An open letter to Howard Schultz, Laxman Narisimhan, the Starbucks executive leadership team, and the Board of Directors. March 1, 2023
“I would be devastated if, twenty years from now, Starbucks achieved the penetration, the presence, and the recognition we aim for at the expense of our core values. If we lose our sensitivity and our responsibility, if we start thinking it’s acceptable to leave people behind on our climb to the top, I will feel we’ve somehow failed.”Howard Schultz, Pour Your Heart Into It (1997)
Starbucks executives know that our stores are facing a variety of challenges and last year announced a “bold reinvention plan” that would be guided by partners, aimed at making things better for store partners. Yet Starbucks keeps making headlines and is now attracting Senate attention for retaliating against store partners who also want Starbucks to be better, and for tampering with their federal right to have fair elections, free from fear, coercion, and intimidation.
These actions against store partners resulted in record-breaking low morale and trust in leadership in the most recent internal company survey and, as pointed out by a prominent investment group, also puts the brand reputation and financial value of this publicly traded company at risk.
This behavior of not including partners in discussions about working conditions has now directly affected us, the support partners. A new “return to office” mandate has further decreased morale and is making our lives and jobs more difficult, prioritizing corporate control and property investments over partners and productivity, and is reducing our ability to help make things better for both store partners and customers.
After coming back as interim CEO last year, Howard Schultz felt partners had lost trust in leadership and promised a return to our history, yet recent actions under his tenure have only further fractured trust. We love Starbucks, and we are heartbroken by these policies that are inconsistent with our mission and values.
We are calling for a true return to our core values, specifically starting with a reversal of the return to office mandate and a commitment to a policy of neutrality with respect for federal labor laws.
Broken promises: an unexpected return to office mandate
Early in the pandemic, Starbucks executives realized this new era required a reinvention of how we work — not only for the short term, but for the future. An internal “Modern Workspace” team gave support partners a voice, across many surveys and feedback sessions, to help to define our new ways of work. As proof of their commitment to remote/hybrid work, with a clear understanding that it is successful, productive, and highly desirable, Starbucks invested in a large remodel to optimize headquarters for the modern era where the function of the office has changed.
After the remodel was complete in early 2022, support partners were empowered to choose what worked best for themselves, their families, and their teams and most selected the primarily remote work options, either “mostly digital” — defined as zero to two days a week in the office — or fully digital. Starbucks truly felt like the “different kind of company” it calls itself, and executives cited that reassuringly every time another large company announced a return to office policy.
Partners planned their lives around this promise of flexibility, including moving further away from the office, selling their cars, and reducing or eliminating childcare. With geography no longer a limitation to work, Starbucks hired many fully remote partners and provided career opportunities for store partners across the country to join corporate without relocating. At this point, most teams are distributed to some extent across the entire country.
However, on January 11, 2023, Howard Schultz, with the apparent support of the entire executive leadership team and board of directors, reneged on these promises, further fractured trust in leadership, and proved that Starbucks isn’t so different after all, by abruptly declaring a “return to office” mandate. Despite the lack of advance discussion and planning, the new policy went into effect just nineteen days later, on January 30, forcing everyone living within sixty miles to commute into the office three days a week. Failure to comply could lead to termination.
Starbucks is now investing in another remodel of headquarters to support this new mandate, yet there was insufficient time to make any changes prior to the policy taking effect, which means there are not enough desks, monitors, or conference rooms. While most fully remote partners can continue working from home for now, the policy also stipulates that — after three years of successful, effective remote work — Starbucks will start to evaluate which roles can be done remotely.
For many living within the defined “commutable distance” of sixty miles, it can easily take two hours to commute by car each way, and much longer using public transportation. Partners were not provided with enough time to make any necessary life adjustments, such as finding alternative childcare, caregivers for ailing family members, buying a car, or planning for increased expenses. Partners were instructed to talk to their managers to discuss their individual circumstances, yet managers were not given the authority to grant exemptions. Additionally, Starbucks, a company that prides itself on inclusion and diversity, has denied many accommodation requests from partners with disabilities or medical issues.
