The Culture Implications Of Starbucks New Dress Code

starbucks culture

Starbucks has gained a lot of attention in the wake of their recent dress code policy changes, allowing their employees to wear black denim, colored ties, and allowing visible tattoos.

This may seem like a small change, but in the context of recent controversy over this very issue, it made us wonder what the deeper implications were for these policy changes.

We asked our team at gothamCulture how they viewed this recent change, and what bigger implications for the coffee giant’s organizational culture may be underlying it. Here are some of our thoughts:

Stuart Farrand – Associate

stuart-farrandI’d say its 60% PR and 40% pragmatism and believe the two go hand in hand.  A growing percentage of the population has tattoos, especially within the services industry.  At the moment, having a tattoo doesn’t carry the stigma it used to. In fact, it’s become more of a cultural norm.

From a PR standpoint, it did seem that Starbucks was out of touch with society.  From a pragmatic standpoint, I think they realized that tattoos are really not something they can control. It’s much easier to acquiesce than to make the dress code more restrictive (i.e. wearing long sleeves to cover up tattoos, regulating the color of the long sleeve shirt, etc.), which would also be more difficult to enforce.

In terms of what other organizations might learn from this, I see two big takeaways:

1. Weigh the costs and benefits of the rules you impose on your employees.  Dress code is a good example, but it the same is true for broader rules across your organization.  At what point do the rules (and enforcing the rules) actually impede someone’s ability to do their job?

2. Organizations must be flexible with emerging social norms, and try to accommodate them as much as possible.

Samantha Goldman – Associate

samantha-goldmanThis is a great example of an organization updating a policy to act more in accordance with its values and mission, and thereby preserve its own integrity as an organization. The anti-tattoo policy or a very strict dress code did seem to be in contradiction with Starbucks first value of “Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome”. It also undermines their mission, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

While any organization must have some guidelines for physical appearance/dress code, employees can’t be blatantly prohibited from showing up physically in a way that reflects their own human spirits, especially when “warmth and belonging” are guiding values in the brand’s interaction with customers. Such policies are a critical component of an organization’s culture. If the organization is trying to create a culture that reflects their mission and values, it’s critical that policies are aligned as much as possible.

Mark Emerson – General Manager

mark-emersonStarbucks is bowing to the inevitable shift to a new generation.  This is a push/pull situation, in that their customers are younger, and the younger generation doesn’t view body art as any big deal. And, in most cases it is an expression of individuality – which pulls the company forward.

Then you have the push aspect. The company wants to show they are keeping with the times. What better way to do that than to have their baristas reflect a large portion of their customer base?  This feeds very much into the culture and system of values Starbucks wants to reflect: one of making the employees the bottom-line and everything else will flow from that.

Secondly, and I think Starbucks is always looking at the practicality of things. They were probably starting to run into a recruitment issue. They are, in some ways, the “McDonald’s of coffee” and provide starter jobs for many teens/twenty-somethings. Banning tattoos was bound to trip them up with their enormous staffing needs.

This also reminds me of the story in the NY Times about the Starbucks worker who was having so much trouble getting steady work hours and trying to care for her young son.  Literally, within one day of the story coming out, the company changed its global policy and vowed to make hours more steady for it workers.

What other corporation of this size would make such a change so rapidly, simply because it is the right thing to do?  They could simply have said they’d ‘study’ the problem, but they massively adjusted their entire work process because of their culture of putting employees first.

Dustin Schneider –  Senior Associate

Dustin SchneiderThere has definitely been a “latte” attention recently about Starbucks’ decision to allow employees to have their tattoos visible.

The purpose of an organization’s core values is to help guide behavior.  They provide clear guardrails on what’s expected, what’s allowed, and what should be encouraged.  To have a value of belonging and inclusion, while at the same time asking employees to hide their real selves, seems counterintuitive.

I commend them for continually bouncing their policies up against their stated values in order to ensure that decisions they make are in alignment with them.

