Nestle Starbucks-1

This photo shows a sign in a Starbucks on March 24 located in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa.

While working on a story this week, I ran into a roadblock that many a reporter has encountered over the course of their career.

After spending my morning gathering background on Starbucks’ anti-bias training and formulating questions for local employees, I learned I wouldn’t be able to speak with anyone on the topic. The nationwide coffee company has barred its employees from commenting. It’s an opportunity lost for the Eau Claire community.

Here’s some background for those who might not be familiar: On April 12, two African American men arrived at a Starbucks in Philadelphia for a business meeting, to which they were about 10 minutes early. One of them asked whether he could use a restroom, and a white manager told him restrooms were only for paying customers. After the man returned to his seat, the same manager approached the two men and asked whether she could help them get any drinks.

Two minutes later, she called police to report them for “refusing to make a purchase or leave.” They were arrested and left the store in handcuffs. This overview is based on numerous media accounts and video of the incident, which you can view here.

Starbucks’ immediate response to this disaster was admirable. The company immediately apologized for what happened, and it scheduled an anti-bias training for all Starbucks employees to take place May 29. That training closed down 8,000 stores across the country for the afternoon as 175,000 employees engaged in the session.

As the Leader-Telegram commonly does with national stories, I planned to write something on the topic with a local angle. I was curious to find out who delivered the training here, what the training made employees think about in regards to their own biases and whether they thought Starbucks’ training program was enough.

The local employees I contacted were apologetic when they told me I had to go through a media hotline, as they were not allowed to comment. When I reached out to Starbucks’ media email, this is what I received as a reply:

“Yesterday’s learning sessions in our stores were closed to the public, including media, as they were intended to be an opportunity for our partners (employees) to connect, learn and engage in an open conversation,” the email reads. “We will not be accommodating interviews with partners (employees). May 29 was intended to be an internal conversation for our partners.”

This is disappointing, and not just because I had a deadline to make. It’s all well and good to make the training program materials open to the public — which Starbucks has done — but keeping employees from openly sharing their views on such an important topic seems only an attempt to shield the company from further negative feedback.

Some unnamed employees expressed their views for this CNBC story.

I wasn’t specifically looking for negative feedback with this article, although it could have come up in the reporting process. Good or bad, the Eau Claire community could have learned something from what Starbucks employees here have to say.

If employees felt the training was insufficient or not broad enough in scope, those viewpoints could spark meaningful conversation about race and bias and how to keep up societal progress. If they felt the training was excellent and it caused them to analyze their peers’ and their own behavior, we’ve found something to celebrate. 

Concern over public image shouldn’t bar employees from expressing their opinions. Here, it prevented what could have been a broader conversation.