A recent story on the website BikePortland.org told a story which angered many cyclists. Fabian Mills was a Starbucks store manager who regularly rode his bicycle to work. When he showed up to a company meeting on his bicycle, his district manager, Frances Ericson, allegedly pulled him aside and told him that commuting on a bicycle is “unprofessional” and that if he ever wanted “to get anywhere” professionally-speaking, he was going to have to “get over riding his bike.” A few days later, Ericson transferred Mills to a store sixteen miles from his home, despite the fact that there were at least twenty five Starbucks locations within five miles of his house.
Predictably, the bike-oriented elements of the blogosphere erupted in a storm of discussion over the alleged incident. Many speculated that this was just another example of corporate America showing blatant disregard for environmental and health issues. Others pointed out that Starbucks has been a major benefactor of cyclists and cycling, sponsoring events such as “Bike to Work Day.” Many Starbucks employees defended their employer as a good corporate citizen.
Several days after the story was published, Starbucks’ Customer Relations department sent out hundreds or thousands of e-mails which stated, “The portrayal of this exchange as presented by Mr. Mills in this online article is false. The concerns raised by the district manager were regarding Mr. Mills' arriving late to a meeting and being disheveled in appearance, not about his riding a bicycle to work.”
Starbucks’ supporters expressed their satisfaction on message boards across the Internet. Even BikePortland.org posted the Starbucks' response without questioning it. For most people, the case was closed.
I must be less trusting than your average coffee-drinker. I called Fabian Mills. Not surprisingly, his version of events is very different from Starbucks.
According to Mills, he arrived at the meeting a few minutes early, but Ericson was annoyed because his bicycle created a distraction amongst the other store managers who were in attendance. They were impressed by Mills’ riding fourteen miles to the meeting, and the discussion evolved into talk of the various cycling events scheduled in the Portland area during the late summer. Mills admitted he had a bit of “helmet head,” but since he is an avid cyclist, the ride had not left him sweaty or tired. Since this was a meeting of six of Mills’ peers, not upper management or customers, Mills had not felt the need to dress up for the event.
Mills also stated that another store manager arrived at the meeting roughly two hours late. He did not see Ericson pull the tardy manager aside before or after she allegedly reprimanded him for riding his bicycle.
At this point, the story sounded like a classic “He said/She said” controversy, with little chance of determining who was telling the truth. However, as he kept talking, Mills disclosed important events. “After all this happened, I called the Starbucks HR ‘Ethics and Business Integrity Hotline’ and registered a complaint. I told them what Frances had said and done. They contacted me later and told me that Frances had admitted to saying what she said. HR went on to tell me that Ericson’s comments, and her request that I drive to work instead of cycling, were completely against company policy.”
According to Mills, the HR representative then asked him what he was specifically requesting they do about the situation. He asked to be transferred to a store closer to his home, but they told him there were no openings for managers at any of the stores.
At that point, Mills gave up. He resigned from his job at Starbucks and went to work for Bank of America. “I used to be a stockbroker,” he explained, “But I got out of that because I could not stand the corporate culture. I worked for a ‘Mom and Pop’ coffee-shop for a year, then took the job at Starbucks because they had better pay and benefits, but the work environment was still good. After Frances took over as district manager, the work environment changed. I was back in corporate America, but I was getting paid a lot less than I had been when I was a stockbroker. I didn’t need that, so I left.”
He likes many things about working for Bank of America. They let him devote a few work hours each week to charity. They have a policy in place that actively encourages employees to commute by bicycle, public transportation, walking or carpools. He seems generally content in his current job, but he misses working for Starbucks. “I still hold Starbucks in really high regard. It’s just this manager that has to go. I think the company really stands behind its employees.”
So, is this a case of a company’s word against that of a former employee? If Starbucks keeps records of complaints filed on its ‘Ethics and Business Integrity Hotline,’ and these records show that events occurred as described by Mills, then many people might start to suspect a corporate cover-up to protect an important manager in a highly profitable district. Alternatively, it could be a simple case of the human resources department not communicating effectively with the customer relations department. Perhaps no one told the people responsible for Starbucks’ official response about the complaint.
I sent several e-mails and left several phone messages with Starbucks’ media-relations department, telling them Mills’ version of events. Unfortunately, no one responded to my request for an interview with anything more than the “official” response described above.
If Starbucks wants to defend its reputation as a promoter of bicycle commuters, there appear to be questions it still needs to answer regarding this issue. Of course, it is a huge corporation, which moves slowly and cautiously in response to allegations such as those made by Mills. Let us hope they investigate and take appropriate actions if they discover any wrongdoing. If I hear from them, I will let you know.
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