Shannon Phillips is a former Starbucks regional manager who alleges that the coffee giant discriminated against white employees in the aftermath of a major public relations scandal. Phillips has sued Starbucks in New Jersey District Court and claimed in the complaint that she was fired because she is white.
Phillips was terminated from her position a few weeks after two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested at a Philadelphia store on April 12, 2018. They had been waiting for a third associate for a business meeting. The store manager called the police and accused the men of trespassing because they had not yet bought anything. Nelson and Robinson were released a few hours later and never charged. Video of the arrest went viral on social media and sparked a nationwide backlash.
Starbucks later held racial-bias training sessions at all of its stores in response to the outcry. The manager who called the police was fired.
Phillips argued in her lawsuit that Starbucks took extra steps against additional white employees who were not directly involved with the incident in Philadelphia. Phillips says the company asked her to put a white district manager on leave due to alleged “discriminatory conduct.” Phillips pushed back on the request, arguing that the district manager in question was not racist and that she had never heard of any complaints against him. She was fired the following day.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Phillips Says She Took Immediate Steps to Address Community Backlash Following the Arrests in Philadelphia
Shannon Phillips explained in the complaint against Starbucks that she was actively involved in trying to ease the anger that erupted in response to the arrests of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.
In her role as regional manager, Phillips arranged for management-level employees to work in more than a dozen Philadelphia stores as crowds staged protests outside of various locations. She gathered District Managers and Store Managers together in order to understand what had happened and “offer additional support.”
Phillips also arranged for CEO Howard Shultz to participate in round-table discussions in Philadelphia so that Starbucks could “properly understand the issues surrounding the arrests and adequately address the public’s reaction.” The complaint adds that Phillips “took steps to ensure that the retail locations within her area were a safe and welcoming environment for all customers, regardless of race.”
2. Two District Managers Oversaw Philadelphia Stores; Phillips Said She Was Told to Suspend the White Manager But Not the Black Manager
Shannon Phillips explained in the federal lawsuit that there were two District Managers who were responsible for stores located in Philadelphia. They were identified in the complaint as Ben Trinsey and Paul Sykes.
Trinsey is white and Sykes is black. The store where Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested was one that Sykes was responsible for overseeing. Sykes had promoted the woman who called the police to the position of Store Manager. Phillips says her supervisors did not take any action against Sykes in relation to the incident.
Instead, Phillips says that her supervisors called her into a meeting on May 7, 2019, and instructed her to place Trinsey on suspension. They said the decision was due to “allegations of race discrimination” made against Trinsey. Phillips responded that Trinsey was “not racist and that she had never observed any race discriminatory comments or conduct by Trinsey.” She added that Trinsey was a volunteer for an organization called YouthBuild Philadelphia, which primarily served young African-American students in the city.
Phillips says her supervisors also alleged that “non-white, salaried managers at Trinsey’s stores had made claims that they were paid less than white employees.” Phillips argued that District Managers had no role in deciding salaries for any employees and that the accusation against Trinsey was, therefore, “factually impossible.”
The following day, Phillips was told she was being fired because “the situation is not recoverable.”
3. Phillips Claims She Was Fired For Raising Concerns About Racial Discrimination & Because She Is White
Shannon Phillips is arguing that Starbucks discriminated against her on the basis of race. She bluntly stated in the complaint, “I was terminated because I am white. If I was black, I would not have been terminated.”
She alleged that her firing was directly tied to the arrests on April 12, 2018. “The stated reason for terminating my employment- that ‘the situation is not recoverable’ – is code for the efforts by [Starbucks] to discipline white, but not black, employees” as part of an effort to assure customers that Starbucks does not discriminate against black people.
Court documents show that Phillips is also alleging that the company retaliated against her for raising concerns about racial discrimination within the company. Phillips felt it was unfair for the company to target Ben Trinsey, the white district manager, especially since the store where the arrests occurred did not fall under his jurisdiction. She alleged that Starbucks does not tolerate “complaints of race discrimination from managers when the stated victim is white.”
Phillips included in the complaint that she had questioned the firing of the Store Manager who had called the police. Phillips argued that the manager had followed Starbucks’ “Safe and Welcoming policies in handling the April 12, 2018 incident.”
4. Shannon Phillips Worked For Starbucks For Nearly 13 Years & Was Responsible For Overseeing Approximately 100 Stores
Shannon Phillips joined Starbucks in late 2005. She was hired as a District Manager based in Youngstown, Ohio, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court.
Phillips relocated to New Jersey in 2011 after receiving a promotion. She was made Regional Director of Operations over an area that included Philadelphia, southern New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of Maryland.
Phillips oversaw the operations of about 100 Starbucks stores. The arrests in April of 2018 occurred at a location in Philadelphia’s Center City district, which was part of Phillips’ region.
Phillips’ attorney noted in the complaint that while serving as Regional Manager, Phillips “received positive performance evaluations and related merit-driven bonuses and salary increases.”
5. Starbucks Says It Will Fight Shannon Phillips’ Claims In Court
Shannon Phillips is demanding unspecified financial damages from Starbucks. The federal lawsuit states that Phillips suffered a “loss of earnings and/or earning capacity, loss of benefits, pain and suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, mental anguish, and loss of life’s pleasures.”
Senior Manager for Corporate Communications at Starbucks, Jory Mendes, told Heavy, “We deny the claims in the lawsuit and are prepared to defend our case in court.”
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