Last Thursday, employees at a Philadelphia Starbucks location called the police to say that two men were trespassing when they refused to leave after being denied use of the restroom because they hadn’t purchased anything. A customer took a video of the arrest of the two men, who were black and had been waiting for a friend to meet them when they were asked several times to leave. They were released shortly thereafter, when Starbucks decided not to press charges.
Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross told USA Today, “As an African American male, I am very aware of implicit bias,” but he noted he had heard a couple of years previously of a sergeant who was denied use of the bathroom, adding, “At least they are consistent in their policy. If a business calls and they say ‘Someone is here that I no longer wish to be in my business,’ they (officers) now have a legal obligation to carry out their duties.”
In response to the incident, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized on Twitter and news outlets. In addition, the company announced on Tuesday that its U.S. stores would all close on the afternoon of May 29 so employees could participate in anti-racial bias training.
“While this is not limited to Starbucks, we’re committed to being part of the solution,” Johnson said in the press release. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.” According to the release, the training “will be developed with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias,” including leaders from the Equal Justice Initiative, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Demos (a public policy organization) and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Implicit bias, like the kind critics are saying led to the arrests at Starbucks last week, can have a large and detrimental impact in the workplace, including undermining relationships and lowering performance. Education is typically recommended to mitigate those risks and help employees recognize and respond effectively to bias. However, anti-bias training is notoriously difficult to develop and implement effectively so that it creates long-term behavior change. “There has to be a lot more after this to make sure they go deeper,” Margaret Regan, president and CEO of the Future Work Institute, told the Wall Street Journal.
“Most people view D&I [diversity and inclusion] as a compliance issue that surfaces when prompted by the media or by some form of corporate injustice,” wrote Dr. Krystal Walker, director of professional development for Guitar Center, Inc., last month. “While issues like these should shift the focus toward the subject of diversity, organizations might experience greater success if they were to take their employees on a never-ending D&I journey rather than creating a one-time training event for the sake of checking a box.”
“Training that leads to true behavior change,” wrote Todd Maddox, Ph.D., CEO and founder of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting, LLC, “moves sensitivity training far beyond the theoretical. Knowing ‘what’ to do and being able to identify it is important, but it is clearly not the same as knowing ‘how’ to respond.” He recommends that Starbucks incorporate unconscious bias training during onboarding and throughout the employee lifecycle. “The brain is hardwired to forget and requires refreshers to consolidate information in long-term memory.”
As companies like Starbucks continue to announce anti-bias training as a response to controversial customer and employee incidents, it will be up to their L&D leaders to ensure that response is effective. By providing research-based anti-bias training with continuous follow-up, they can help companies provide equitable customer service and create a more inclusive organizational culture.