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Jan Lee headshot

Tackling Racial Bias at Work

By Jan Lee
tackle racial bias at work

Last month, two young men did what millions of consumers often do when they arrange to meet friends for coffee: They entered a Starbucks café, sat down and waited for the other member of their party to arrive.

And as you have probably already heard, they were promptly arrested. The manager called the police and had them escorted out in handcuffs.

Not surprisingly, the Starbucks corporation has been doing damage control ever since. The company has acknowledged that there is a perception – accurately or not – that black patrons are held to a different, more rigorous standard than white patrons. The coffee roaster is also aware that this perceived inequity is a public relations disaster for any corporation, especially one that has touted the sustainable development goals for years.

CEO Kevin Johnson’s announcement that the company would shut down all 8,000 stores and retrain its 175,000 employees against “racial bias” with a half-day corporate-paid training was applauded by many pundits, but Diversity & Inclusion experts expressed concern about the company’s quickly formed strategy and whether its corporate leaders understood that many consumers saw the arrests not as evidence of unconscious bias, but as a deliberate, racist action against people of color.

For Johnson, coming up with a program that will convey to consumers that the company is committed to racial equity and supports cultural diversity has become a moving target.

How Starbucks should teach its staff about racial equity and corporate diversity policies appears to be an ongoing discussion. According to the company, it plans to engage civil rights leaders to craft the workshop, and while it has offered names of some of the experts, as of press time it hadn’t clarified how it will ensure its staff ascribe to the lessons.

That’s a critical issue, says Nicole Sanchez, CEO and founder of Vaya Consulting, a firm that helps companies build healthy cultures. Sanchez also teaches at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business.

“I appreciate when a company says it explicitly wants to tackle racism. But there’s enough evidence about how to promote this agenda inside companies to suggest that shutting everything down for an afternoon and doing a mandatory training won’t yield the results that a company wants,” Sanchez said.

Effective [inclusivity] training should be thought of as part of ongoing education, not a one-shot solution to something that ails you.

In fact, she added, it may even exacerbate problems by creating more uncomfortable, ineffective interactions.

Starbucks learned that the hard way when its 2015 “Race Together” campaign, which paired baristas, coffee and a loaded question about how customers felt about race issues, was widely panned.

“Effective training should be thought of as part of ongoing education, not a one-shot solution to something that ails you,” Sanchez clarified. Still, she did agree that Starbucks’ idea of engaging experts on the issue was a good idea. “[There’s] a critical role for civil rights leaders to play in this conversation, in collaboration with those of us who specialize in promoting racial equity inside companies.”

But that isn’t alone, going to solve the problems, Sanchez added.

“If Starbucks wants to change the way their employees discuss, think about, and behave around issues of race and racism, they should consider a multi-part experience that allows employees to reflect in-between sessions. Starbucks’ current proposal is an incredibly expensive proposition for potentially very minimal impact.”

Several experts have weighed in over the past weeks to offer suggestions of just what a training program really should look like. But the sum total, said Sanchez, is that company training must incorporate all levels and aspects of the brand, from the top down. And it can’t just be about how a barista relates to black consumers.

“Training managers to build inclusive culture in their stores, training executives in their headquarters, training baristas to be intentional about inclusive customer experience...all of these interventions can and should continue and evolve over time.”

This isn’t the first time Starbucks has tried to build an inclusive culture -- its same-sex benefits and pay equity programs show that. But teaching its staff to apply those same standards of inclusion to their customers seems to be a harder challenge.

Businesses intent on demonstrating that they do follow sustainability principles and endorse diversity and inclusion must be willing to back up that claim with adequate funding and training that address long-term outcomes and take into account potential staff turnover.

“My top piece of advice to companies is to give real budget for D&I efforts and hire experts of color who do this work professionally,” Sanchez offered. This should be an ongoing part of the company’s sustainability strategy, not just a kneejerk response to an incident.

But the uncomfortable truth, Sanchez and others say, is that Starbucks “must recognize and acknowledge that the root of this incident was anti-black racism.” It is not the first, nor the last incidence of such. Only through facing this reality, Sanchez posits, can real change occur. She recommends Starbucks engage black consumers in the audit process by seeking feedback and suggestions, involving executives in those reviews and making sure they are willing to take action. Only with a fully engaged staff will the company’s comprehensive diversity principles be followed up and down the org chart.

In today’s business arena, where public relations incidents can hit social media before the company has a chance to investigate the incident, continual education is crucial.

“Continued education will help employees to feel confident having these conversations and delve deeper into the nuance of a complicated topic. But the key is, Starbucks can’t just limit this education to the stores: If it’s not happening at corporate headquarters, it won’t work,” Sanchez said.

Image via Pexels

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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