Starbucks: A Slow Extinction of Culture

Category: Internal Brand Published on Aug 02 2016

“The Starbucks culture is singular. I haven’t experienced it anywhere else. What’s happening is a slow extinction of that culture.”

Jaime Prater


Once again, Starbucks is at a crossroads. In the early to mid 2000’s Starbucks concentrated all of its energy on expansion. During this period, the company culture and internal branding was virtually ignored. The result: Sales were down, market share was decreasing, and Howard Schultz decided it was time to return as CEO.


Mr. Schultz’s turnaround strategy was simple: return to basics.

What are the basics? In general terms, the basics are the internal brand (vision, mission, values, company belief systems) and the culture it creates. For Starbucks it meant concentrating on coffee and the company’s core values of:

 - Community

 - Connection

 - Respect

 - Dignity

 - Humor

 - Humanity

 - Accountability


Because I am a loyal customer with a Starbucks Gold Card (I’m not sure if this is something to brag about or if it merely is admitting that I drink way too much tea) I have personally experienced changes in the stores. Here is what I have witnessed:

 - Time to receive my drink steadily increasing (at one time the wait to receive a drink was around 1-2 minutes).

 - At stores where I am a regular, there is frequently one less person behind the counter.

 - Cashiers are not only taking money and filling coffee orders but also making tea, and heating food items. The result: I wait longer to place my order.

 - Staff members are too busy to spend time talking with me, though they are still unfailingly polite.

 - In one busy, small location they moved the counter back to make more room for customers. Unfortunately, now staff can barely move without jostling each other.


As a result, I was curious when a coworker forwarded me a link for an open letter to Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks that is posted on The Barista Life webpage.  Around the same time an online petition appeared on, an organization devoted to workplace democracy.


Both posts spoke about understaffing and the lack of respect for tenured employees. It appears that hours are being cut back to the bare minimum and the number of staff on duty are regularly being decreased despite stores showing increasing sales. To add insult to injury, while hours are being cut stores are still hiring new people and these new, lower pay-rate staff members are being given hours that could be going to older, experienced staff. (Note: the open letter also talked about the inadequacy of the starting wage for baristas.)


For me, the most disturbing part of the open letter rant was encapsulated in this line: “In our efforts to ‘make every moment right’ for customers we’ve given opportunity for customers to become bullies and for partners to be taken advantage of on a daily basis.” According to Simeon Purkey, the author of the open letter, the core values of dignity and respect have become one way: to the customer only. Regardless of the situation and how the customer behaves, they are always right. Baristas are expected to take abuse from customers with a smile and are given little to no sympathy from managers.


I was willing to believe that this was one person’s experience in one store until I read the myriad of comments from other baristas that echoed Simeon’s comments. In fact, many baristas have suffered worse abuses than were in the open letter. It appears that in an effort to increase the bottom line the core values of respect and dignity have morphed into the core value of “The customer is always right.”


A few weeks after these two posts appeared, Howard Schultz announced that he is raising the starting wage of baristas by 5% to 15%. He is also increasing stock awards for employees with Starbucks for more than 2 years. In addition, Starbucks will be increasing the health care options available by adding some that require a lower employee payment.


However, his response to understaffing was on the vague side: “you have my personal commitment that we will work with every partner to ensure you have the hours you need.” Now, I understand the need for Starbucks to make a profit, however, this comment is so vague that I admit that I am wondering what the next step will be to resolve the issue. At this point, only time will tell if real change is enacted or if it is an empty promise.


More damning, Howard Shultz did not respond at all to the bullying of baristas by customers. Is this because he is unaware of the open letter and the problem? It’s possible, but this would indicate that he is out of touch with employees, which is not a good situation.


For me, this lack of response is the most troublesome because two core values are being violated every time a barista is bullied by a customer and management does nothing to support the barista: respect and dignity. For core values to truly be core, they must apply to everyone, which means that these values apply to employees as well as customers. As long as Mr. Shultz does not respond to this situation then I agree with the opening quote: Starbucks is experiencing a slow extinction of its culture. And that is a shame.