This change in policy, the way it was implemented, as well as the many retaliations against store partners, are all symptoms of the same fundamental issue: the actions of Starbucks executives and the board of directors are currently failing to uphold our core mission & values and losing partners’ trust.
Through the lens of our Mission & Values
To inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.
Rather than feeling inspired and nurtured, many partners are currently afraid and uncertain, resulting from:
- The many documented instances of retaliation, intimidation, and coercion against store partners who speak up and choose to exercise their legal right to unionize.
- Vast changes to working conditions without any employee input, forcing a hasty compliance by threatening termination, denying accommodations, and making others wonder if their jobs are next.
Culture is created by the examples of leadership and the behaviors that are rewarded or punished. It is time for Starbucks to recommit to its mission and truly become a different kind of company, fostering a culture of empathy and warmth rather than a culture of fear.
Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
The shift to remote work has shown massive benefits in promoting inclusion and diversity, particularly for people with disabilities. The option to work remotely comes with many benefits, including accessibility; limiting risk of exposure for anyone immuno-compromised; and enabling working parents to better juggle the demands of parenting and working.
In many instances, partners have been told remote work is no longer a viable, acceptable accommodation for disability — despite its clear success over the last few years, and even with explicit doctor’s notes and diagnoses. Yet this policy is inconsistent since it’s still considered a viable, acceptable way to work for other partners, who do the same job but live further away.
This mandate causes hardship, exhaustion, and burnout; it is not sustainable. Partners with neurodiversity are less able to control distractions and over-stimulation, impacting their well-being and productivity. Partners that need to limit exposure to pathogens are no longer supported in caring for their or their family’s health. Partners who temporarily moved away to support family, such as helping take care of ailing parents, are unexpectedly out of compliance and fear for their jobs. Very long commutes lead to very long days, meaning some partners no longer have much time to see their children or families three days a week. Support partners, who are passionate about making things better for store partners and customers, are also working extra hours to make up for the lost productivity and feel exhausted.
Rather than creating a culture of warmth and belonging, this mandate is exclusionary and will drive valuable partners and talent away from Starbucks — the loss of which will also negatively affect our culture. These actions are a massive step backwards for diversity and inclusion, especially when so many reasonable accommodation requests are also being denied. This is an ADA issue.
We call on Starbucks to reverse the “return to office” mandate and live up to our ideals of accessibility and inclusion, empowering partners to choose what works best for themselves, their families, and their teams.
Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
The world has changed, the way we work has changed, and we are finding new ways to grow. The return to office mandate is an attempt to return to a status quo that no longer fits into the new ways of work — and which Starbucks support partners were already challenging prior to the pandemic.
With teams now distributed across the entire country and most collaboration taking place online, so everyone is included and has equal access, the requirement for a physical office building has greatly diminished. For many partners living within sixty miles, going into the office means commuting anywhere from one to four hours per day — contributing to pollution and losing time that could be spent working — only to spend the day in virtual meetings that could have been taken more easily from home.
Embodying our mission and values, many support partners have acted with courage by speaking up about the undesirable impacts, loss of productivity, hardships, and decrease in morale this has caused — only to be dismissed, ignored, and explicitly told that Starbucks, a company that prides itself on having courageous conversations, does not welcome partner feedback or discussion on this topic.
Partners in stores, who also feel unheard, have acted with courage to speak up and challenge the status quo, only to be coerced, intimidated, and punished in violation of federal labor laws. Many support partners, having read about these retaliations against store partners who speak up, are now too scared to say anything in this new climate — even if the topic has nothing to do with unions.
We call on Starbucks to respect federal labor laws and commit to a policy of neutrality by agreeing to follow Fair Election Principles.
Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
Suppressing dialogue; changing working conditions unexpectedly, without discussion; giving people only nineteen days to uproot their lives and schedules; threatening termination; and retaliating against partners who attempt to unionize are not actions that treat people with transparency, dignity, or respect.