Cary Paul – Senior Associate

cary-paulStarbucks is in a unique position in its industry, and the business world in general.  People love it or hate it.  Some people that love the coffee actually hate the business side, and the idea that they put mom and pop shops out of business.  But most business people respect that Starbucks almost single-handedly built the whole idea of a new culture around coffee and people being together… again, around coffee.

As a result, their every move is watched and scrutinized, and they can’t make a move in their business without at least some thought to the PR implications. That part of it was most likely at least in the discussion. But, I think this was about something bigger: freedom of choice, and inclusion, as defined in the core values.

 As Schultz discusses in his book, the core values are the critical lens through which the company operates.  Period.  When they didn’t, things went sour.

These have massive implications on workplace culture, especially as a model for a company adhering to the tenets of its core values.  And, if the company stands behind its commitments to those values, it becomes more likely that the employees will.


The Starbucks reversal of their tattoo guidelines may have been partly a PR move. What seems more likely, however, is that the company cares enough about their core values to constantly change and adapt in order to reflect what is important to their people.

Starbucks is doing well to authentically make changes to policies in order to better reflect their core values and build a culture through their people. They may not get everything right the first time, but they are aware of the journey – and are paying attention to when change needs to happen.

What did you think when you heard about this latest news? And, is Starbucks a model for evolution of employee policies that other corporations should consider?

(photo credit)

Implementing Change, Part 2: Recognizing our Human Nature

In Implementing Change, Part 1: With More Predictability Than the Weather, I discussed how reflecting on your own reactions to feeling out of control in relation to the weather is helpful in gaining empathy towards employees who often feel like the changes in their organization are as unpredictable as the weather.

As humans, we respond to our environments, whether it’s meteorological climate or to our organizational climate. There is research and a model that reminds us that we as humans respond to our environments in the same ways that we might only think of other animals responding–even in organizational settings. For example, we are grounded in our innate tendency to monitor our environment for threats and rewards and to then take action to avoid threats and move towards rewards. This circuitry and these impulses in our brains impact our relationships with others and more broadly how we interact with our environment and ultimately make decisions.

The SCARF model (developed by David Rock) highlights the importance of looking at these basic human instincts when trying to understand social interactions.

It is crucial to look at our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

  • Status: Our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: Our being able to predict the future
  • Autonomy: Our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: Our perception of fair exchanges between people

These feelings are at play in our life, and definitely at work when we think about how people experience their relationships with others in organizations. For example, my sense of autonomy (my sense of being able to control events) is exactly where I feel challenged when I cannot stop the oncoming winter and changing seasons in the outside world. I bet you could think of tons of examples within your own organization when your sense of autonomy was challenged; this is an often felt sentiment in organizations going through change. Similarly, my sense of certainty (being able to predict the future) is challenged from the weather when I don’t know if my flight will be canceled due to snowstorms, or if my much anticipated picnic in the park will have to be rescheduled; this sense of “not knowing” is also all too common in organizations when impactful changes are announced at random.

In organizations, it is crucial for leaders not to forget our humanity and to always try to address such needs as our needs for certainty and autonomy. This is even more critical when an organization is going through change. It’s important to be constantly asking:

  • How can we implement changes that allow people to have the most control in the process and a greater say in the change?
  • How can we be clearer about upcoming events and changes so that people know what to expect as much as we are able to predict?
  • How do we communicate this out in a way that respects people’s needs for certainty and autonomy?

The more we can support people’s needs rather than leaving them ‘out in the cold’ feeling a lack of autonomy and certainty, the less likely they will shut down due to a threat response. The more we can give people a sense of autonomy and certainty in their work, the more likely they will be able to have positive relationships with others and be productive in their organization.

Implementing Change, Part 1: With More Predictability than the Weather

If you’re like me in that you wish every day was summer, but you happen to live in a place that too soon will be covered with snow, you might be feeling some anticipatory blues. Yes, there are still many months (hopefully) until we need to pull out our hats and gloves (see my previous post about putting them away!) But, just the occasional chill in the air and the noticeably shorter days reminds me where we are headed–and that’s a long, cold winter.

