Brewing up an inclusive culture at Starbucks

Whether it is in training and development, rewards, or even just making great coffee, Starbucks aims to involve every one of its employee “partners” in the process. Celestina Lee, Partner Resources Director, Starbucks Coffee Singapore, tells HRM Asia more.

Like most HR professionals, Celestina Lee, Partner Resources Director of Starbucks Coffee Singapore, is well-used to multitasking in her job.

This also extends to making a mean cup of cappuccino. Starbucks’ national head office, known internally as the “Support Centre” in South Buona Vista, features a coffee station that mirrors the facility used in all Starbucks outlets. It is the place where baristas hone their craft before being dispatched to branches around the country, and it’s also where visitors are welcomed in true Starbucks fashion, regardless of who they are meeting.

“All of the ladies here including myself are Coffee Masters,” Lee says proudly. “To earn the title of a Coffee Master, you will need to go through a rigorous training session and there is a test at the end of the programme.”

To the uninitiated, the Starbucks’ Coffee Master programme is where all incoming staff immerse themselves in the history and culture of coffee, including how the first beans were found and how the drink became so popular around the world.

Mind your language

You may have noticed that Lee’s official designation is “Partner Resource Director”, rather than the traditional HR Director title. She is quick to set the record straight.

“I am a Partner Resource Director, not a HR Director,” she says.

“The word ‘partners’ refer to all employees of Starbucks. All of us all over the world are called ‘partners’. We are not team members, associates or employees. We refer to anyone working here as a partner.”

Fast and flexible

Lee recalls an episode that encapsulates her belief that everyone is well-connected in today’s digital-first era; a scenario she faces every day.

“Just recently, I was in a meeting and talking to a couple of our managers when I saw all of them looking seriously at their phones,” she says.

“I realised then that while they were present at the meeting, they were actually multi-tasking and tracking what was happening at the store.”

With the surge of information passing through the organisation’s ranks, Lee stresses there is a need for HR to react quickly.

“I sometimes see something on Facebook or Instagram, or get a text directly from my barista in the store,” she says. “You get to hear very quickly how employees are feeling now.”

Lee and Starbucks are also making a keen push for workplace flexibility across the organisation.

“People are saying, ‘You won’t miss me, I can be anywhere and still get the job done’,” she says.

Lee trusts every staff member, and that is translated into Starbucks’ key HR policies such as being flexible, and empowering managers with mobile tools.

“Our managers use mobile technologies to monitor what’s going on in stores, and to correspond with their partners, even though they are not physically there,” she elaborates.

At the Support Centre level, Starbucks staff are able to work from home up to twice a month, something that fills Lee with immense pride.

“It’s for all employees at the Support Centre, although it’s harder to implement this at the operations level,” she says.

Assimilating recruitment into culture

Despite today’s digitally-attuned workforce, Lee reveals that Starbucks’ corporate culture remains deeply personalised.

“I remember when we were doing our branding and recruitment for our Graduate Management Trainee (GMT) programme a couple of months ago. Soon-to-be graduates had already emailed us telling us they were graduating soon. They knew we were looking for GMTs and they loved Starbucks and had read about us already,” Lee explains.

“After some thinking, we realised that we should hold one-to-one meetings with candidates.”

According to Lee, there were 400 applications. “We then shortlisted it to 50. Instead of inviting them straight away for a one-to-one interview, we had an open house and shared our Starbucks culture and the GMT programme. As this was an additional step for the job applicant to take, we thought the turnover would not be great, but everyone who was invited turned up,” she says.

“We were stunned.”

“They just wanted to feel and see what that Starbucks culture they had been reading about all these years was really like.”

In fact, Lee says her team receives 10-20 applications daily for positions everywhere.

Lee and her partners invest a substantial amount of time during the hiring process.

“There’s a first interview, a second interview, and before you start work, there’s a ‘first impressions’ session,” she says.

“Even after we have offered you a letter, we still want to meet up with you, introduce you to all the partners in the store, and show you your equipment and what your workplace is like,” she elaborates.

“We also advise on what your first and second week are going to be like. You will then turn up at the Support Centre here, sign your letter of offer, and go through your first training, called ‘The Starbucks Experience’.”

With all staff keenly aware of what the Starbucks culture espouses, it is perhaps unsurprising to hear Lee say that the company’s chief source of talent comes from the referrals of existing staff.

“Since our partners are already here with us and they know what the Starbucks culture is like, they are the best ambassadors and recruiters for us,” she elaborates.

“Hence, they help us to recruit their friends and they receive a nominal reward. We also allow them to work with their friends.”

Lee shares that Starbucks’ GMT programme, which commenced last year, is the next natural step for the organisation in terms of recruitment. It already employs polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students in various non-full-time roles.

“We realised that when students finish their university studies, they are very keen to find out how else they can stay with us,” she explains.

However, Lee says student partners enjoy being at the shopfront and have aspirations to become business partners and to open their own cafés.

“Naturally, I was already getting a lot of questions such as these. Hence, we decided to have our own GMT programme,” she states.

“We had our first batch last year and they are now going through to the supervisory level.”

Lee says Starbucks’ next-most-effective recruitment channel is through its website. “That’s where we have people writing in every day.”

Cultivating leadership and training with coffee

When it comes to career development, Lee says partners receive more than a simple career roadmap.

“When they come in, they know they have all these opportunities in front of them and they sit down with their managers on a quarterly basis,” she explains.

This is known as a Partner Development Plan (PDP), where staff have open discussions with their managers about their aspirations and learning needs.

Every single partner undertakes a PDP.

Lee says managers have access to a career guide that helps them test that their staff can perform beyond their current roles to demonstrate they are ready to take on the next level.