The reasons for the return to office mandate, and the rush to implement it before preparations could be made, are not transparent. Explanations given range from justifying the cost of rent — prioritizing property over partners — to claims around better productivity, collaboration, and connection that are not backed up by data or for which there could be alternate solutions.
- Productivity: This mandate will not enable or speed up any transformation work to support stores. Remote work is more productive, and projects have seen progress in record time due to the new ways of working. Commuting, competing over limited resources at the office, and moving to a less efficient working environment will slow down progress.
- Collaboration: Partners now have access to digital collaboration tools to brainstorm, generate ideas, and work together remotely. For discussions that are better in person, teams have already been doing on-site retreats, such as meeting at headquarters for a few days at least once a quarter — or more often, when needed for the work.
- Connection: One silver lining from the pandemic is it taught people to connect remotely and there are increasingly more ways to foster connection online that could be tried. Quarterly team retreats at headquarters, as well as departmental conferences or special events, have also proven quite successful at helping to build and strengthen connections in person, while still supporting flexibility, accessibility, productivity, and work-life balance.
Dignity and respect mean listening with empathy and working together to find new ways to work and solve issues. It means understanding that every individual has different needs and circumstances. It means trusting teams and individuals to make decisions about what works best and empowering everyone to have a voice in their working conditions.
We call on Starbucks to treat partners with empathy, dignity, and respect by engaging in open, honest discussions and trusting partners to help make decisions.
Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
Being accountable for results means having clear goals, defined ways to know whether something is helping accomplish those goals, and a willingness to change course when it’s not.
The return to office mandate lacks clear goals and accountability for results, while making it harder for support partners to deliver our very best. Continuing to repeatedly violate federal labor laws does not demonstrate accountability for results, while making it harder for store partners to deliver their very best.
How much of a reduction in morale, loss in productivity, erosion of trust, or wasteful spending on building remodels and legal fees are enough to prompt a willingness to change course? It is time for Starbucks to hold itself accountable for results and empower all partners to deliver our best.
We call on Starbucks to hold itself accountable for results and to set a higher standard, demonstrating a willingness to change course based on feedback and data, so that all partners can deliver their best.
We call on Starbucks to truly be a different kind of company
“I am so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing”President Biden, State of the Union Address (2023)
Starbucks is about to usher in a new era, one with Laxman Narasimhan at the helm. At this pivotal moment, it is time for Starbucks to reinvent itself by re-committing to our mission & values, aspiring to once again make Starbucks a place where everyone feels welcome and included, where acting with courage and challenging the status quo is supported, where we hold ourselves accountable to results and work together to find new ways to grow; and where all partners — whether for or against unions — are treated with empathy, dignity, trust, and respect.
We call upon the Starbucks executives, board of directors, shareholders, and customers to help return the company to its core values. We call on Starbucks to truly make our stores a safe place for everyone, free from fear, coercion, and intimidation. We call on Starbucks to treat all employees as true partners, empowered to help make decisions that impact their work.
We are all one Starbucks; we are all partners. We believe in Starbucks; we believe in its core values. When all partners are included, as trusted partners with a voice, we know that Starbucks can truly be a different kind of company.
An open letter and related petition to the Starbucks executive leadership team and the Board of Directors.
Starbucks executive leadership team
Howard Schultz, interim CEO; Laxman Narasimhan, incoming CEO; Brady Brewer, executive vice president, chief marketing officer; Rachel Ruggeri, executive vice president and chief financial officer; Deb Hall Lefevre, executive vice president, chief technology officer; Frank Britt, executive vice president, chief reinvention officer; Sara Kelly, executive vice president and chief partner officer; AJ Jones II, executive vice president and chief communications officer, Public Affairs.
Starbucks Board of Directors
Mellody Hobson, chair; Richard E. Allison, Jr.; Andrew Campion; Isabel Ge Mahe; Jørgen Vig Knudstorp; Satya Nadella; Joshua Cooper Ramo; Howard Schultz; Clara Shih.