In my work in organizational change and my desire to understand how people react to change and handle transitions, I often find it helpful to reflect on my personal reactions towards changes in the weather. Understanding my own feelings of anticipation and loss as the seasons cycle allows me greater empathy towards individuals in organizations where they experience changes that are also seemingly not under their control.

Organizations are their own world and the people within them often are at the whim of the leadership or the marketplace–feeling as vulnerable as we do when the seasons change. And, while we as humans have mastered indoor heating and air conditioning to protect us from the elements, all we need is a week of rain to remind us of how much we need sunshine or a debilitating blizzard to reinforce our lack of control. Even just feeling the temperature drop, watching the leaves fall, and noticing the days getting shorter reminds us that there are greater forces at work, and that we must adapt i.e. wear a jacket, or find ourselves cold.

Whether people in organizations are facing the natural ebbs and flows of organization life i.e. the yearly busy tax season or the arrival of the latest wave of new hires or are experiencing much larger disruptions such as a merger, new leadership or new systems and processes, the resulting feelings are similar and stem from a sense of lack of control.

Recognizing that people within organizations often feel at the whim of the organizations and have a lack of control, is an important data point to consider when designing any sort of organizational change. The more you can minimize this lack of control the better. Engaging people in the process, frequently communicating, and making the process as predictable as far out in advance as possible, supports people in feeling more of a sense of control and predictability.

Our nature as humans is a huge part of how we react to changes and transition in our environments. Stay tuned for Part 2: Implementing Change That Recognizes Our Human Nature where I describe a bit more specifically a model that addresses some of the key feelings we feel as humans within organizations. I also list some questions you should ask yourself during the change process in order to make sure you are considering the human needs of your employees.

Change Culture From Within

The conversation about a company’s culture, and the effects on productivity, satisfaction and overall success, is a widely popular one. In this Employment Notebook podcast , Chris Cancialosi talks with Tim Muma about strategies for changing that culture from within, instead of waiting for management to make adjustments. As Chris notes: “everyone has the capability to improve a company’s culture from the inside.”

CEO Succession Planning: What Target Should Have Known

In any corporation, big changes are bound to happen — including the loss of leadership. To avoid chaos, you need to have a backup plan. Take Target, for example. The corporation continues to flounder with the departure of its CEO amidst a massive customer data breach and lackluster performance in Canada. Until a new leader is appointed, current Target executives are attempting to navigate the situation, but this plan (or lack thereof) will undoubtedly make it harder to drive focus and alignment across the organization.

In this latest LinkedIn article, Chris discusses the lessons you can learn from Target’s CEO stepping down and why it’s so important to have a succession plan.

Training Isn’t Everything

I’ve worked in the OD field for long enough to know the true value of training. There are specific skills that must be demonstrated to succeed in any type of job, and more often than not employees need to be taught these skills. Sometimes they are technical in nature – think particular software training or “how to” sessions – and other times they are in the more nebulous realm of “professional development,” which includes leadership development. Although training can be invaluable, it is not the fix-all that it is sometimes mistaken to be, especially if not provided effectively. How do you provide the most valuable training possible? The checklist below can help:

Know if it’s a training issue – It is not unlikely for problems that occur within an organization to masquerade as training issues. It’s always easy to say “let’s give them training” and expect it to solve whatever issue is at hand, but sometimes there is more going on in a system than is acknowledged. In order to determine whether training is the right solution, a thorough needs assessment should be given. If training does turn out to be a necessity, the needs assessment will help to ensure the right skills are targeted.

Know when to walk away – As members of the consulting community, we have a responsibility to serve our clients to the best of our abilities, which means being honest about our findings even if the results are not ideal for us from a next-steps perspective (for example if a needs assessment yields that training isn’t the right solution). If you do not acknowledge the cultural realities that may be facing an organization, you could develop the best training in the world and still meet failure. If you sense that this is the case and you’re unable to help affect change at the system-wide level, you’re doing your client a disservice and should reconsider your value-add.

