Experts tell Moneyish how implicit bias training works — and whether it’s actually effective
A “reprehensible” incident at one of its stores energized Starbucks to tackle racial bias head-on.
The coffee corporation will close all of its U.S. company-owned retail stores and corporate offices the afternoon of May 29 for anti-bias training geared to “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome,” the company announced this week.
The planned training for nearly 175,000 employees comes amid national outrage over two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks being told to leave and ultimately arrested for trespassing after asking to use the bathroom. The company says it’s developing curriculum with expert input from Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, among others.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, for his part, embarked on an apology tour and reportedly met with the two victims this week — denouncing the event as “reprehensible” and vowing his company would be “part of the solution” going forward.
“I think the response has been textbook perfect,” crisis management consultant Jonathan Bernstein told Moneyish. “They’ve put their top guy on it; he communicates with compassion and conviction, and comes across as someone who really wants to change the cultural factors that result in (this) behavior.” Johnson has also “done a good job of communicating that this isn’t a Starbucks problem; this is a society problem,” Bernstein added.
Greenblatt, a former Starbucks exec, also praised the java giant’s swift response and plan of action — pointing out that closing its 8,000 stores would impact the company’s bottom line. “How many companies do that?” he told Moneyish. “Rarely do we see a business move this quickly; never have we seen one do so at such scale.”
While specifics around the training he’s helping Starbucks develop remain “TBD” and “a work in progress,” Greenblatt said, he highlighted the ADL’s vast experience training roughly 1.5 million students and 15,000 law enforcement officials a year with its anti-bias education. Starbucks could emerge as a leader in this respect, he added, and its efforts could benefit both customers and communities. “If they get this right, the benefit will be broadly felt — not just in their stores, but (in) the positive signal it will send across society,” he said.
Implicit bias training is one of the more popular diversity trainings administered within organizations today, said Michelle Duguid, a Cornell University associate professor of management whose research investigates diversity in organizations. These trainings typically involve teaching people the meaning of implicit bias, or attitudes and stereotypes that influence people’s judgments and decision-making in ways largely outside their conscious awareness or control, added Kate Ratliff, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s psychology department and executive director of the nonprofit Project Implicit.
They might also have participants complete an exercise to uncover their own implicit biases, Ratliff said, and talk to them about the need to try and override or correct those biases. One commonly used measure is the Implicit Association Test, which explains on its site that it “measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy).”
“(Implicit bias trainings) tend to sort of talk about the science of implicit bias, giving examples, maybe running through scenarios, and then providing some of the strategies to counteract them,” added Kimberly Kahn, an associate professor of social psychology at Portland State University. The trainings can vary in length, she said, and be delivered via a variety of methods ranging from online presentation to in-person, half-day trainings. “People do it a million different ways, and I’m not sure what Starbucks’ approach is going to be,” Duguid said.
But there’s not much data to suggest implicit bias training actually works, Duguid noted, despite the logic and rationale that seem to support it. One of her studies even found that people who learned a stereotype was prevalent were actually more likely to engage in such behavior. “A better message that we found is saying, ‘Most people put checks on stereotyping,’” Duguid said. “It has more of an affirmative message versus telling people that ‘A lot of people do this negative thing.’”
And while experts agree that education is generally a positive, “just telling people that implicit bias is a thing and they need to be concerned about it” isn’t enough to effect real change, Ratliff said. Kahn says that “awareness is a first step”: “No one training is going to be able to just remediate these types of biases,” she said. “It’s a good step, but it needs to be part of that larger policy, culture and practice change.”
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder of the diversity solutions firm ReadySet, argues that focusing on implicit bias can generate a sense of complacency upon completion of the training, and says it often lacks actionable next steps and doesn’t account for overt or systemic biases. To make a tangible difference, she said, a company like Starbucks needs to embed its values all across the business — “from who sits at the leadership level, who gets promoted, who feels valued when they go to work, and how people interact with their customers.”
“Starbucks needs to train their employees on how to handle bias in the real world — quite often, that doesn’t happen in diversity and inclusion trainings,” Hutchinson said. “And then they need to give them the policies to support (their training) … Give them the tools and the resources to help them behave the way they want, and then reward them when they do that.”
Ratliff recommends organizations strive to identify whether they have a diversity problem, the extent of the problem and where the disparity lies. “A lot of corporations, for example, will have 5% women in their top leadership, or 5% people of color,” she said. “But they won’t quite know how it got to that point — where in the pipeline are they losing people?”
At the corporate level, Kahn added, companies like Starbucks can also ensure they have concrete policies to address situations like a customer they believe is loitering, for example. “When there is more discretion, when there’s ambiguity, that’s when these types of biases are more likely to impact people’s decision-making,” she said. “When we can sort of take away some of that discretion and have clear policies then that are applied to all individuals, that can help reduce those types of incidents.”
“I definitely commend Starbucks for acknowledging that this bias exists and taking those first steps,” Kahn said. “But again, just reiterating that we want to see this as part of a larger strategy to remediate that bias.”
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