The Starbucks Company’s Ethical Controversy


For an organization, maintaining good performance and maintaining a proper appearance supported by a positive public image is absolutely necessary. However, in the context of the present-day globalized community, where intercultural communication suggests creating premises for multiple misunderstandings, the ability to manage conflicts and address mistakes arising as a result of misconceptions, ethical failures, and the associated incidents appears to be even more important than keeping an entirely stellar ethical appearance (Gourguechon, 2018). The recent case of an ethical controversy at Starbucks proves the importance of producing a coherent and appropriate apology when needed instead of insisting on being ethically flawless. By approaching the instance of racism observed at one of its cafes as a case of a corporate failure to uphold relevant ethical values and not as an isolated instance of a specific employee’s racist preconceptions, Starbucks has proven its ability to manage ethical conflicts and the associated concerns with dignity and respect for all parties involved.

Interconnection of Mission, Core Values, and Ethical Practices in the Case

The case at hand features excellent management of an ethical issue by utilizing the company’s mission, core values, and ethical standards in its decision-making. Specifically, the interconnection of the specified elements has made it possible for Starbucks to manage the dilemma with the required grace and regard for the participants’ needs. Particularly, the conflict occurred as two African American men entered a Starbucks café, made an order, and started conversing as they waited for their friends. Meanwhile, one of the Starbucks employees considered these customers suspicious based solely on their skin color and alerted the police. The African American patrons of the café turned out to be innocent, while Starbucks and its employee were accused of racism.

Specifically, the decision to issue a formal apology and acknowledge the observed injustice and the presence of inherent biases in the corporate setting while vocally committing to working toward eradicating these biases in the future was a particularly powerful move (Gourguechon, 2018). Specifically, the described strategy undertaken by Starbucks aligns with its core mission, namely, with its intention to “inspire and nurture the human spirit,” which can be interpreted as promoting essential values such as justice and equality, among others (Avila et al., 2019). The alignment between the company’s core values, mission, and tactical decision-making in the case at hand proves that Starbucks has approached the issue in the most natural and appropriate manner, thus, meeting the needs of all stakeholders involved.

Actions Taken by Starbucks and the Effectiveness of These Actions: Analysis

In retrospect, Starbucks’s actions in order to address the problem were quite unconventional at the time, yet nonetheless effective due to their insightfulness and the focus on building long-term goodwill with its key stakeholders. Specifically, instead of downplaying the significance of the accident and sweeping it under the rug or downright denying its occurrence, Starbucks’ managers took responsibility for the actions of their employees and recognized them as an inherent problem within the company. As a result, Starbucks accomplished an impressive act of taking responsibility for the accident and, most importantly, demonstrated the company’s willingness to change to meet social justice’s core principles.

The fact that the organization has skipped making any public excuses concerning the unethical and racist behavior of its staff member also indicates that Starbucks is completely serious about the issue at hand and seeks to address it accordingly. Overall, the actions in question have turned out to be effective since they have led to a positive change in the firm’s policy and prevented its public image from being tarnished. The strategy allowed Starbucks to avoid the drastic outcomes that the organization would have suffered given the harsh economic environment of 2008 due to the reasonable and ethically strong position that the company’s leader and managers took.

A Pro-Active Approach to Addressing Ethical Issues

The emphasis on being proactive in addressing the observed ethical issue and the underlying problems within the company’s design should be considered one of the main steps that made it possible for Starbucks to recover from the described incident. The use of a proactive approach in the organizational context typically suggests that an ethical issue observed in the company context informs the further changes in the corporate policy. For instance, a study by Song et al. (2021) regarding the airline industry in South Korea shows that handling a conflict in a proactive manner implies shaping the organizational policy and the associated strategies to solve similar issues in the future in a more effective way. Namely, Song et al. (2021) mention that “the procedure management technique from the system perspective and tries to overcome the strong dependency on expert capacity, relevant case, available resource, and so on, which is limit of conventional technique” as a conflict management framework is highly beneficial to that one of the standard approach (p. 20). Thus, the very concept of a proactive approach is tied inherently to taking action to shape the principles according to which an issue is managed.

