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Could Starbucks' Anti-Bias Training Have A Real Impact?

Thatcher logo.jpgRecently, two African-American businessmen were waiting for a colleague in a Philadelphia Starbucks. At one point, one of the men asked to use the restroom but was refused because they hadn't purchased anything. An employee, apparently concerned that they were loitering, asked them to leave. They refused the police were called. Several officers arrived and, although the men's story checked out, handcuffed the men and removed them from the premises.

Starbucks declined to press charges and the Philadelphia prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence a crime had been committed. The company apologized via social media and its CEO offered to meet the two men in person.

The scandal also prompted another intervention by Starbucks. On May 29, the coffee purveyor will close its approximately 8,000 U.S. stores in order to hold anti-bias training for all its retail employees.

Will it work? Experts say yes, although with some caution. While there is some good evidence that training can reduce reliance on unconscious biases, there is also some proof that the gains may be short-term. Also, if the training is poorly done, it can even backfire.

The goal of the training is to help people avoid making decisions based on unconscious stereotypes without realizing their actions are biased. We all are subject to implicit or unconscious bias, which can trip us up even when we intend our actions to be neutral.

Implicit bias training allows participants to become aware of and confront common biases they may not be aware of.

After that, some experts say, training can reduce biased outcomes by focusing on helping people slow down their thinking. If they are able to see the other person's humanity and put themselves in the other person's position, people are less likely to rely on stereotypes. Therefore, some training centers around limiting people's tendency to react reflexively instead of thoughtfully and deliberately.

Still, it's easy to revert to old ways of thinking in moments of stress. Some training providers incorporate repetition and practice to change the behavior more permanently.

Some experts argue that instead of trying to change people's thinking, it's a better strategy to limit their discretion. Doing this requires reconsidering whether our policies encourage bias.

For example, when retailers urge employees to watch out for suspicious-looking customers, salespeople often follow customers of certain races around the store. That is both biased and ineffective. A better approach would be adopting clear security protocols that are uniformly applied to all races.

How is your organization coping with implicit bias? Have you considered anti-bias training at your company? Tell us your thoughts. You can also contact your corporate attorney for assistance creating neutral policies and effective anti-bias training.

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