Starbucks Closes to Serve “Racial-Bias Education” to Employees


Starbucks will be closing around 8,000 company owned stores on the afternoon of May 29th, to give mandatory training to over 175K employees on what the coffee giant is calling “Racial-Bias Education”. The closing and training had been announced weeks ago in the aftermath of an incident in Philadelphia in which a Starbuck manager called the police on two black customers sitting in the store:

Starbucks announced the training soon after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April.

A store manager called the police because the men were sitting in the store without placing an order. They were arrested for trespassing. The men, who had previously asked for the code needed to use the store’s bathroom, said they were waiting for a friend.

The incident sparked an outcry, and CEO Kevin Johnson swiftly apologized and promised to make sure that nothing like that would happen at a Starbucks again. The anti-bias training is one step toward making good on that promise.

So what will this training consist of? Per CBSNews:

Stanley Nelson, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow and documentarian, made a short film called “You’re Welcome.” Nelson is known for films such as 2003’s “The Murder of Emmett Till” and 2010’s “Freedom Riders.”

“What surprised me was the willingness of Starbucks to see the importance of creating a film that describes this issue as a broader civil rights issue,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, on the conference call to talk about the training.

Starbucks co-founder Howard Schultz will appear in a video to address employees, as well as other top executives such as chief executive Kevin Johnson. The rap performer Common will also appear, the company said.

The message delivered by Schultz appears to focus on providing inclusivity in “the third place,” or the idea that Starbucks provides a third location where people gather between home and work.

“They made it clear they can’t have a third place for all Americans if Americans of all backgrounds don’t feel welcome,” said Demos’ McGhee.

Employees will participate in “small self-guided groups” to talk about racial bias and how race impacts them. Stores will be given “tool kits” that help employees discuss these issues, the company said.
Starbucks managers are also undergoing training

Executives and managers are also taking anti-bias training, Ifill said.

“One of our very early conversations is that the executive team has to do training before 5/29,” Ifill said, adding that the store’s executives had training earlier this month.

The Starbucks spokesman said managers are going through the “exact same training” as its baristas.

Starbucks, who has long strived as a company to present as socially conscious in their PR and employee guidance is certainly putting a fresh spin on it. But the basics of such training has been a staple of corporate and government employee life for some time. Google made headlines when it implemented company wide unconscious bias training. As to the effectiveness of such training, there is no consensus, nor to the best method or its effectiveness.


Academics who study unconscious bias say that training can help alleviate it. In one study involving five California middle schools, math teachers were asked to read up on the reasons students might misbehave, and urged to make students feel heard and respected. They were then asked to write down how to employ these concepts in practice, a technique that tends to helps people internalize material.

The researchers found that suspension rates at those schools plummeted for groups of students traditionally suspended at very high rates, and who may have been victims of bias.

“It allows people to just think in a more mindful way when interacting with other people,” said Jason Okonofua, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was the lead researcher. “It’s putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, seeing humanity in that person.’’

Some workers have seen the benefits of these exercises. Darion Robinson, a volunteer and community engagement coordinator at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, said he took a three-day anti-bias training course when he started in July and felt that it helped build a sense of community.

“I think it’s pushed people to be open and have real conversations about things that are going on,” he said.
Other academics and experts on bias caution that anti-bias training is a sensitive exercise that can be ineffective or even backfire if handled incorrectly. Any training that involves explicitly telling people to set aside their biases is especially likely to fail, said Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University who has also studied anti-bias training, because it requires so much mental energy it can exhaust people.

Even with training, some said, it is exceedingly easy to revert to the original biases. “In the moment of stress, we tend to forget our training,” said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Mursion, which provides a simulation platform for training workers in skills like interpersonal interactions.

Mr. Atkinson said Mursion attempts to solve this problem using highly lifelike avatars to simulate real-life interactions. “You want to give people reps around stressful circumstances,” Mr. Atkinson said.

Some experts argue that the most effective way to eliminate unconscious bias is to limit the extent to which people engage in automatic, reflexive thinking. One solution is to try to nudge workers toward more thoughtful and deliberative decision-making.

One thing almost everyone agrees on is any issue as complicated as bias, conscious or otherwise, is not going to be solved in one afternoon.

Still, Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, which advises companies on strategies for increasing diversity, argued that limiting employees’ discretion altogether can be a far more effective way of reducing bias than trying to alter their thinking.

Well-understood policies that leave less room for discretion can often save employees from having to make decisions that reflect bias, said Ms. Emerson, whose company advises several retailers. For example, rather than generally urging employees to keep an eye out for suspicious-looking customers in order to cut down on shoplifting, which can prompt sales associates to follow customers of certain races at disproportionate rates, stores concerned about theft might want to adopt a clear, uniformly applied security protocols.

“The whole challenge of implicit bias is that we’re not the best judges of when it’s impacting us,” she said.

Ms. Emerson pointed to hiring, another area that is often rife with unconscious bias. Many companies, including some of her clients, like Pinterest, have moved toward a more structured hiring process. For example, in an effort to remove subjectivity from interviews, her firm often encourages managers to come armed with examples of better or worse responses to questions.

