Following a significant media fanfare, coffee chain Starbucks followed through with its plan to close all 8,000 of its US outlets on 29 May, so that staff could take part in mandatory unconscious bias training.

The initiative stemmed from a 12 April incident in which black men Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson – both 23-year-old entrepreneurs – were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks store for acting suspiciously, after a member of staff called local police on them for “trespassing”. While Nelson and Robinson had not ordered food or drink at their table, they had simply been waiting for a friend to join them.

The on-site arrests – which other patrons had recorded on their mobile phones – set social media channels ablaze, alarming Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and chairman Howard Schultz. Johnson quickly announced the 29 May store closures for bias training, and Nelson and Robinson have since legally settled with both Starbucks and the City of Philadelphia, the latter of which is the arresting officers’ employer.

However, a Time magazine article [1] published in the wake of the store closures has cast doubt on whether the approach that Starbucks took with its mass training effort went deep enough.

In the piece, BAME Starbucks staff indicated that the initiative was superficial and decidedly non-interactive, with employee Jason saying: “It seems like a lot of talking from the videos, and not enough discussion from us … It kinda reaffirms things that I know already.”

Fellow staffer Mohamed noted: “Honestly, I think they should have more hands-on courses speaking to different people and customers to figure out where they’re coming from. It’s easy sitting through something and saying you learned something than actually learning something from the course.”

Mexican worker Alicia added: “They told us we need to be ‘colour brave’ instead of colour blind, and it was the whitest thing I’ve ever heard. Me and my co-workers of colour felt uncomfortable the entire time.”

Clearly, Starbucks – which has published the training day’s curriculum online [2] – is not going to solve racial bias by itself in the course of a four-hour session, and has said that its programme will be ongoing. But how does a company achieve true depth in its approach to unconscious bias training?

The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy & standards Kate Cooper says: “While I acknowledge the comments in the Time article, I still applaud Starbucks for what they have tried to do here. The real issue is that, for any massive, company-wide initiative in an organisation of this scale – and Starbucks is sprawling – it can’t be just a one-way transmission, however engaging the content. The objective is to put people in situations where they can carefully consider not just what unconscious bias means in general, but what it could mean to them – and how it may impact upon their behaviours. That’s really specialist work, and it can’t be done cheaply. It has to be properly resourced.”

Cooper notes: “Clearly, four hours isn’t going to do it – but at least Starbucks is doing something. As the company has made an ongoing commitment, there’s scope here for following the initial session up by breaking teams into smaller groups and venturing into greater depth with more of a two-way format. Which will be where it gets more expensive. Even if they’d got the content of the introductory session absolutely spot-on, it would still need to be consolidated in additional sessions or work streams. It takes that kind of extra effort to change people’s behaviours.”

She adds: “Starbucks has sparked awareness in a consciousness-raising exercise. Now it’s a matter of keeping on with that message and with the challenge to staff to do better and set an example. Now we have had critiques in a high-profile publication from Starbucks staff about the programme’s whiteness, the people who structured the initiative are also in the position of being challenged – and of having to challenge themselves as to what is appropriate, and how much advice one must take from those who are most affected.”


For further thoughts on appreciating diversity, check out these learning resources from the Institute 

Source refs: [1] [2]

Image of Starbucks coffee cup courtesy of Just2Shutter, via Shutterstock


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