Starbucks is closing 8,000 of its U.S. stores today for racial-bias training, which begs the question: What will the coffee giant’s employees learn, and how will they be asked to apply those lessons? More important, will it work?
Many in the corporate world have pondered this issue since Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson publicly apologized for what he called “reprehensible” circumstances after two African-American customers were arrested at a location in Philadelphia, and ordered today’s training for an estimated 175,000 workers at the company’s chains.
This very public coast-to-coast experiment puts workplace education about the impacts of unconscious bias into the national spotlight. The concept isn’t new, though. Many organizations already offer similar programs designed to help employees interact better with people who are different from them, and many claim to have boosted performance benchmarks as a result–from sales and revenue to morale and retention. Some diversity and inclusion experts stress that combatting discrimination in workplaces and commercial settings is a challenge with no universal best practices yet, and research suggests that unconscious-bias programs find mixed success.
Still, the type of program that Starbucks employees are likely to experience can have a positive impact. For the past five years, my organization, the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), has offered an unconscious-bias training program called “The ART of Inclusive Communication,” which, like today’s Starbucks initiative, takes place over the course of a single day. In it, participants explore how their communication styles may be rooted, at least in part, in their own personal and cultural identities. One of the big takeaways is that we often make decisions based on stereotypes and may not even be aware that we harbor such views in the first place.
Training efforts like these also explore how unconscious beliefs lead to communication breakdowns, teaching participants how to recognize when that might be happening so they can do something about it. In our own program, we stress how unconscious bias can be especially dangerous because it’s an automatic pattern of thinking. Incidents of outright racism are often easier to identify because most people agree on a certain set of moral standards, and overt racism is considered unacceptable.
When behaviors are prompted by misconceptions buried in the subconscious, though, there’s a much higher likelihood that the person responsible is literally not thinking about their actions. It’s almost certain that Starbucks staffers will be learning about this distinction today.
To illustrate how this plays out in the real world, unconscious-bias trainings tend to present participants with examples. Here are two well-known incidents we discuss side-by-side at NCRC: In 2009, when Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed a disabled American Airlines jet on the Hudson River, no one made any comment about his gender. But on April 19, 2018, when news media reported the miraculous landing of a disabled Southwest airplane after an engine exploded in-air, many people were surprised to find out that the brave pilot was a woman named Tammie Jo Shults.
The coverage of Shults’s successful landing is an example of very subtle bias couched in a tone that passes for complimentary. By celebrating Shults, the media drew attention to the fact–framed in context as “surprising”–that she is female. The positive spin doesn’t negate the bias at play, we point out. Then we ask each participant to imagine that they’re a passenger getting onto an airplane when they notice the pilot is a woman. If you spend the rest of the flight feeling uneasy or nervous, we point out, this is unconscious bias with a negative spin.
From here, it’s a lot easier to shift toward techniques for having more respectful communications, including ways to address comments that might be considered racist, sexist, ageist, heterosexist, or derogatory to others. All of this is done in a safe and respectful learning environment, which is key to the success of the workshop. If participants don’t feel valued, respected, and understood during the course, they’re much less likely to take it seriously.
How well they’ll put it into practice, though, is an open question. The Starbucks training will likely encourage store managers to become more aware of subtle biases or microaggressions demonstrated by their staff–or even themselves. This is key, because Starbucks is in a unique situation. To its credit, the company has branded itself as a multicultural meeting place, so it’s important to respond quickly and proactively in order to deliver on that promise.
But real, lasting success will take repeated reinforcement on at least two fronts: first, from top leadership to ensure that an inclusive environment is valued and encouraged, and second, from employees themselves repeatedly practicing the behaviors they learned. It takes more than a daylong training to make a difference, but here’s to hoping that today’s is a good start.
Steven P. Dinkin has served as president of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) since 2003. He has coauthored two books on conflict resolution, The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict and The Exchange Strategy for Managing Conflict in Health Care.