It’s Not Reverse Discrimination. It IS Discrimination!

Treating a white person or a man differently because they’re white, or a man, IS discrimination and it IS illegal.

A jury just said so, loud and clear.

Thank you, Starbucks, for your generous donation of time and resources to provide a stellar real-life case example for the rest of us.

Read on for the latest, well-publicized, real-life case example.


I’m referring to a $25.6m verdict awarded to a former Regional Manager for Starbucks in Phillips v Starbucks. In a nutshell, here’s what went down:

Shannon Phillips, a Regional Manager, oversaw about 100 stores in NJ, Philly, MD, and parts of DE.

In April 2018 2 African-American customers of a Philly store were waiting for a business associate and were asked to leave when they hadn’t yet ordered anything. The store manager called the police. The men were arrested, understandably, sparking controversy.

Ms. Phillips was not involved in the arrest. The worker that did call the police was a store manager, who had been promoted by the black District Manager against whom a number of workers had complaints. (The store manager left Starbucks shortly after the arrests.) The District Manager was not disciplined in any way for that incident or for any other complaints against him. He even testified at trial that he had heard discussions that Starbucks wanted to send a strong message following the arrest and that HE believed Ms. Phillips’ race played a role in Starbucks’ decision to fire her.

In contrast, according to Ms. Phillips, shortly after the arrest, Starbucks asked her to suspend a white district manager for allegedly paying non-white employees less than white employees. Ms. Phillips protested, noting that internal policies granted him no say in employees’ pay, and that he had no history of any discrimination issues. (She ultimately complied, making it clear however that she didn’t agree.)

About 2 days later, Starbucks fired Ms. Phillips, claiming she wasn’t responsive enough to the arrest incident.

Ms. Phillips sued in federal court, alleging that Starbucks punished white employees who had nothing to do with the Philadelphia arrest and touted those punishments as taking steps to address the incident. The principal claims were race discrimination and retaliation. The court dismissed the retaliation claim and let the race discrimination claim stand.

Ms. Phillips asserted (and apparently provided evidence) that Starbucks wanted to show the public it was “sending a message”, and used whoever it thought would be a good scapegoat. She was a Regional Manager. The black District Manager who was responsible for making the bad actor a manager, was closer to the situation, and had other complaints against him, and was treated more favorably than she was.

Ms. Phillips also provided evidence that she was fully present after the incident. One of her supervisors described her as a “strong performer,” and provided examples of her “trying to engage the Black Partner Network” at Starbucks.

Zooming out, as I tend to do, I offer these observations: the media have referred to her claim as “reverse discrimination”. IMHO, it’s time to take issue with that term. ANY discrimination based on race, sex, etc., is plain old discrimination, even if the aggrieved party isn’t the usual victim. Title VII (and similar state laws) don’t make a distinction, nor do they need to. I’m not aware of any reason why we should either.

I understand that an employer needs to be concerned about optics. Yes, Starbucks needed to take action. Closing certain of the stores for a time and requiring training was appropriate and a good start. Firing and/or disciplining people not involved in the incident, because they are white and because of optics is NOT appropriate. It’s also illegal. Disciplining some employees but not other similarly situated ones of a different race is also illegal under Title VII and state anti-discrimination laws.

After a full trial, the jury, based on its verdict, which included punitive damages, seems to have wholeheartedly agreed.

We shouldn’t rush to call the police just because 2 people of color come into an establishment and don’t immediately order anything (and aren’t bothering anyone). Neither should we rush to call someone a racist until we’re sure we have enough facts to back it up.

Starbucks has provided us with a valuable lesson in how NOT to respond to such an incident. So, again, thank you Starbucks.

Enough said — at least for now.

Are you an employer interested in proactively addressing workplace challenges and company culture? Visit my website, to contact me for a complimentary 20-minute consultation. 

Watch my podcast interview on Good Morning HR with Mike Coffey on Mental Health and the ADA.

Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.

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