How Starbucks Can Make Its Massive Bias Training Count

How Starbucks Can Make Its Massive Bias Training Count

Last month, a manager at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on a pair of black men who were waiting in the store for a business meeting and had yet to make any purchases. A cell phone video of the two men’s subsequent arrest, which also captured other patrons’ outrage over the incident as it happened, quickly went viral and prompted a nationwide conversation about the racial profiling that black Americans often face in places of business. For Starbucks, which has sought to establish itself one of America’s most progressive employers, it has created a crisis, raising questions about whether this was truly an isolated incident and whether the roughly 40 percent of Starbucks employees who identify as racial minorities have faced hostility or felt unwelcome in the workplace—as many Americans of color have indicated in surveys that they do.

In an unprecedented response, Starbucks quickly announced an ambitious initiative in which it will close all of its over 8,000 company-owned US stores on May 29 so that nearly 175,000 employees can attend an anti-bias training. By conveying that the company takes this matter seriously and is committed to addressing it, the announcement won the coffee chain praise in the world of public relations, but from the perspective of HR—and Diversity and Inclusion more specifically—the standards for success are much higher and more difficult to meet. To make this response count as more than a PR spectacle, Starbucks will need to demonstrate that it’s not just making the right kind of noise, but actually making meaningful changes that are tangible to its vast numbers of nonwhite customers and employees. Furthermore, whether the initiative succeeds or fails, it stands to have an impact far beyond this one company. The stakes are high and all eyes are on Starbucks.

From the D&I research team at CEB, now Gartner, here are some points Starbucks should keep in mind in designing and deploying this anti-bias initiative—and for HR leaders at other organizations to consider in their own efforts to combat the insidious problem of bias.

Anti-Bias Training Should Encompass all Stakeholders’ Perspectives

To underscore the importance of this training, Starbucks announced that the curriculum would be designed with help from prominent experts in civil rights and racial justice, including former attorney general Eric Holder, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Sherrilyn Ifill, and Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. This A-list roster lends an extra dose of credibility to the initiative, but Starbucks might also consider engaging with the communities they serve to understand the experiences of their nonwhite customers on a more personal level. A great example of this kind of stakeholder-focused inclusion strategy is ANZ Bank’s accessibility initiative for people with disabilities, which involved stakeholders across the workforce, workplace, and marketplace in determining accessibility goals and how the bank would achieve them. (CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council members can read the case study here.)

Starbucks could also benefit from bringing employees’ voices and experiences into the conversation as opposed to making this a one-way training exercise. To be fair to the staff, they’re often at the frontlines of how the public feels about the company (like the time that a Miami man was videoed screaming “Trump!” at a black Starbucks employee, or the “Trump cup” protest, or the “open carry” protest, or the annual “war on Christmas” protests). Starbucks doesn’t exist to serve the community in the same way as the police or the government, but the company has consistently worked to cultivate a brand image of its cafés as public spaces, which imposes a unique set of challenges for its front-line employees.

Treat Employees as Partners, Not Part of the Problem, in Combating Bias

Starbucks officially refers to its employees as “partners,” and that’s exactly how it should treat them throughout this process. To that end, the new bias training curriculum should be designed with empathy for them. Most employees probably don’t recognize themselves in the store manager whose actions kicked off this scandal, and if the bias training comes off as scolding, they may resent being punished for one person’s bad judgment.

Mandatory bias trainings often meet resistance from employees; helping them feel like partners in the project rather than targets can help mitigate that resistance. In order to strike that balance, Starbucks could consider a process similar to Red Hat’s “Open Decision Framework,” which ensures that employees, not just leaders, are involved in all change decisions and creates accountability for leaders to make engage in inclusive decision-making. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read our Red Hat case study here.)

Unconscious Bias Training Is Just a First Step

Bias matters. We’ve seen many organizations think about how to break it, and many have started with an unconscious bias training. While such training has received a fair amount of criticism, we have yet to hear of any organizations that regrets having offered it: It gives leaders a framework and vocabulary to talk through some challenging issues that are hard to engage with and sends signals about the organization’s values and priorities, showing that it thinks these issues are important and relevant.