Ms. Emerson pointed to hiring, another area that is often rife with unconscious bias. Many companies, including some of her clients, like Pinterest, have moved toward a more structured hiring process. For example, in an effort to remove subjectivity from interviews, her firm often encourages managers to come armed with examples of better or worse responses to questions.

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17 thoughts on “Starbucks Closes to Serve “Racial-Bias Education” to Employees

  1. Thanks for putting these articles together. (I read the excerpts you provided, but not the whole of any of the articles.) Here are a few comments from me:

    1. Closing the store for an afternoon is a gimmick or at least a public relations ploy. Maybe as gimmicks/ploys go, it’s a good one, and it probably sends the messages that “we’re doing something” and more important that “this is something people in general should take seriously.”

    2. If Starbucks is really framing this as a Civil Rights issue, then it’s probably a good thing. But the devil is always in the details.

    3. A person in one of the quoted articles “attempts to solve this problem [of bias] using highly lifelike avatars to simulate real-life interactions. ‘You want to give people reps around stressful circumstances,’….” My question would be “how real-life”? To often in training videos, etc., I’ve had to watch, the “real-life” examples come off as very canned approaches.

    4. The last article quotes someone who argues for limiting discretion. There’s probably a lot of merit to that approach. But two points

    4a) What I understand Starbucks’s new policy to be would actually increase discretion, not limit it. As I understand it, prior to the new policies, stores could adopt simpler rules, such as “you have to buy something to stay here.” That rule, assuming it’s applied consistently, limits discretion, at least for workers at the shop level. The new policy, however, forbids that rule. Or, at least I assume it does. I also assume that the new policy still permits stores to make people leave if they’re causing a disturbance. Determining who is “causing a disturbance” is much more discretion-laden than the theoretically discretion-limiting rule the shops presumably can’t make any more. Of course, the old “you have to buy something to stay here” rule (in the shops where it applied) could be subject to abuse, so that, for example, the workers still have to decide whether to challenge a non-purchasing “customer” or to decide “not to notice” that person.

    4b) Consistent with the last sentence from 4a, discretion can never be limited entirely and limitations on discretion can create new, sometimes subterranean, forms of discretion. One example, taken far afield from whatever it is Starbucks is trying to do, is “zero tolerance” plagiarism policies in colleges. I’ve known (ahem) at least one TA who sometimes preferred to work with the student who committed minor plagiarism* to correct their plagiarism instead of “officially noticing” the plagiarism reporting (as was required) the student to the instructor of record, who would then be required to report to some academic honesty board.

    *”minor” is a term of art here, but one example I offer is a student taking a small paragraph from the assigned textbook without putting quotes around it or attributing the source. I can forgive a TA for believing this incident wouldn’t be a good reason to flunk someone from a class and create an “incident” on whatever record the academic honesty folks kept.

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    • To put on my manager/supervisor/leadership hat on for a minute: there is a corporate issue here where your managers and supervisors now have a mixed message to deal with. Your point on discretion is well made, and they may internally be dealing with their leadership differently than this PR, but you cannot hold them responsible (firing the person in Philadelphia) and simultaneously say we are decreasing discretion while implementing a policy requiring more of it. No matter the policies, a lot of these things is going to be snap judgement calls by the manager/supervisor there in the moment. You need clear policy and them to know you back them up if they follow it. We will see if this does that.

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  2. I think Starbucks has noble intentions but these are probably not going to do well. I don’t thinking closing stores for a day is a PR gimmick but something that is going to cost them a lot of money. Yes it does give them progressive kudos though.

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  3. I would have figured it would have been better for Starbucks to provide *anti-* racial bias education, but I never did go for that MBA, so maybe the execs know something I don’t.

    (but yeah, this seems very much like an all-hands safety stand down that percolates up every so often in the military)

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    • That article doesn’t seem to support your claim. I vaguely remember the Chipotle incident, but at least according to the way that article relates it, it was a pretty good PR move for Chipotle. Whether it was worse than what Starbucks is doing, I’m not sure. But it seems to have had a positive effect.

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    • I was fond of the time Boeing shut down for an entire day to retrain it’s entire workforce on conflict of interest. (Which stemmed from them “acquiring” a competitor’s bid for a government contract, then winning said contract, then having the whole “oops, we somehow got their whole bid” come out, then instantly losing the contract and having to retrain if they wanted to bid on any more contracts…)

      And of course a company I once worked for spent a nice half-day retraining everyone and their dog on export-control, because oops, someone “accidentally” sold China some stuff they shouldn’t.

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      • I love it when a top executive does something terrible and they make everybody down to the janitors take training to show that they’re doing something.

        “Not embezzling $30 million in company money to spend on private yachts and cocaine is something we’ll all just have to work on together.”

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        • Well, I know both Boeing’s “oops” and the export-control “oops” mandated corporation wide training as part of the settlement and as a condition for being able to qualify for future government work.

          Last I checked, the fines for export-control violations were actually nudging up there into territory that actually makes CEO’s notice. (UTC, for instance, famously got slapped with a 100+ million fine for doing some engine design work on Chinese attack copters. Their fig leaf was pretty hilarious, akin to doing some design work on a Saturn V engine and then claiming you thought you were working on a hobbyist rocket) .

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