Experts Weigh In on Starbucks' Racial-Bias Training

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 19, 2018
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Starbucks announced Tuesday that it was temporarily closing 8,000 of its U.S. stores the afternoon of May 29 to conduct staff training on racial bias. What should that training consist of? Who should conduct it? SHRM Online reached out to diversity and inclusion experts and asked what they would do if they were tapped to deliver this training.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson called for the training after two black men were arrested last week for trespassing when they refused to leave a Starbucks in Philadelphia as they waited on a friend. One of the men had been denied access to the bathroom because he had not purchased anything. Charges were dropped, but the incident sparked a national furor.

In a letter and a video, Johnson apologized and vowed to do everything he could to make sure this never happened again. He also has met with the men to apologize in person.

"I've been very focused on understanding what guidelines and what training ever let this happen," he said, according to CNN. "What happened was wrong, and we will fix it."

It appears the occurrence last week was not an isolated incident. In a video from January that has resurfaced, a black man claims he was denied access to a bathroom at Starbucks in Los Angeles, but a white man was given the entry code. Similar to the Philadelphia incident, neither were paying customers, CBS reported.

"We're taking a hard look at who we are as a company," Johnson said. "We're ashamed and recognize that racial bias is a problem we must address."

Starbucks said it has begun reviewing its training and practices "to make important reforms where necessary to ensure our stores always represent our mission and values, by providing a safe and inclusive environment for our customers and partners." The manager who called the police no longer works at the Philadelphia store, according to various news accounts.

[SHRM members-only policy: Diversity Policy]  

Training will address "implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome," Johnson stated in a news release.

What Should the Training Include? 

The most effective training around bias looks at how people make decisions, according to Howard Ross, founder of the Cook Ross business management consulting firm in Silver Spring, Md.

He is the author of Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

The training should examine:

  • What is bias, and how is it impacting us?
  • How does bias show up in human behavior, in the decisions we make and how we treat people?
  • How do we mitigate that behavior? 

But training by itself won't put a stop to the problem of implicit bias, he noted.

"The training is a beginning. It can bring awareness and point people in the right direction, but training by itself will rarely have any long-term impact" unless the organization's culture has changed and employees are called on to behave differently.

There undoubtedly is a need for general cultural competence training, said Steve Humerickhouse, executive director of The Forum on Workplace Inclusion at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

In this case, training also should include experiential learning on what it's like for people of color to live in a world "where they must always be aware of the suspicion others have for them, to be profiled and watched because crime or disruption is expected of them," he said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

"Starbucks can go a long way in educating 175,000 employees about what it means to be a person of color in the U.S., especially if those employees take that training to heart and share it with their extended friends and family. The impact can ripple out from Philadelphia to the whole country."


Brittany Packnett, whom President Barack Obama cited as someone "whose voice is going to be making a difference" for her work toward social justice and social change, tweeted that accountability must follow training.

"If the training is not followed up by clear measurements and employee expectations—connected directly to job performance—then one day [of training] won't make much difference,"  the vice president for national community alliances at Teach for America tweeted. Training "can't be watered down, and it can't be undermined by lax expectations post-training."

National Experts Tapped 

Starbucks announced that its training curriculum—which it will make available to other companies—will be designed by nationally recognized experts:

  • Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. The private, nonprofit organization provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
  • Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington, D.C. 
  • Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a public-policy organization in New York City. 
  • Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Last year, he led an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of female employees at Uber—the San Francisco-based ride-hailing company. The company adopted all of Holder's recommendations. 
  • Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York City and a senior fellow at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. 
In a statement on the NAACP website, Ifill said that Starbucks must "make clear that it does not tolerate any racial profiling or discrimination of any kind in its stores, and it must identify and implement concrete and measurable steps to keep itself accountable to that commitment."

In an interview with NPR, she said she will provide guidance to Starbucks to ensure that "what they do undertake is rigorous and is likely to produce real results" and will be modeled by other companies.

"This can't be a one-off," she told NPR. "Racism is deeply entrenched in our society, and any real effort to confront it means being in it for the long haul," and that includes monitoring the effectiveness of the training, she added.

The big question is, will training 175,000 Starbucks employees work, said Lori Armstrong Halber, an attorney with national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips in Philadelphia.

"At the most tactical level, training to combat discrimination is most effective when it's interactive and in-person," she said in an e-mail. "The primary point of training is not to defend against litigation. For the training to take hold in a meaningful way, the driving impetus of the training should be culture change."

Effectiveness comes with follow-through on the training, and changing culture "from the top down and bottom up through continued monitoring, feedback, and being present in stores, as well as secondary mechanisms such as corporate responsibility programs [and] community outreach," according to Rick Grimaldi, a partner at Fisher Phillips in Philadelphia.

Ross cautioned people not to react reflexively with protests and threats of boycotts.

"Even the best organizations, the best communities, the best families have times when something happens," he said. Starbucks has made it clear, he noted, that the company is putting training "ahead of their bottom line" by closing stores for racial-bias training. 

SHRM has a proud record of encouraging fair and equitable employment practices. SHRM believes that employment decisions should be made based on qualifications for a job, not on non-job-related characteristics. SHRM encourages employer efforts to create workplace cultures that foster an inclusive and diverse workforce and that do not tolerate discrimination or harassment.  In addition, an employer’s workplace culture should emphasize the equitable treatment of all employees.

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