How Do You Combat Racism at Work? Experts Offer Suggestions

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 29, 2018
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Starbucks closed the doors of its 8,000 stores Tuesday to conduct staff training that addresses "implicit bias, promotes conscious inclusion and prevents discrimination."

Other companies may be asking themselves, too, how their workplaces can be more welcoming to people of color, whether job applicants, employees, customers or vendors.

Starbucks' action comes after the coffee giant made headlines in April when two black men were arrested for trespassing after 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 their arrest sparked a national furor that prompted apologies from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, who vowed to do everything he could to make sure this never happened again.

It was a sobering experience for Johnson, who in 2015 launched a campaign at all of his coffee shops to encourage employees to have conversations with customers about race relations. That effort fell flat. Now Johnson is looking internally to combat racism in the workplace. 

[SHRM members-only policy: Diversity Policy]  

One day of training likely won't have much impact, said Charlotte Blank, chief behavioral officer at Maritz, a marketing and advertising company in the St. Louis area, and a contributor to PeopleScience.com at Maritz. Still, she said it's a step in the right direction.

"Starbucks, with [its] megaphone presence, is bringing a cultural attention to this issue," she said. "The most effective way to change behavior is to change our environment, to nudge people into new behaviors. Focusing on program design and policy design" such as changing hiring practices "… will have a bigger effect than just teaching [employees] the right thing to do."

That is the tactic the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is taking in the discrimination cases it wins against employers. In July 2017, for example, Bass Pro Outdoor World LLC agreed to make good-faith efforts to increase its diversity in addition to paying $10.5 million to members of a class-action lawsuit involving hiring discrimination against black and Hispanic job applicants.

The company is to participate in job fairs in communities with large minority populations, reach out to minority colleges and technical schools, and post job openings in publications popular among people in black and Hispanic areas.

Hiring Practices 

Changing hiring processes is one way to alter the makeup of what Blank called an organization's "in group" and to change the perception that underrepresented groups are outsiders. She recommended blind screening of resumes and using structured interviews so that all job candidates are asked the same questions. A lack of structure may make it difficult to compare and rank applicants because they are not asked the same questions.

Katherine McNamee, SHRM-CP, HR director at the American Alliance of Museums in Arlington, Va., noted that her organization uses blind screening by asking job candidates to omit information that includes their name and the names of their schools when they submit cover letters and resumes. It also has expanded its recruitment to include diversity-specific job boards, she wrote in a Member2Member Solutions article.


"Ban the box" is another change some are pressing for so that employers no longer ask job candidates about their criminal histories on an employment application form. The NAACP says this is especially important for black job seekers, who make up 14 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of the nation's incarcerated population. Inquiring into criminal history can wait until a face-to-face interview is scheduled or after a conditional job offer is made.

Talk to Employees 

Ask employees what they think about their organization's diversity, suggested Stacey Engle, executive vice president at Fierce Conversations, a professional training and coaching company in Seattle.

Discussions can take place at any time, such as at a staff meeting or a company town hall meeting, and they don't require a professional facilitator.

"You don't have to launch a giant training; just show up" and be authentic, Engle said. That requires HR to work with leaders to help them get comfortable addressing what can be sensitive subjects, such as racism.

When an employee approaches HR about an incident—such as after hearing racist comments—Engle suggested asking "What else?" three times to get a full picture of what occurred.

HR can use such information to alert company leaders to behavior that does not align with company values. This awareness gives leaders a jumping-off point for a conversation with employees, and HR can help them with talking points.

"It's a big call to action for HR professionals to empower leaders to have conversations that 15 years ago went straight to HR," Engle said.

Use Scenario-Based Training 

It's critical for Starbucks to start talking about this issue so employees have a common understanding, and an awareness, of unconscious bias and how it can negatively affect their decisions, said Heide Abelli, senior vice president of content product management at Skillsoft, a corporate training-content provider with U.S. headquarters in Nashua, N.H

And there must be repeated opportunities "for active learning, reflection and practice," she said. One training strategy is to use scenario-based videos or role-playing, said Abelli, who teaches at Boston College's Carroll School of Management.

"Scenarios enable someone to 'walk a mile in my shoes' " and create emotional connections, she said. "If you can display unconscious bias by playing it out … that's how people will remember the negative effect unconscious bias can have and how it can innocently crop up" in the workplace. "It's very hard to do that through other instructional strategies."

While she doesn't think there's a lot of overt racism in workplaces, she said she thinks unconscious bias occurs frequently in decisions affecting promotions, performance reviews and other work-related interactions. And breaking down that unconscious bias doesn't happen overnight, she said.

"You have to change the culture of the organization, and that takes time, and that's hard work," Abelli said. "Managers and leaders have to be the role models here. … They're the ones who can drive cultural change."

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