided himself on putting Starbucks on what he saw as the right side of social issues.

The sheer scale of the company’s operations made the event a massive undertaking. The company said it consulted more than 30 racial justice experts, and Starbucks underwrote a short film about the history and continuation of racism in public places, like the sit-in protests during the Civil Rights era.

The company has yet to focus on what comes next. Johnson said Starbucks already surveyed customers about their experience at its cafés.

“I would expect that we’ll continue to enhance and tune those surveys as we go through this to understand if we’re doing a better job and making progress on the dimension of racial bias,” he added. 

- BLOOMBERG