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Starbucks After Anti-Bias Training: Will It Last?

by Ella Washington

On April 17, Starbucks announced that it would close 8,000 U.S. stores on May 29 for a day of diversity and inclusion training for nearly 175,000 employees.

The training is a response to an incident that many have called racist -- Starbucks' Executive Chairman Howard Schultz called it "reprehensible at every single level" -- in which a white manager in Philadelphia requested that the police remove two black men from the store.

"I think I take it very personally as everyone in our company does," Schultz said, "and we're committed to making it right."

Starbucks is demonstrating admirable sensitivity to the concerns of its customers and workers. But a half-day training course, even if it does involve 175,000 people, isn't going to prevent bias.

Which is not to suggest that diversity training doesn't work. It certainly can, research shows, if done right.

But doing it right requires developing a culture of inclusion -- and that can't be done in a day.

3 Keys to Effective Diversity and Inclusion Training

Before starting any sort of diversity initiative, it's important for companies to know that not all training programs are the same and they can have unintended consequences.

Often, mandatory training tilts negative. It can seem domineering, like a reduction in autonomy, or an effort to blame and shame participants -- it can backfire and make people angry and resistant to the concepts they are supposed to learn. Many participants actually report more animosity toward minority groups after the training.

Which is not to say that leaders must simply accept prejudice as a permanent condition. Rather, leaders have to accept that bias can't be entirely eliminated.

But it can be managed.

Human bias is widespread because our brains are wired for it. As Nobel laureate and Gallup Senior Scientist Emeritus Daniel Kahneman demonstrated in his bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, we all have mental templates that we apply to our environments, including our social environment.

When we defer to our template rather than rationally analyze a situation, we're using "fast thinking."

That response is a quick and easy way to process information. Most of the time it works well, but sometimes it doesn't -- as happened one awful day in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

Fast thinking is not the only way people think, though. It's certainly possible to construct environments that promote better, less-biased responses.

A meta-analysis of more than 40 studies on diversity and inclusion training found that training is effective when it meets these three conditions:

  1. the training is complemented by other diversity initiatives
  2. the training targets both awareness and skills development
  3. the training is conducted over a significant period of time

Awareness of reflexive bias and the criteria of effective training are important to companies that want to be truly inclusive, like Starbucks surely does. Obviously, it takes more than a single training course to achieve that goal.

In fact, it takes a culture.

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Move Beyond 1-Day Training to Create a Culture of Inclusion

To build a culture of any kind, leaders and managers must commit to clarity, consistency and alignment around purpose.

But to obtain the benefits of genuine inclusion -- and there are many, including significant financial advantages -- Gallup analysts have found the culture has to have three core elements:

  • everyone treats everyone else with respect
  • managers appreciate the strengths and unique characteristics of everyone on their teams
  • leaders do what is right

Effective diversity training complements those core elements with targeted awareness and skills development conducted over a significant period of time.

Leaders can help by supporting certain elements of inclusion, be it:

Local managers can be the key conduit to making all of this happen, so long as executive management seeks out and models the aspired culture.

Organizations that implement these principles to guide behavior, conversations, relationships and decision-making can alter their workplaces dramatically. But periodic assessments need to be done to make sure the shift in culture will endure.

If bias-management is important, it's an objective. Objectives have to be measured. Measurement matters, because it shows leaders their progress.

Any company hoping to see real change needs real numbers to gauge achievement or lack thereof.

Which brings us back to Starbucks.

Will Starbucks See Real Change Starting May 30?

Starbucks needed to start on May 29 with a baseline measurement of genuine employee sentiment. And, simultaneously acknowledge that no matter what the metrics show, employees will always have a certain amount of bias.

Starbucks can manage that bias -- and they clearly want to try. If nothing else, closing a company for a day of anti-bias training proves commitment to the concept. And obviously, Starbucks' leaders are doing the right thing -- a seminal element of building a culture of inclusion -- because they care.

Still, Starbucks can only achieve their long-term purpose if the culture changes. Leaders are on the right track, but Starbucks' managers will also have to understand their people's individual strengths, all employees must learn to treat everyone with respect, and the entire diversity initiative must fit a larger cultural pattern.

Starbucks will need to align all those initiatives to create real, inclusive change.

May 29 may prove to be a watershed day for the company -- but only if Starbucks renews its commitment on May 30. And May 31.

And every single day after that.

Ensure that diversity and inclusion aren't just another box you check; learn how Gallup can help you embed inclusion into your culture with open, honest dialogue:

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

Gallup


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