Specifically, the proactive approach adopted by Starbucks aligns with the essential steps for making a public apology. Namely, as outlined by Forbes, the organization succeeded in making an immediate and, most importantly, non-defensive statement concerning the problem within the company’s design. Afterward, the effort to take personal responsibility for the issue should be regarded as a majorly impressive decision (Hussain, 2014). The existing accounts of the event mention that Starbucks did not represent the issue as the problem of a biased employee and did not put the entire blame on the staff member in question by firing him. Instead, the organization represented the issue as the direct outcome of a flaw in its policy toward managing public issues while also declaring clearly and unambiguously its willingness to change and improve.

Facts, Issues, and the Course of Action Taken by Starbucks: Analysis

Furthermore, the fact that the company leader addressed the problem personally has reinforced the impression that the company has been focusing on a pro-active approach in handling the specified issue and other ethical concerns. Meeting Starbucks’ ethical standards of managing public issues, Johnson’s involvement has added a personal touch to introduce a positive change and represent the company in a positive light in the media.

One of the major advantages of Starbucks’ course of action concerned its immediate response and the nature thereof. Specifically, instead of viewing the described occurrence as an isolated incident and pinning the blame for the entire issue on a single staff member, who called the police, the organization’s leader acknowledged a problem in how the company reinforces its ethical principles and values (Gourguechon, 2018). Furthermore, the fact that the organization made a public promise to amend its current ethical code in order to reflect the observed concerns and meet the needs of vulnerable populations indicates that the company has been deploying people-oriented management principles and policies. Additionally, the understanding of the importance of removing personal biases from the workplace and approaching all customers from the perspectives of equality and equity, which Starbucks’ decision-making process reflects, demonstrates the company’s efficacy in managing ethical concerns. Consequently, the manner in which Starbucks has dealt with the specified crisis proves that the company is fully ready to operate in a diverse environment and address complex workplace issues.

Furthermore, the fact that the CEO has decided to approach the issue at hand in the specific manner that involved communicating with the affected parties directly and developing a plan for further follow-up actions proves that the company has been aiming at a long-term change. More specifically, the described course of action confirms the company’s decision to alter its policies to reflect a fairer, non-discriminatory, and justice-driven framework for managing concerns emerging when handling customer communication and interactions. (Goh et al., 2020). Therefore, the selected approach should be seen as the most sensible and adequate set of actions to be taken since it reflects the company’s intention not only to amend its strategy but also to introduce change on a more profound level that will affect Starbucks’ decision-making in the future. Specifically, the fact that the company’s CEO entered the discussion and communicated with the target audiences directly proves that Starbucks prioritizes the needs of its customers and recognizes their concerns as legitimate.


Of all the issues within the Starbucks Company that the case under analysis signals, the problem of unconscious personal bias and its integration into the workplace practice must be mentioned first. Representing a dual issue, the unconscious bias concern implies that Starbucks has failed to promote its core equality-based values to staff members, thus, eradicating prejudice in the workplace. Furthermore, the fact that the organization has allowed employees’ personal perceptions and ideas to affect corporate policies represents the duality of the problem, implying that Starbucks’ current framework for managing its staff and instilling organizational values into the corporate environment has been failing.


Avila, M., Parkin, H., & Galoostian, S. (2019). $16.7 Million To Save One Reputation: How Starbucks Responded Amidst a Racial Sensitivity Crisis. Pepperdine Journal of Communication Research, 7(1), 4.

Goh, S. Y., Kee, D. M. H., Ooi, Q. E., Boo, J. J., Chen, P. Y., Alosaimi, A., & Ghansal, M. (2020). Organizational culture at Starbucks. Journal of the Community Development in Asia (JCDA), 3(2), 28-34.

Gourguechon, P. (2018). The psychology of apology: How did Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson do? Forbes.

Husain, S. (2014). How Starbucks pulled itself out of the 2008 financial meltdown. Business Today. 

Song, K. H., Sohn, J. W., & Kim, S. K. (2021). Decision-making framework for the proactive policy conflict management: The case of new airport projects in South Korea. Science Progress, 104(3_suppl), 1-9.

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