Know what you’re contending with – It is important to be holistic in your approach; be thoughtful about all that’s going on in the organization, what other initiatives a new training could potentially contend with, how people are held accountable, what people’s experiences have been with regard to training in the past, etc. Very often there is a lot that’s going on in an organizational that, if addressed, would solve the perceived “issue”. By being mindful in your assessment of the organization’s culture up front, you’ll be able to determine whether or not it will serve to support or block any new training initiatives that are rolled out.

Know what you’re impacting – While we know that not all training is effective, the only way that we know for sure if a given training initiative is having the intended impact is to measure results based on agreed-upon metrics laid out up front. By developing a robust measurement plan that holds the training accountable, you are much more likely to consider what design elements and content must be incorporated into the program to have the desired effect.

While I’d agree that training absolutely has its place in organizations, the system in which the training lives is paramount. In order for training to be the right solution, it is critically important that it be designed responsibility, and in concert with the organization’s existing realities.

Put Away the Winter Boots! (It’s Time for a Change)

When the weather gets warmer, we instinctively shove our hats and gloves into the back of the closet and pull out our sandals. The obvious change in weather or climate is easily felt and clues us in to the reality that the objects we might have needed last week or last month are not going to serve us well today or next month.

Organizational climates evolve in the same way that the weather does, yet we often continue to do the same processes that we did before. We can all think of that mandatory in-person meeting/conference that started back when so and so was in charge but is no longer an effective use of time. Or what about certain policies around working remotely that don’t reflect the current technology at the organization?

These relics from a different climate or season are often continued because no one has noticed that the meeting or policy etc. is no longer serving the organization. Or if it is noticed, those individuals trying to be agents for change often find themselves facing resistance. It is because that meeting or policy is embedded in the organization’s culture, or as we call it, a part of “the way we do things around here.” Changing a culture is hard, yet if we can understand the resistance to the change, it is possible to create opportunities for change. First, however, it is imperative to understand what is working about the meeting or the thing we’re trying to change and where the resistance to that change is coming from.

For example, in the case of trying to cancel an in-person meeting or conference where employees are resistant because they enjoy and feel appreciation through the free food/lodging provided during the meeting, one solution could be to give employees a stipend to buy their own food and/or a vacation bonus and then attend remotely. This continues what’s working (free food/lodging and appreciation) while saving the organization travel time and costs for holding an onsite meeting. Or if people enjoy seeing each other face-to-face but the meeting is not deemed a good use of time perhaps the meeting agenda, leader, frequency or length could be adjusted to increase the likelihood that it is an effective use of everyone’s time.

In short—it’s necessary for your organization to have a level of cultural awareness and a willingness to change when organizational needs are not being achieved and processes could be improved. Just like we wouldn’t want to be caught wearing our snow boots in July, we shouldn’t get stuck continuing to do things at the organization because they met the needs of a previous organizational climate.

Find Your Match: 3 Steps for Building Mutually Beneficial Business Relationships

“Building and leveraging productive partnerships can bring immeasurable value to your business, but it requires careful research, effective communication, and a willingness to compromise.”

In this LinkedIn piece, Chris walks readers through three steps for forming productive and strong strategic partnerships. Read more.

How To Manage Dynamic Tensions — And Master The Balancing Act

At the core of good leadership is a skill shared by tightrope walkers and jugglers around the world: the balancing act. But in the business world, the tightropes are opposing workplace tensions and the juggling balls are stakeholders.

The trick to mastering this daunting feat? Find a way to manage seemingly opposing dynamic tensions — like stability and flexibility — to foster a clear set of expectations that allows for growth and innovation in an ever-evolving marketplace. In this article, Chris Cancialosi offers insight into how to manage these tensions to achieve an equilibrium that keeps engagement, performance, and productivity high.