- A former regional director for Starbucks has sued the company, alleging it violated federal and New Jersey anti-discrimination laws when it terminated her following a racial profiling incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks store. The director alleged both race discrimination and retaliation.
- The plaintiff, Susan Phillips, is white and managed a portfolio of Starbucks locations in Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, including the one in which the 2018 incident occurred. Phillips alleged in court documents that in the aftermath of the incident and the related press coverage, Starbucks "took steps to punish white employees who had not been involved in the arrests, but who worked in and around the city of Philadelphia, in an effort to convince the community it had properly responded to the incident." Phillips filed suit Oct. 28.
- "We deny the claims in the lawsuit and we are prepared to defend our case in court," a Starbucks spokesperson told HR Dive Oct. 31. The spokesperson declined to answer further questions about the suit.
The 2018 Starbucks incident produced one of the most significant case studies of corporate social responsibility and HR management in recent history. Phillips' suit is just one piece of that event’s long-lasting impact.
Starbucks faced protests in criticism of its culture and business after a Philadelphia store manager called local police to the store in April 2018, leading to the arrest of two black men. In response, the company closed all of its U.S. stores for bias training the following month. The decision earned praise from peers in the HR industry not just as a good PR move, but also for its attempt to address the underlying internal cultural issues that precipitated the incident.
Phillips' lawsuit has complex ties to that narrative. Phillips alleged that in the aftermath of the incident, Starbucks directed her to suspend one of her two Philadelphia direct reports — a white district manager who had been the subject of pay discrimination complaints. It did not direct her to suspend the black district manager who oversaw the store involved in the high-profile incident, she said. Phillips protested the white manager's suspension and was fired the next day, told only that "the situation is not recoverable."
The manager whose suspension Phillips protested, Ben Trinsey, did not have responsibility for the store that created the controversy, according to the suit. Phillips protested Trinsey's suspension for alleged pay discrimination in part because "Trinsey could not have any input on employee salaries" due to Starbucks' internal policies, she claimed.
Phillips alleged a relationship between her firing and that incident: Her U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge said that Phillips understood "the situation" — referred to by Starbucks staff in their decision to terminate her — to mean the incident itself.
The reason given for her termination, Phillips added, "is code for the efforts by the Respondents to discipline white, but not black, employees, in an effort to project to Respondents' employees and the public that Respondents do not discriminate against blacks on the basis of race, as well as code for Respondents not tolerating complaints of race discrimination from managers when the stated victim is white."
Since its day of training, Starbucks has received praise from officials for its work on equity, but it has also attracted further critiques and criticism. A report commissioned by the company recommended that Starbucks expand harassment prevention training, deepen ties with community organizations and integrate anti-bias training into its onboarding program. Additionally, Canadian employees said the company's day of training failed to adequately address race issues faced by Canada's indigenous population.