Subscribe to Breaking News emails

You have successfully subscribed to the Breaking News email.

Subscribe today to be the first to to know about breaking news and special reports.

Starbucks goes big on racial-bias training. But will it work?

"Much, much more needs be done," one expert said after the arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia store.
by Ethan Sacks /  / Updated 

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

Experts say the decision by Starbucks to close more than 8,000 of the company's U.S. stores for an afternoon of racial-bias education for its staff is a good first step — but only if the effort continues afterward.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced Tuesday that the coffee chain would close all of its retail stores and corporate offices on the afternoon of May 29 to train 175,000 employees in a program "designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome," according to the company.

Starbucks' move comes after video of the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia store for trespassing kindled a national backlash against the company. The men were told to leave after asking to use the bathroom, despite their protests that they were customers who were waiting for a friend before ordering.

Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz told CBS he was "ashamed" of what happened. He described the upcoming training as "just the beginning of what we will do to transform the way we do business and educate our people on unconscious bias." He added: "It will cost millions of dollars, but I've always viewed this and things like this as not an expense, but an investment in our people and our company. And we're better than this."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
Image: Police Bias Training
Baltimore Police Officer Edward Gillespie, of the education and training division, teaches an implicit-bias class to officers at the Baltimore Police Training Academy on Nov. 19, 2015.Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post, via Getty Images file

Georgina Dodge, associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion at Bucknell University, commended Starbucks "for sacrificing an entire afternoon of profit."

"While an afternoon is not as much time as one might wish," she said, "a lot can be accomplished in one afternoon."

Dodge said the video of the incident in Philadelphia, which was posted by another Starbucks customer, shows that "we all have hidden biases that are part of our inheritance as human beings."

All people have a "caveman bias" to run from what we perceive as danger, she said. "But we live in a different time than our caveman ancestors," Dodge continued. "We need to take the time to be more cognitive in our responses."

That is the guiding principle of the type of training Starbucks employees can expect next month.

Pope Consulting, based in Cincinnati, runs implicit bias training programs for corporate clients that last from two hours to three days. An afternoon "is enough time to make a dent, but the trick will be, what are you doing during that time and what are you going to do afterwards?" said Samir Gupte, the company's president and chief engagement officer.

During Pope Consulting's two-hour trainings, self-discovery exercises help participants realize that everyone has innate biases, Gupte said. The key is to acknowledge them and find ways to move forward.

Image: Police officers detain a man inside a Starbucks cafe in Philadelphia
Police officers detain a man inside a Starbucks store in Philadelphia on Thursday in this picture grab from social media video.Melissa Depino / Reuters

Bryant Marks, a professor of psychology at Morehouse College who is an implicit bias trainer, said Starbucks' May 29 program must be one step in a longer-term strategy.

"It would have to involve ongoing conversations among the corporate leadership in particular," Marks said. "That’s going to involve a deep dive on their ecosystem to see what they can do."

Potential steps could include ongoing meetings at the regional level, monthly emails from the CEO and regular employee training starting at the hiring stage, said Marks, who has consulted for the Los Angeles Police Department on implicit bias.

Critics, however, are not convinced that these training programs are effective to stop prejudicial behavior.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, for example, found that implicit-bias training could reinforce the stereotypes harbored by the participants. Last year, researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and several other schools sifted through more than 400 studies and determined that techniques that require participants to accept innate biases often don't translate to changes in behavior.

Starbucks has not revealed details of the curriculum for the training program, but input is coming from a team that includes Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Ala.; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a public policy think tank based in New York; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

A number of Fortune 500 corporations, including Google and Coca-Cola, have organized similar training for their employees in recent years. But implicit bias in the workforce is a problem that the experts say more companies need to address.

Applebee's, for example, fired three employees and issued an apology over a Feb. 9 incident at an Independence, Mo., restaurant involving the racial profiling of two African-American customers who were falsely accused of not paying their bill.

"This afternoon of training is a gesture that will help some people understand the concept of implicit biases," Dodge said of Starbucks' plan. "But much, much more needs be done."

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.