However, bias training alone doesn’t change behavior: If a person’s biases are decades old and generations deep, a two-hour training obviously won’t be enough to overcome them. And if you hold one big training event and do not follow it up with further actions, your employees may conclude that you are more interested in PR damage-control or legal compliance than truly taking a stand against bias and making that a permanent part of your culture.

Many of the organizations we talk to are trying to get to the next step: How can we get managers and leaders out of their networks and actually break bias, and, at the same time, how can we shore up our processes to “bias-proof” them as much as possible? Fortunately, there are effective tools organizations can use to further both of these objectives. (To help managers understand the challenge of unconscious bias and how to address it, CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council members can use our executive training materials on Advancing Inclusion by Overcoming Unconscious Bias.)

There Is More Than One Kind of Bias

Another question that Starbucks will need to answer is whether this training will focus specifically on racial bias, or on bias in general? Anti-black racism may feel like the most pressing bias issue right now because of current events, but biases exist across a variety of employee and customer segments. While Starbucks needs to recognize racial bias in communicating why they are making these changes and having these trainings now, they also have an opportunity to bring other important issues to the surface and recognize all aspects of diversity and inclusion in these trainings.

Also, for other employers looking to learn from this example, it’s important to realize that Starbucks’ choice of response to this incident will not make sense for everyone. The successful navigation of any crisis depends enormously on an organization’s individual values, culture, and strategy. Today is also an especially tricky time for companies to make statements and take actions that may carry a political charge, as Starbucks often has. (CEB Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Council members can learn more about the challenges of talking about D&I in the current political environment by watching our recent webinar on D&I Responsibility and Communication in an Era of Polarity.)

Start Building Bias-Resistant Systems and Policies Right Away

Starbucks can’t correct its employees’ and managers’ biases in a day, but it may be able to make some specific, concrete, and immediate policy changes to reduce the number of places where bias can creep into their decision making. For example, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, the company does not have firm rules or guidelines for employees on how to handle nonpaying customers; a clearer policy might have averted the incident in Philadelphia. We’ve seen some organizations try to create simple nudge tools to address these kinds of challenges, which Starbucks might want to consider: How about creating something like a decision tree for managers to use before involving the police in an incident? They could even have each store create and use their own tools as a follow-up from the training, in the spirit of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s team-defined Culture Do’s And Don’ts (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read that case study here).

Designing resistance to bias into your business processes isn’t a cure-all (there are no cure-alls in D&I), but it is a proven effective strategy for mitigating—not eliminating—the potential impact of bias on both your employees and customers. While every company wants to ensure that its customers are treated fairly and respectfully, many organizations are also working internally to ensure that employee recruitment and other talent management processes also mitigate bias and allow a diverse workforce to thrive.

Our D&I members can see examples of companies that have done this successfully in our case studies on Navistar’s objective decision-making framework and Syngenta’s difference-based mentoring (found on pages 42-45 and 72-73 of our inclusive executive training materials) as well as Shell’s approach to assessing for equity in performance reviews.

Transparency and Follow-Up Are Essential

It is important for Starbucks to be transparent about why they decided to carry out this training now and what makes this timing special. If they don’t, employees and customers may feel that this is only for publicity (criticisms to this effect are already coming out in the media). They also need to be transparent about how they will continue this process going forward, how they will measure success, and whether the initiative actually does succeed at changing their organizational culture for the better. When another challenging event occurs for the company, do they close their stores for that one, too? What does this mean for them moving forward? Will employees and customers be confused in the future if something else occurs and the company does nothing? Investors, customers, employees, and the media are all watching—as are the many other businesses that stand to learn something from Starbucks’ experience.

Once again, Starbucks has famously made a point in its branding strategy of encouraging people to think of its stores as a “third place” for the community to meet. The company’s public mission statement starts off its list of values with “creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome” and includes “being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.” If they want that brand message to be credible, they have to invest in it and show their work.