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Starbucks Lacks Clear Guidance for Employees on Nonpaying Customers

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The arrests of two nonpaying customers at a

Starbucks
Corp.

cafe earlier this month has raised questions among some employees about how to handle such situations.

Starbucks Chief Executive

Kevin Johnson

said it was wrong that a Philadelphia manager called the police on two black men who asked to use the bathroom without purchasing anything and then allegedly refused to leave when asked.

Interviews with current and former Starbucks managers and baristas across the country suggest that the company’s guidelines on how to treat lingering nonpaying customers in general are vague at best—if they exist at all.

The people interviewed say they were unaware of a written policy on how long customers are allowed to stay in a Starbucks cafe without buying anything.

Contributing to the lack of clarity, employees say, is that Starbucks and its business model foster the idea of its shops as the “third place” in customers’ lives, a place to hang out that isn’t home or work.

The people interviewed say training hasn’t taught employees—Starbucks calls them “partners”—to deal with lingering customers, instead focusing on what to do in the event of a theft or armed robbery. They say their understanding is decisions about whether and when to ask nonpaying customers to leave and whether to bar bathroom access are left to the discretion of individual store managers.

“It’s been a gray area at Starbucks for a long time,” says a Starbucks executive who used to manage stores.

A Starbucks spokeswoman says because it has 28,000 stores world-wide, “different regions, circumstances and cultural norms necessitate different guidelines” for each.

The company’s own explanation of its guidelines for employees in the Philadelphia store appear contradictory.

“In this particular store the guidelines were that partners must ask unpaying customers to leave the store, and police were to be called if they refused. Of course there are circumstances where the police should be called, for example when there’s a major disruption or dangerously aggressive behavior, but that was not the case in this situation. The police should never have been called,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.

The spokeswoman said all of the company-owned Starbucks in the Philadelphia area have signs informing people that the bathrooms and the lobby are for paying customers only.

The Philadelphia store manager who called the police hasn’t been identified. Starbucks says she has left the company as part of a mutual decision. An attorney representing the two men, who appeared on television news programs on Thursday, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Sarah Madden, a former Starbucks barista in New York City who now works at another restaurant, says, “There was no policy at my store—we did what we wanted, we were in a high-volume store, so we didn’t really care if people hung out.”

“If a company has a policy and doesn’t support a store when it enforces that policy, it seems very hypocritical,” says Ms. Madden, who while at Starbucks was involved in some unsuccessful efforts at unionizing.

A current Starbucks employee says within the company there are mixed feelings about the way top executives treated the Philadelphia manager. “Store managers are more sympathetic to her because most managers have had to ask people to leave their store at some point,” this person says.

Sena Reid, a barista at a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles, says she feels the Philadelphia manager’s decision to call the police was “totally wrong,” but added that a policy stating it would be appropriate to call police about nonpaying customers only when they are disruptive might have prevented what happened.

Leaving such decisions to an individual employee’s judgment without more corporate guidance can lead to problems, organizational experts say. Even the definition of what constitutes “disruptive” can vary from person to person.

“It’s not enough to say it’s OK to call police when someone is loitering. You have to define what loitering is,” says Joelle Emerson, founder and chief executive of Paradigm, a consulting firm that advises companies on inclusion and diversity.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross apologized to the two men who were arrested. He told reporters at a Thursday press conference he assumed Starbucks didn’t allow nonpaying customers to linger in its stores, and he believes the officers who made the arrests thought so, too.

Starbucks says it is working with outside experts and community leaders to review its training and practices. It plans to close all of its more than 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores for an afternoon in May for racial-bias education sessions for its employees. An additional 5,000-plus stores operated by licensees will receive the racial-bias training materials later.

Jamie-Lynn Riffenberg, who worked at Starbucks stores in Colorado and North Carolina off and on for five years, says it was hard to know where to draw the line with nonpaying customers, who often included homeless people coming in to warm up or to get a free cup of water.

“If you’re too welcoming, they want to come more and more, and stay longer, and it can snowball,” says Ms. Riffenberg, who was a shift manager at a Durham, N.C., Starbucks until January, when she left to take a higher-paying job at a restaurant.

Ms. Riffenberg and others say people have different ideas about how long is too long to stay without buying something.

“To some people, that might mean hanging around for 30 minutes without paying, but to someone else it might mean two hours,” she says. “There’s too much room for variance.”

Write to Julie Jargon at julie.jargon@wsj.com



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