The Industry

What Can Starbucks Accomplish?

Starbucks scheduled a day of implicit bias training after last week’s arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store. It probably won’t work.

Photo illustration: a man you might implicitly associate with being a barista side-by-side with an image of a cup of coffee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by g-stockstudio/iStock; Milkos/iStock.

Starbucks announced Tuesday that it would close more than 8,000 company-owned stores on May 29 to conduct racial bias training in response to a video that went viral last week showing two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia store for trespassing. The men had asked to use the restroom, but upon being told it was only available to paying customers, instead decided to wait in the café for their meeting with a representative from a real estate firm. The manager thought that they were causing a disturbance and called the police.

In response to the public outrage and calls for a boycott of the coffee chain, CEO Kevin Johnson apologized and promised to take action. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities,” he said in a press release.

Starbucks is planning to put its nearly 175,000 employees through training on implicit bias, which refers to the idea that people unconsciously stereotype others based on race, gender, and other identifiers. The concept has gained purchase in mainstream understandings of race relations, thanks in part to the popularity of the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a tool developed at Harvard that measures these biases by having subjects make associations under time pressure. For example, one version of the test has participants quickly match images of Asian people, European people, and monuments to descriptors like “Foreign” and “American.”

“It’s a window into how your life experiences have made these connections for you,” says Howard Ross, a founding partner of the Cook Ross diversity and inclusion consulting firm that has previously worked with Starbucks. He warns, however, that employees should not use it as a “report card for the soul,” but rather as a tool to understand how biases work in the mind. “My experience has been that it’s more effective to use [IAT] after some foundational training.”

The corporate sector began implementing implicit bias trainings in earnest in 2013. The sessions usually involve employees recognizing the unconscious stereotypes they may harbor, and then discussing how those biases influence their behavior at work and ways to counteract them. For example, an expert may encourage employees to slow down before taking action in certain situations, since implicit bias tends to rear its head when people make split-second decisions.

Johnson has been praised for taking decisive action in response to the incident, and the press release names some formidable figures who will be guiding the initiative, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. And beyond the PR value and ethical concerns, ensuring that employees understand how racial biases influence social interactions is crucial to Starbucks’ business model.

Yet, some academics suggest that it might actually have made more sense for the company to investigate the problem and test out solutions first, instead of charging headfirst into mandatory trainings.

Alexandra Kalev, an associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University who studies corporate diversity efforts, said that a knee-jerk one-size-fits-all solution won’t have a sustainable impact on a company of this size. “Each of the branches is different, in different states and cities. That [arrest] incident doesn’t represent all the diversity, inclusion, and discrimination problems in other branches,” she said, adding that what would be more effective to first have task forces visit different locations for assessments. “They need to understand the problem first and then tailor the solutions accordingly.”

Indeed, it’s unclear how exactly Starbucks is going about developing its training, especially in such a short amount of time. “If they are serious, I can’t imagine them coming up with this [training] in five weeks,” says Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who helped to found the nonprofit organization Project Implicit that promotes the IAT. When organizations of Starbucks’ size want to implement race bias education, they usually pilot the program with a smaller group of people and make modifications based on the results of the initial run before implementing it more broadly. This process typically takes months.

Even then, Nosek points out that there isn’t a lot of evidence that the most programs make a lasting impact on behaviors. “I have been studying this since 1996, and I still have implicit bias,” says Nosek. “We can be sure that training by itself is not going to get rid of implicit bias.”

In fact, Tony Greenwals, one of the IAT’s creators who also helped found Project Implicit, expressed skepticism about Starbucks’ training in a comment to The Stranger:

In an email to Slate, Nosek wrote, “I agree. It is a pretty succinct summary of the evidence.”

Nosek referred to work by Kalev and Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin, who reviewed data on diversity efforts from more than 800 U.S. companies and interviewed hundreds of employees. They ultimately found that the positive effects of diversity training often don’t last beyond two days, and may actually entrench biases due to backlash. “When companies get in hot water over bias, their initial reaction is often to do some kind of training because it’s something you can outsource and it’s relatively easy to do and has good optics,” says Dobbin. “The studies that look out six months to a year tend to be equally likely to show increased bias after the training as they are to show decreased bias.”

Dobbins and Kalev did find, though, that companies can have better success decreasing bias by making sure their workforces are integrated so that people of different racial groups are regularly in contact with one another. “We know that what works best is for workers to be put side by side with people from other groups as have the work together collaboratively as equals,” says Dobbin. “That seems to be the best way to change stereotypes in people’s heads because it causes people not to lump all members of a group together, but to start to individuate.”

Racial minorities account for 40 percent of Starbucks’ overall workforce and 18 percent of its executive team.

Ross says there’s a risk of overgeneralizing when simply looking into whether trainings are effective: “It’s a little bit like saying, ‘Do you like restaurants?’ Are you talking about the Four Seasons or McDonalds or the local diner? There’s some training that we know is very effective, and there’s some training that’s not very effective at all.” Particularly, training that pits people against each other often reduces empathy. Simply telling people about bias, without encouraging them to conceive of it on an emotional level and to set up actionable plans, is also ineffective.

Kelly Capatosto, a senior research associate at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity who often conducts trainings herself, also acknowledges that one-day seminars typically won’t change attitudes without a broader systemic change. In the case of Starbucks, she suggested that what may be more effective than just a training is to work with participants to revise a chain’s hospitality policies so that the lesson becomes actionable. Capatosto said, “[Implicit bias training] has to be met with institutional and structural reform to be effective.”