On Sunday, a woman named Missy Alison went to a Starbucks in the Long Island, N.Y. town of Centereach for a Mocha-choco-loco-hobo-latte, and while there witnessed what she calls "one of the most brazen and unapologetic displays of homophobia I have ever witnessed in my entire life." She wrote an outraged letter to the company, which her wife published on the Internet. The company noticed!
Alison's letter describes a scene in which a gay male employee named Jeffrey is reprimanded by another, female employee in front of everyone in the cafe. When he goes to the bathroom to escape the haranguing, the castigatrix and two other employees allegedly go on "a long, ranting homophobic rant" about him and his sexual life, which apparently vexed them so very much:
...the fact that Jeffery's sexuality was brought into the conversation (and it obviously was for me to know about it) is inappropriate. The woman (Who I will refer to going forward as the "Manager" although she may have been someone from Human Resources) spoke to him in a sharp condescending manner. She told him that they were not interested in his politics or beliefs and his thoughts were down right offensive to his co-workers. They did not want to hear about his personal life. When Jeffrey pointed out that they ALL talked about their personal lives ...
The focus of their discussion then when he left the table, was not about an incident that occurred in the previous days. It was about how they were intolerant to his lifestyle, nobody wanted to hear about the fact that he was gay, they didn't want to be exposed to that.
Alison admits that she "only heard bits and pieces" of the full conversation between the staffers and Jeffrey, "but I know that worker was attacked and humiliated on the middle of your shop floor. I don't care what his offense was, that sort of business should be conducted in a back room." In the end, she writes, Jeffrey had to hand his keys over to the yelling woman and left.
Alison followed Jeffrey out and consoled him. And then she wrote her letter, which has been making the Internet rounds as well as and the mainstream news. Bloggers recounted the story in their own words—sometimes in ways that seem to implicate the entire company. One blog post, for example, features the headline, "Patron: I Watched Starbucks Fire An Employee 2 Feet From Me For Being Gay." Ooooh, that doesn't sound good. Meanwhile, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article is titled, "Starbucks accused of anti-gay behavior"; how inconveniently vague! One could interpret the headline to refer to a company-wide policy—not a couple of chuckleheads in a single location.
On Tuesday, a representative for Starbucks posted a response to Alison's letter on the company website. Titled, "Our Dedication to Embrace Diversity," the statement says Starbucks is investigating the Jeffrey incident, and also spells out all the nice things the company's done for LGBTQ people over the years—from offering domestic partner benefits, to participating in LGBTQ events. (One thing not mentioned: its gay-friendly cups.) The company has dealt with charges of discrimination against gay people in the past, but in general gets high marks from organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which lists it as a "Best" workplace for LGBTQ people.
A Starbucks spokesman told the Post-Intelligencer that "What [Alison] saw and what she heard wasn't exactly what was going on"; Jeffrey the Employee "quit of his own, "without coercion." Maybe so, but that still doesn't address the issue of why the employees were handling private matters in public. In any case, the company is pressing on with its damage-control initiative—responding to many of the Twitterers who ask about what the company plans to do re: Alison's letter. "[P]lease know that we are getting to the bottom of this and we do stand by our policies," says one Starbucks tweet.
Overall, Starbucks has been doing a much better job at handling its Jeffrey-related PR nightmare than its competitor, McDonald's, has been dealing with "Seriously McDonalds," its discrimination-related hoax-scandal problem from the weekend. Where Starbucks has responded to concerned people one-by-one in an earnest voice, and directed the public to its equally earnest company statement, all that McDonald's seems to have done is respond to an inquiry from Mashable and post a tweet about diversity. Read into that what you will.
What's the next chapter in Starbuck's story? Well, the company will continue investigating, and people will continue tweeting and blogging, and Jeffrey—sounds like he might be suing, if a letter sent to Alison and her wife is legit. Story developing, as they say.