For an organisation whose core function is to make great coffee, one imperative training programme designed for partners is ensuring they make their beverages correctly and brilliantly.

“That’s our barista promise,” says Lee.

In ‘The Starbucks Experience’, the first lesson is about Starbucks’ values, the company’s history, customer service standards and of course, how to make the drinks correctly.

“It’s a one-day class where everything is packed in. When they go to the store, on-the-job coaching continues,” says Lee.

Starbucks does not structure a leadership programme per se. Rather, leadership opportunities abound at every level.

Every quarter, Lee, together with the organisation’s Operations Director and district managers work together to identify all the store managers and allocate them staff according to different talent categories.

There’s even a “coffee leadership” portfolio that staff can aspire to.

“We have the Coffee Leadership Team. They are the ones who drive the passion in coffee. When you have all that talk and buzz about coffee, it really binds all of us across different departments,” shares Lee.

“The Coffee Leadership Team will organise barista championships, share knowledge, and do this all on their own time. That’s something that is purely driven by passion.”

Evolving engagement

According to Lee, Starbucks’ employee engagement framework is constantly evolving, just as its staff are.

“We realised our managers and partners are evolving. They used to be 21, then 25, and now, they’re 30 years old,” she says. “I’m getting wedding invitation cards and they’re having babies!”

Each Starbucks outlet hosts a coffee-tasting session every day.

“Any manager on duty must start the shift with a very simple coffee, and talk for five minutes before everyone starts their work,” says Lee.

Further to this, every quarter, the company’s Managing Director and leadership team will meet all store managers and have an open forum.

Lee says managers are very forthcoming as its value is to always challenge the status quo.

“Our managers do not feel shy and will stand up to ask questions,” she says.

Regardless of whether leaders hail from Seattle, Starbucks’ global headquarters, or from Asia-Pacific, managers are not daunted and will share their concerns, Lee states.

“It’s not about their everyday bread and butter issues; the questions our managers ask are also about Starbucks globally and about Starbucks international programmes,” she says.

Another simple yet effective scheme to boost employee morale is called “Surprise and Delight”.

“If we find that our partners have done a great job, our Managing Director will send something wonderful to the store. We will even do something to surprise and delight partners during events such as anniversaries,” Lee reveals.

Starbucks also celebrates partners’ deeds with its “Movement of Uncommon Greatness (MUG)” award.

“When a partner does something really extraordinary for his or her partners or customers, he or she will get a plaque and a very special card,” says Lee.

Sharing the gains

On the rewards and recognition front, Lee stresses that Starbucks is “very serious” about keeping its compensation competitive. So much so that all partners at the company are issued with “bean stocks”; restricted units of actual company stock.

“All partners in Starbucks, whether a part-timer or full-timer, will get stock options,” Lee says.

She says this is part of a Starbucks philosophy of sharing gains across the workforce.

“That is also part of our Starbucks culture where everybody shares the gains because everyone puts in the effort and where we recognise everyone’s efforts,” she elaborates.

The partner can’t sell the shares for at least a year.

Starbucks also participates in salary surveys every year to ensure it pays its partners competitively.

“It’s not something that a lot of companies do as it’s quite a big investment of not just money, but resources too,” Lee concedes.

She and her compensation and benefits manager spend around a month studying data and participating in surveys to make sure that partners’ remuneration stays competitive in the market.

For the benefits portion, Lee says these are reviewed every two years to make sure they are keeping up with partners’ needs.

Partners’ remuneration package consists of a basic salary and a retail incentive programme. Partners also get additional incentives when they meet their stores’ performance targets.

“There’s also the everyday pat-on-the-back. Our managers walk into the store, not ticking off things but instead, come in and check in with our partners first and recognise the person,” she highlights.

Lee says Starbucks’ combination of engagement, development and focus also help partners grow with the company.

Starbucks also takes on a data-driven approach to retention through its monthly “Peopling” meeting.

“That’s when we actually list down all the stores’ turnovers and we look at the ongoing trends.”

Her team also scrutinises every stores’ retention and talent statistics.

“That is the amazing commitment our leaders have which I think is a secret of Starbucks’ success,” she says.

“We have a staff turnover rate that is way better than the industry. The food and beverage industry’s turnover rate is about 5.0%; at Starbucks, it’s 3.3%.”

At a glance

Total number of employees at Starbucks Singapore: 2091

Size of the HR Team (Singapore): 8

Key HR Focus Areas:

  • Recruiting the right talent
  • Engaging and elevating partners’ experience
  • Building capabilities
  • Enabling staff through optimal processes and tools


Saying ‘no’ to discrimination

Discrimination is strictly prohibited at Starbucks, whether it is with regard to gender, race, or disability. In fact, the organisation has been working with Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore for more than a decade. It supplies café consumables to the organisation for its own coffee outlet and also hired six partners with autism to work at its 100th store in Singapore, when it opened in 2014.

Two years on, Starbucks has 10 staff with autism and has plans to hire more from partners from ARC this year.

Starbucks Coffee Singapore also works closely with the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, having been among the first to signal its commitment to the Fair@Work Microsite.

The Fair@Work Promise is a personal commitment to be fair and inclusive at the workplace; and to not judge people based on stereotypes or biases.


Who’s Who in HR


Celestina Lee

Partner Resources Director


Amanda Cheng

Senior Partner Resources Executive


Michelle Alcaraz

Partner Resources Executive


Christine Cheng

Senior Payroll Executive


Yee Ching Hwee

Total Pay Programme Manager


Ng Khoon Kim

Payroll Specialist


Winie Cruz Esman

Assistant, MD’s Office


Suzairah Ngadiman

Admin and Reception Assistant


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