Homo Erectus: The Evolution of Us – Hey Starbucks: Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work!

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Earlier this year, two African-American men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia—for reportedly doing nothing but waiting for a business colleague to arrive.

This incident—and how horribly it was handled—ignited demonstrations, shouts for boycotts and a whole heap of apologies from Kevin Johnson (Starbucks’ CEO) and other leaders within the coffee empire. In a video message, Johnson said, “What happened in the way that incident escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible. I will fix this.”

Before it could be fixed, Starbucks and Johnson first needed to identify the problem. They concluded that the issue was what’s called “unconscious” or “implicit bias” by the manager of the store: they made assumptions about the two men based upon their appearance. So the fix? A few weeks ago Starbucks closed over 8,000 U.S.-operated stores and conducted what they called “anti-bias training.” The training program’s design was to allegedly “… address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome,” according to a company statement. The training was created with subject matter experts’ input from groups like the NAACP, the Justice Initiative and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Did it work? Time will tell, but honestly probably not. While I’m sure some good came out of this training, studies show that this kind of “training dip” doesn’t have lasting results in behavior change. But before I go any further I have a confession to make: I’m a learning consultant. I own a consulting firm that actually writes and delivers various kinds of training, including programs on diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace. So the title of this article is basically me saying that what I do doesn’t matter. I’m like a personal trainer saying to a client, “Oh hell, go eat whatever, doing all these sit-ups won’t help at all.” Why on Earth would I say this?

Because it’s true: training alone won’t change people’s behavior. While the quick action that Starbucks took gives the impression they are dealing with the Philadelphia situation and the unconscious or implicit bias within their corporate culture head on, it’s a PR stunt. Studies show that this kind of training doesn’t have lasting impact, and training alone doesn’t change people’s behavior.

With that said, what if you couple workshops like these with other strategies? Then you have the beginning of the “secret sauce” to change a corporate culture. When I am approached by a client, of course I’m happy to have a chat about that program but we also talk about the bigger picture. We ask what ELSE are they doing to help support the change in behavior that you want? Whether it’s a leadership program, a program on inclusivity or effective communication strategies, the training is but a part of the strategy. Actions like communication plans, executive support, middle management support and a program measurement strategy are parts of what helps make change “stick” in the workplace. It’s unclear to me what’s part of Starbucks’ overarching program to change their corporate culture, but if it’s just a workshop for a half-day at the end of May, that just won’t cut it.

What does this mean to you? Take a look at your own workplace. What “unconscious biases” do you see? Maybe ask yourself what unconscious biases do YOU have? When looking at your workplace, take a closer look at these four areas:

(1) Education: what formal training programs does your employer have to promote inclusivity within your workplace? Are these programs offered frequently, or during those “special months” like Pride Month or Black History Month? Training programs cost money; and if your company is supporting them that’s a good sign they value them.

(2) Artifacts: look at the cultural clues within your workplace. What do you see? What images do you see around your workplace in posters, or in your organization’s marketing materials? In training classes are all the images of “leaders” represented by middle-aged, cis-gender white dudes, or does your workplace have representations of various types of humanity?

(3) Structures and Systems: what policies and business processes are in place to promote inclusivity? For example, does your workplace have policies to support trans* health benefits? What about human resource forms being inclusive in language? Does your workplace support employee resources groups like those for LGBTQ workers, people of color, or women’s groups? Are hiring practices done to minimize potential bias in hiring “certain types of people” in your workplace?

(4) Accountability: how are the leaders of your workplace holding each other accountable to create an inclusive workplace? How is progress for inclusivity being measured? Are there goals in place that look at increasing the number of women leaders, people of color, or other facets of humanity not currently represented within the business? What happens when you bring up these inequities within your workplace: are they applauded and thanked or shooed under the rug and ignored?

Our goal as members of the LGBTQ community is to make our workplaces as inclusive as possible for all demographics. Let’s use the opportunity of Starbucks to examine our own workplace and help it evolve to include ALL members of our community… and beyond.

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