A lesson from Starbucks: How to address campus flashpoints

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A lesson from Starbucks: How to address campus flashpoints

Colleges and universities are not the only organizations that experience climate “flashpoints”: incidents around diversity and inclusion, sexual misconduct, and free speech are affecting some of the most well-known businesses today. Gen Z and Millennials expect the brands they support to demonstrate values consistent with their own, and young students’ strong commitment to social causes influences how they expect leaders to react in the aftermath of an incident.

Companies often have greater flexibility when responding to flashpoints, but higher ed institutions face heightened scrutiny as businesses raise the bar on what constitutes an adequate response. Most college and university leaders recognize that the stakes are high when responding to flashpoints on campus, and it’s critical that we ask what can be learned from the best examples to improve future strategy and preparedness.

Quick, comprehensive, ongoing: What Starbucks got right

In spring 2018, Starbucks experienced a high-profile bias incident that tested their own readiness. Senior leaders successfully positioned the incident as a teachable moment by accepting full responsibility for what happened and then demonstrating commitment to fast and thorough follow-up.

  1. Swift apology from senior leadership. Within two days of the incident, CEO Kevin Johnson issued a formal apology across media and social media platforms signaling full accountability for the incident and promising further action.
  2. Transparent follow-up actions. Starbucks closed all 8,000+ US stores for a full afternoon of anti-bias training within five days of the incident and insisted that a half-day of sensitivity training was only a first step.
  3. Continued emphasis on anti-bias and diversity efforts. A couple of months later, Starbucks launched online anti-bias training modules for all employees to address the broader context of bias in the workplace and underscore their commitment and values.

5 common failure paths

Starbucks’ response is just one example of an emerging gold standard for how organizations—including colleges and universities—should respond to flashpoints. But this standard can be a challenging bar for most higher ed institutions, given their slow decision-making processes and consensus-driven attitude toward governance.

These familiar challenges leave many open questions on how to best prepare for and manage flashpoints on your own campus. Through our conversations with senior leaders, EAB has identified five failure paths that hinder most institutional responses across higher ed:

  1. Current risk identification practices overlook potential flashpoints
  2. Decentralized information about potential flashpoints means colleges and universities lose opportunities to intervene early
  3. Existing relationships are insufficient for responding to campus flashpoints
  4. It is unclear when schools should respond to flashpoints
  5. Institutions address the immediate incident but not the broader context

Our full resource on “Addressing Campus Climate Flashpoints” provides an overview of each failure path as well as recommendations and case examples of how campuses are overcoming these challenges. Regardless of your institution’s experience with flashpoints, EAB recommends that senior leaders proactively discuss these failure paths as part of both developing and refining your preparation and response strategy.

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