Howard Schultz could probably have ignored the protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Had he calmly sipped a flat white while demonstrators across the United States screamed “I can’t breathe” at police officers following the death of Eric Garner, few would have cared. After all, what do racial tensions in the U.S. have to do with pumpkin scones and macchiatos?

Illustration: Peter Arkle

Instead, the Starbucks CEO made an unlikely move: Last December he called a meeting of the company’s “partners” (its preferred term for baristas and their colleagues), passed around a microphone and asked them to let loose about the state of American race relations.

The free-for-all session, the first of a series of open forums Starbucks has arranged across the country, was designed to give employees an opportunity to “have a conversation about what was happening in our nation,” Schultz wrote in an open letter. Staff took to the microphone for an hour, he wrote, and shared personal stories—some going back to childhood—and ideas about “how to move the conversation, our company and our country forward.”

It’s not clear what specific initiatives could come out of the sessions, but many people have applauded Starbucks’s choice to tackle issues of race head-on, rather than politely avoiding them. Not only does it signal a progressive attitude toward workplace multiculturalism—but it’s just good for business.

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If your workforce is already diverse, as Schultz’s is (about 40% of Starbucks baristas are racial minorities), frank conversations about race serve as an organizational thermostat, giving employees an opportunity to express fears and concerns that might otherwise distract them from their work.

Here in multicultural Canada, where we pride ourselves on being “colour-blind” and inclusive, incidents like last October’s vandalization of a mosque in Cold Lake, Alta., and a Montreal judge’s recent refusal to hear a woman’s case unless she removed her hijab have left many minority citizens concerned about their personal safety, says Saadia Muzaffar, a marketing director and founder of TechGirls Canada, an advocacy group for gender and racial diversity in tech. “I’d much rather see a company invest in this kind of forum rather than holding a ‘multicultural day,’ because those are a mirage for actual acceptance and celebration—a laughable way to say, ‘You have permission to be a caricature of yourself for one day. Enjoy!’”

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Publicly committing to conversations about race helps build the Starbucks brand, says Victorio Milian, a New York–based HR consultant who outlined the strategic benefits of Schultz’s open forums in his blog, Creative Chaos. By openly discussing race, Starbucks has staked a position in the marketplace that helps differentiate it in the minds of customers, job candidates and existing employees—many of whom will likely feel more loyal to Starbucks if issues of race are important to them, Milian writes.

“What Howard Schultz has expressed is what many people claim to do—provide leadership (not just management) to those it employs…. When it works, people tend to at least appreciate and respect you. But aside from what you or I may think of as good leadership, Starbucks’s attempts at conducting open forums for its staff actually makes good business sense.”

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There’s another reason for focusing on race in the workplace: Diverse teams are more creative, more resilient and more productive—one study (designed to measure gender diversity) showed productivity gains of more than 40% in non-homogenous groups.

“Look how smart Schultz is,” says Muzaffar. “He’s got these mixed groups of workers, and he’s saying to them, ‘I hear you.’ I think if I were a black employee, for example, I would be loyal to him forever.”

This article is from the April 2015 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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Do you agree? Have you talked to your employees about race? Share your thoughts and experiences using the comments section below.

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