Starbucks will close all 8,000 of its company-owned U.S. stores Tuesday afternoon to train employees to combat unconscious bias, marking the start of an effort by the coffee giant to turn a public relations mess into a teachable moment.
Unconscious bias training has become increasingly popular at companies wishing to cultivate diverse, inclusive environments, but the high-profile nature of Starbucks’ initiative — and the outrage that spurred it — has put the concept in the spotlight.
“All eyes are on Starbucks, and the company has a really unique opportunity to show other companies how to do this well,” said Erin Thomas, who leads the Chicago office of Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy consulting firm.
Most stores will close at 2 p.m. local time. Stores that aren’t owned by the company, such as those operated by grocery stores and hotels, will remain open.
Last month, the company announced the training day for its 175,000 employees as the chain became the target of protests and calls for boycotts over the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The men — business partners who hadn’t bought anything from the store — were waiting for an associate to arrive, and when one asked to use the restroom, the store manager refused. They were asked to leave, and when they didn’t, the manager called police, prompting many to wonder whether events would have unfolded differently had the two men been white.
The incident was an example of when bias, which everyone harbors, goes unchecked and results in “blatant discrimination,” Thomas said.
Unconscious bias training attempts to make people aware of their automatic assumptions about certain groups and provide tools to prevent those snap judgments from shaping their decisions.
“It’s not about making someone feel bad, it’s about understanding reality and then creating behaviors that can create a different one,” said Doug Harris, chief executive of the Kaleidoscope Group, a Chicago-based diversity consultancy.
The effectiveness of the training depends on whether it is done well, and that’s a challenge in an unregulated industry, Harris said. He applauds Starbucks for owning up to the problem and committing to make changes, though he said time will tell how genuine the company’s commitment is.
“If all they do is that training, that’s going to be a problem,” he said. “If it’s an initial step, it’s a powerful step.”
Starbucks is calling Tuesday’s four-hour training the first step in a “long-term journey.” The initial training will focus on understanding racial bias and the history of discrimination in public accommodations in the United States, while future events will address other areas in which bias exists, including gender identity, class, political views and religious affiliation.
Last week, the company released details about what Tuesday’s training will entail, including a highlight video that suggests much of the event will be guided by recorded footage. It includes a welcome by Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, a talk by Chicago-born rapper Common and a segment from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz reaffirming the coffee shop’s role as a “third place” — that is, a gathering spot outside of work and home. An original documentary called “You’re Welcome,” created for the event by filmmaker Stanley Nelson, will be screened. Employees also will receive notebooks to guide them through small group discussions about their personal experiences with bias.
“I do think this is historic,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. She is one of several racial justice leaders Starbucks contacted in the wake of the Philadelphia arrest who have been serving as unpaid consultants to help the company devise a strategy.
“I don’t know of another company as ubiquitous as Starbucks is … that has stated their willingness to directly confront racism and bias within their own company,” Ifill said.
Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a progressive public policy organization that also is advising Starbucks, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the depth of Starbucks’ commitment.
“My earliest memory is being chased out of a candy store by a store manager,” she said on the call. “As a black woman, I had cynicism of what commitment a company like this would have to making a meaningful difference.”
The consultants plan to produce a report next month to assess how the training went and lay out future plans. Buy-in from employees is the goal for Tuesday, but eventually anti-bias training must be incorporated throughout the organization, particularly when bringing new employees onboard, Ifill said.
“We made it clear we won’t be a rubber stamp to validate their program if we feel it is not delivering on its promises,” McGhee said.
Starbucks has ample corporate company as it strives to address bias, which can show up in hiring, promotions, internal workplace dynamics and customer interactions.
At American Airlines, company leadership went through anti-bias training in January, and all 130,000 employees will complete a computer-based training in June and July, said airline spokeswoman Shannon Gilson. The airline pledged to add the training, among other diversity efforts, after the NAACP issued a travel advisory last fall that accused it of mistreating African American passengers.
Accounting firm PwC two years ago rolled out unconscious bias training for its nearly 50,000 employees, through an online program they can take on their own time. PwC CEO Tim Ryan also is leading an initiative to get other companies on board.
CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, which requires a pledge to implement unconscious bias training as well as other diversity initiatives, launched last year with 150 companies and now has 449, PwC spokeswoman Idalia Hill said. In a survey last month answered by half of the coalition members, 89% said they were implementing or expanding unconscious bias training, and more than 60% made it mandatory for at least some workers, she said. The initiative includes a “Check Your Blind Spots” mobile unit that travels to companies and schools, inviting people to come on board to test their own bias through onscreen implicit association tests.
There are drawbacks to unconscious bias training, a term that some experts dislike because it puts a negative pall on what is a normal mental reflex.
Bobby Gordon, vice president of client relationships at Prism International, which has provided training around diversity issues for 25 years, said he worries that unconscious bias training has become a catch-all buzzword for all things diversity, when in fact it won’t help clients understand how diversity and inclusion can benefit their business or help employees understand cultural differences.
Still, Gordon said, unconscious bias training imparts a “critical skill” for managers and business leaders. The training tends to be most effective when businesses can connect it to the work employees do day to day, and when they have infrastructure in place to ensure the impact lasts through changes in leadership and employee turnover, he said.
Research on unconscious bias training has found some approaches to be ineffective.
At Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, trainers focus less on trying to change attitudes, which research has shown is difficult, and more on actions people can take to reduce the chance bias will affect their decisions, said senior research associate Kelly Capatosto. Such actions can include, for example, maintaining long-term relationships with people from other groups.
Companies also can’t put the burden on employees to always make the right decision, and should have clear and objective protocols in place that guide employees on how to define and respond to particular situations, Thomas said.
That’s especially important for retail and consumer-facing companies. Starbucks recently announced it will allow nonpaying customers to use its restrooms and linger in its cafes, so workers will need even more guidance than before about what qualifies as disruptive behavior and the specific actions employees should take when a customer is disruptive, she said.
“All employees have a role in being welcoming, but it’s not fair to put all of the corporate responsibility of inclusion on them when they’re just trying to serve people a nice cup of coffee at the end of the day,” Thomas said.
Many companies that implement anti-bias training are not responding to a crisis, but are being proactive or burnishing their diversity bona fides.
Assurance, an insurance and employee-engagement firm headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., in March held a 90-minute “lunch and learn” on unconscious bias that was mandatory for supervisors and managers and will be required for each new class of managers, said Michele McDermott, senior vice president of human resources. The company is in discussions about rolling it out to all employees and threading the topic through its other diversity initiatives, she said.
The training, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, included role-playing exercises, a written test and action plans for people to use should they encounter bias at work, she said. Among the strategies taught is to “be aware of our first thought,” which is where bias often manifests, and to employ the logical part of the brain to justify the decisions you make, McDermott said.
Meghan Duke, vice president of business process at Assurance, who went through the training, said one of the most memorable teachings was that employees should hold each other accountable.
“It’s appropriate for you to say, ‘Hey, you need to rethink that,’ and call each other out when you see bias,” she said.
In Chicago, online lender Enova last summer launched unconscious bias training that is mandatory for managers and voluntary for other employees. About 300 people took part in 20 training sessions last year, and the company plans to host another 20 sessions this year, said chief people officer Stacey Kraft.
The two-hour training, conducted by Kraft’s team, includes examples of internal initiatives to counter the negative effects of bias. For example, there is a push within the technology team to interview candidates for “a culture add versus a culture fit” — that is, valuing people based on their different viewpoints rather than their similarities, Kraft said. Another example given is the recruiting process in the software engineering department, which requires hiring managers to conduct interviews without seeing candidates’ resumes so that they’re not influenced by factors like the pedigree of their school, she said.
Kraft said she was heartened by an internal survey done later that found a small uptick in the share of employees who believe Enova is inclusive. Often these types of initiatives suffer from feeling like compliance-oriented human resources programs, she said, but “it seems so organic here, and I think it feels that way because it comes from the top.”
At Starbucks, the urgency of the training has been coming from the top. The company needed to send a strong message after the Philadelphia arrests because it has staked out a position as a progressive brand that is active on social issues, said Bob Phibbs, CEO of the retail consultancy the Retail Doctor.
“This is who they’ve chosen to be,” Phibbs said.
Elejalde-Ruiz and Zumbach write for the Chicago Tribune.