Last April an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia set off a firestorm in the national media. Two black men had entered the store but hadn’t ordered anything. The manager asked them to leave and when they refused, they called the police. Police arrived and also asked the men to leave and they again refused. They were arrested and video of the arrest (see below) went viral. That led to protests against Starbucks and the police. The CEO issued an abject apology to the two men and ordered mandatory racial bias training at all of Starbuck’s 8,000 stores. The manager of that particular store left the company. However, this week a former regional director named Shannon Phillips, who is white but was not directly involved in the incident, claims she was fired about a month after it happened because of her race.
The lawsuit states that as regional director Phillips had nine district managers (DMs) reporting to her, two of whom were responsible for stores in Philadelphia. Those two district managers were Ben Trinsey, who is white, and Paul Sykes, who is black.
About a month after the arrests and the protests, Phillips was called in for a meeting with her boss Camilla Hymes (who is black). Hymes told Phillips to set up a meeting with District Manager Trinsey so she could place him on suspension. The complaint notes that the store where the arrest happened wasn’t one that Trinsey was responsible for. In fact, Sykes was responsible for that store. But Phillips was told that Trinsey had been accused of racial discrimination by some employees at the stores he managed. Specifically, minority employees had claimed that they were being paid less than white employees.
Phillips responded that she’d never seen any evidence of racial bias from Trinsey. In fact, she knew he was a frequent volunteer at a charity that primarily served black youth. Phillips also pointed out that District Managers had no say over salaries, which were set by another part of the company. Therefore it was impossible that Trinsey could have created discriminatory salaries between employees. Despite all of this, Phillips was ordered to suspend Trinsey. Meanwhile, Sykes, who had actually hired the manager who called the police, was not disciplined in any way.
The next day, Phillips was told to return for another meeting at which she could negotiate her severance. The complaint says the only reason given for her firing was “the situation is not recoverable.” Phillips claims the real reason she was fired was racial discrimination.
Of course we’re only hearing one side of the story here. Starbucks will no doubt present a very different theory about why Phillips was suddenly fired. But if Phillips is correct about how salaries are determined at Starbucks, it’s hard to see why the company would attempt to suspend someone for something they couldn’t possibly have done. It’s also a bit odd that the black district manager who was responsible for the store which created a major company crisis (and who had actually hired the person who called the police) wasn’t disciplined in any way. Something doesn’t add up here.