Why Starbucks' unconscious bias training is only half the battle

It takes more than half a day to tackle deep-rooted biases.

by Aliya Vigor-Robertson
Last Updated: 18 Jun 2018

You’ve probably seen the news that Starbucks closed 8,000 of its stores for half a day to run anti-bias training after the recent controversy regarding how its staff treated certain customers. This kind of training is a good idea – and something that a lot of other companies will be looking to replicate in their own business – but is it enough?

The sad truth is that many businesses will run a standard training course and then think the entire issue is resolved. But it takes much more to effect real change – especially when it comes to unconscious bias in the workplace.

Follow through

If a company sees any evidence of unconscious bias, it needs to take action. Reacting promptly and effectively to issues like these and showing that they will not be tolerated is essential. Explaining to staff why bias towards colleagues and clients is inappropriate is a great first step, but unless the company actually puts words into practical changes, these training interventions may only go part way to making the desired change.

Companies needs to be bold enough to show that they are preventing these situations from occurring in the first place. Perhaps one of the most effective ways of doing this is through senior level engagement. All too often, a company’s top execs will remain outside of these initiatives, which can really damage how staff respond. By having senior figures involved, either by hosting discussions on the topic or simply leading by example, will create an atmosphere that does more than any training session ever will.

Getting culturally fit

It goes without saying that if a company’s day-to-day environment shows signs of unconscious bias, then organising training alone will struggle to change things. It’s here that business leaders and HR teams need to honestly review the company’s ways of working, making sure the culture reflects the ideals and values that the business wants to uphold.

Honestly reviewing internal structures to make sure they’re not a result of unconscious bias can sometimes feel embarrassing for senior management, as many of these leaders never imagined their company would have to contend with cases of discrimination or bias. Third-party support can often be helpful here, as it will not only provide an objective view of the company, but also advice on any areas that need improving.

Unsurprisingly, reviewing a company’s culture is a longer and more complicated process than a simple training course. But the benefits of making sure the company has equality and inclusivity at its heart will prove far more effective for the business. .

Talking and listening

In many cases, the simplest things are the areas that need improvement the most. Even if the business has reviewed its culture and has decided that it’s up to scratch, there’s still more that can be done. At its core, bias – both conscious and unconscious – can be addressed through better communication.

Making sure that employees can communicate with one another can help to prevent cases of unconscious bias before they develop into a more serious issue for the company.

A key part of communication is positive relationships with managers and colleagues. After all, if employees trust their line manager, they will be much more willing to speak about issues affecting them or the business. Making sure there are private spaces where staff can air their feelings in a confidential environment will also go a long way towards reducing bias in the office.

However, speaking is only 50% of communication. Making sure that managers listen and respond will also help to ensure that any cases of bias and potential prejudice are investigated and resolved straight away. Adopting this approach will not only create benefits for the business, but also help to maintain an inclusive and positive environment for the staff.

Aliya Vigor-Robertson is co-founder of JourneyHR.

Image credit: Natee Meepian/Shutterstock


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