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Did Starbucks Overdo It?​​

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Last week, if you were looking to get your afternoon Starbucks fix, you were in for a very hard time. On May 29th, the vast majority of stores were closed to provide additional training for all employees. This was not training for a new triple-caramel, vanilla-encrusted, super-half-caf rainbows-and-unicorn Frappuccino or any of the other diabetes-inducing, over-the-top concoctions they have become famous for. (Contrary to what this sounds like, I am a Starbucks fan; I just don't need all the flavors.) No, it was for something much more important.

In April, two African-American gentlemen were waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks. Discussions with the employees ensued and they were eventually arrested for trespassing. It was not a pleasant situation and it was definitely mishandled. (You can find additional details here.)

As things so easily do nowadays, the story went viral and a nationwide outrage ensued. Starbucks responded by closing over 8,000 company-owned stores to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination. Here is Starbucks' official announcement.

Many people have spoken favorably about Starbucks' reaction. However, many critics are saying this is, at best, an overreaction to an isolated incident and, at worst, a PR stunt. They say the circumstances that led to the situation were unique, were just a misunderstanding, and were something unlikely to happen again; that the intense training was the proverbial grinding of a coffee bean with a 20-pound sledgehammer.

The naysayers could not be more wrong. You see, while Starbucks may, indeed, be using a very heavy sledgehammer, it is using it against an incredibly non-trivial target — nothing less than opinions, beliefs, and attitudes that have been set in stone for decades and, in some instances, centuries. No sledgehammer is too heavy to take on this task.

(And, hang in there, I'll get to what this all has to do with internal audit in a bit.)

Let's talk about the #MeToo movement. A few months ago, you couldn't shake a prattling newsreader without hearing about the latest allegations. It was an eye-opening situation, one that surprised many men, and maybe not quite so many women. (If you'd like to see a couple of the things I've had to say about these issues, you can check here and here.)

​The discussion is still ongoing, as are the revelations. But, let's face it, things keep happening, (for example, the Starbucks debacle) and we are an easily distracted species.

That isn't to say the conversation has died. The most recent (June 2018) Internal Auditor magazine has an excellent article on the subject titled "Into the Light" which discusses the related risks organizations face, how they can best respond, and how internal audit can help the organization with those responses. In addition, Editor in Chief Anne Millage has addressed the issue in the "Editor's Note" section with a piece titled "Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?" She speaks to how all these high-profile cases have served to shake our faith in the people we look up to. She then ends with the very powerful comment "[The heroes are] the women who are stepping forward and fighting back. And they are the men and women in our organizations who are listening and addressing these issues."

​​It's interesting that Anne ends her editorial with the comment about people who listen and take action. Because, in October 1999, then Assistant Editor Leah Miller wrote an "Editor's Note" for the magazine titled "Slaying Dragons." She began by saying "Sexual harassment is a crime that respects no boundaries. It infects our highest institutions and the smallest of companies, and its victims can include anyone. Remarkably, this insidious violation, which holds the potential to topple organizations and destroy people, is often casually dismissed."

Sounding a little familiar?

After Leah discussed the (then) latest regulatory and legal advancements, she makes the brave move of sharing her personal experience regarding sexual harassment. Her story ends when those in authority take professional and immediate action related to her complaints. Both Anne and Leah making the point that change only occurs when those in charge do the right thing.

Both good editorials. And an excellent article. But here is the depressing part. Nineteen years and Internal Auditor magazine is still writing editorials and articles about how this is an important issue that should be on the radar of every organization and internal audit department.

The need for 20-pound sledgehammers has never been greater. Here's another example.

For all the sturm und drang the #MeToo movement has caused — for all the awareness we think is occurring — organizations are still mired in their own self-delusion of what is happening in their own back yards.

A good friend of mine shared that she is currently in a hostile workplace. For obvious reasons, I won't give details except to say she is not a victim — nor do there appear to be other victims — of sexual assault. Nonetheless, it is a hostile environment. A number of people have complained. Those leaving the organization have pilloried the individual in their exit interviews. My friend has gone to the organization's Human Resources department. My friend has gone to the organization's Legal department.

And all that has been heard is the sound of crickets.

Let me emphasize the point that this is not a story from 20, 15, 10, or two years ago. This happened approximately one month ago.

Did Starbucks go overboard? No. Because, when it comes to changing institutionalized concepts such as misogyny or racism or discrimination or prejudice or any puny-dinosaur-brained mindset that accepts the denigration of any class of human beings, it is going to take an unceasing, diligent, intense offensive to even begin to make a difference.

The shift will not occur because of any one thing — one person complaining, one person suing, one eye-opening experience, one 6-hour training session. Change will only occur with constant repetition — constantly reminding people that the problems still exist; constantly reminding people what it means to act incorrectly (whether they act that way out of malice or because they are just bone-stick stupid); and constantly reminding people of the most obvious of statements, that all people are equal, they have the same rights, and they must be treated accordingly.

And what is internal audit's role in all of this?

The Internal Auditor article has some very good suggestions about the policies and procedures internal audit should be looking for, the type of training we should expect to see, and what we should expect from organizational hotlines and whistleblowing procedures. But, even as it relates to the fundamental approaches listed in the article, our role is much broader. We have the responsibility to provide assurance that everyone understands and can apply policies and procedures. We have the responsibility to provide assurance training that is not just an online, fill-in-the-blanks, now-sign-here exercise in completing the given task. We have the responsibility to provide assurance that training is in-depth, actively engaging, and of lasting value. And we have the responsibility to provide assurance that when someone steps forward with a complaint, they are not responded to with crickets, but with quick, effective, appropriate responses.

And that is only the beginning. Because the internal audit department that stops there has still not fulfilled its commitment to be the value-adding trusted advisors we promise to be.

We are the organizational boots on the ground. We are in the buildings, the offices, and the cubicles; we meet with all levels of individuals; we see the culture, the attitudes, and the problems that are occurring in the various organizational nooks and crannies. We are in the unique position of seeing across the organization and of being able to detect where problems may be hiding.

And, when we see something, it is then our job to do more than shake our heads with a "tsk,tsk" and wonder when something is going to happen. We have to take immediate action by letting someone know — departmental management, l​egal, HR, executive management, someone who is in a position (and willing) to do something.

And, if we have to, we must be ready to go directly to the board. Because it is never enough to see something, tell someone, and then say, with a shrug of the shoulders, "I've done all I can; if they don't want to do anything, it's not my problem." Because, it is our problem. It is our responsibility to provide assurance, and if action is not being taken when prejudice, harassment, and unequal treatment takes place, then it is our responsibility to see that something does, indeed, happen.

And if the board turns a blind eye, then there are bigger questions we need to be asking about where it is we are working, what the organization stands for, and what we personally stand for.

Did Starbucks overreact? Let me throw in one more thought. While I know absolutely nothing about the training that occurred, I'm willing to bet a significant number of employees who went through that training gained new awareness, a better understanding, and were made slightly better people because of it.
What has your company done that even comes close?

And what have you and your department done to ensure that the 20-pound sledgehammers are being been brought to bear on this problem?​

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