Is Starbucks Socially Responsible?

This semester I am teaching MGMT 451W Business, Ethics and Society, which is a required course for management majors at Smeal.  It is also a W course, which means that it is writing intensive.  As such it also fulfills one of their degree writing requirements.  Because of the focus on writing (and the amount of grading it generates) the class size is thankfully kept small — 25 students.

Our latest assignment asked: Is Starbucks a socially responsible company? I divided the assignment into two parts: 1) an individually authored paper (3-page maximum), and 2) participation in a team debate. First, students were giving the option of choosing their own teams or having me assign them to a team. (All picked the former option.) 

I then assigned each team to a particular stakeholder group (i.e., employees, consumers, or suppliers), along with a particular position (either arguing that Starbucks is or is not ethically and socially responsible towards the assigned stakeholder group).

In addition to being assigned a core group of five readings, everyone was expected to find 2 additional legitimate, credible sources related to their assigned stakeholder position . The papers were then to summarize the arguments for their assigned position (2 pages) and to counter expected arguments on their opponents (1 page). The assigned readings included:

  • Argenti, P. 200 “Collaborating With Activists: How Starbucks Works With NGOs.” California Management Review.
  • Herbst, M. Dec 31, 2008. “Starbucks’ Union Blues.” Business Week.
  • Maher, K. Jan 23, 2008. “Starbucks Emails Describe Efforts to Stop Unionization.” Wall Street Journal.
  • Starbucks Corporation. “2007 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.”
  • Stone, B. Jul 4, 2008. “Lax Real Estate Decisions Hurt Starbucks.” New York Times

Each team was then expected to combine these individual papers together for an in-class debate. On the day of the debate each of the six teams argued their side for 5 minutes.  Then we took about 5 minutes for them to caucus and decide how to spend their 2 minutes of rebuttal time.  

Along the way each team rated the four teams not related to its own position (e.g., the pro consumer team rated both employee teams and both supplier teams, but not themselves or the con consumer team). I also rated each debate team. Grades were assigned based on a combination of individual papers and each team’s ability to combine all the individual work into a cogent argument.

Along the way I developed a Debate Rating Sheet, a Grading Sheet, and an Assignment Feedback Sheet (designed for me to assess the assessment, namely, how well the assignment accomplished my learning objectives). Each of these is provided below.

Overall, the quality of the papers and the debate teams was better than I expected. Perhaps more importantly, feedback on the assignment exceeded my expectations in terms of the the learning and reflection it provoked on the part of the students. It turns out that many of them were assigned to positions that ran contrary to their own feelings and this forced them to see issues in a new light.

Through the assignment others recognized their own tendency to argue based on feelings and not credible evidence. Critically, almost everyone seems to have come away with the realization that ethics and social responsibility are not black and white issues. Instead, telling the story of companies such as Starbucks is complicated, one that defies a simple explanation or determination.

Download Debate Rating Sheet (29k .doc)
Download Grading Sheet (28k .doc)
Download Assignment Feedback Sheet (28k .doc)

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