Interfaith clergy leaders stage a sit-in at a Center City Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two black men were arrested last week. (Mark Makela/Reuters)

Starbucks, battling an uproar over the arrest of two black men while they were waiting for a friend at one of the coffee chain’s stores last week, said Tuesday it would close more than 8,000 of its company-owned stores in the United States for several hours on May 29 to provide “racial bias” training for nearly 175,000 employees. While not the first time the coffee giant has decided to close all of its company-owned stores, the move underscores how important the company sees the addition of a type of training that has exploded in popularity in recent years.

Starbucks' announcement came one day after executives from the company said they would add “unconscious bias” training — a popular concept in corporate diversity circles in recent years that teaches employees to be aware of their ingrained biases as well as strategies for blunting the effects of those biases. Yet while some diversity experts applauded the decision — especially the bold move to close stores to carry out the training — others expressed surprise that Starbucks was not already offering such a program to store managers.

I think this is the most common diversity and inclusion training that’s used nowadays,” said Michelle Duguid, a professor at Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business who has studied diversity issues. 

Starbucks spokeswoman Jaime Riley said in an emailed statement that the company had offered unconscious-bias training to corporate employees, though not to workers in stores, but she could not offer further details on the training's format. Starbucks has the potential, at least, to advance how such training is done: The  company said it would be guided by several heavyweight names on racial-bias issues, including former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.; the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill; Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson; and Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt. They will also help measure the program's effectiveness, a critical issue that training experts said is often lacking in many diversity training programs.

Though academic researchers have been studying the topic for much longer, initial interest in corporate versions of training in implicit biases started about 10 years ago and began to rise sharply around 2013, said Howard Ross, founding partner of Cook Ross, a diversity and inclusion training firm that says it has worked with about 20 percent of Fortune 100 companies. But “when it really took off was after Ferguson,” Ross said, referring to the protests that sprang up in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 after a white police officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black. (The firm has worked with Starbucks in the past, Ross said.)

After tech companies including Google and Facebook began sharing their own implicit-bias training programs openly in 2015, many other companies followed.

“It became de rigueur,” Ross said. “Everyone says, 'If they’re doing it, we should, too.' I have no doubt that contributed to it being mainstream.” Ross said that historically, companies have been more likely to offer such bias training to corporate employees than retail workers but that some employers do offer it even to front-line employees.

Diversity experts said one reason hidden-bias training has caught on is that unlike older programs, it does not point fingers, an attribute that is appealing in the corporate workplace.

“Traditionally, diversity training was largely in the realm of 'Let’s find the bad people and fix them,' ” said Michael Amilcar, a managing partner at Ross's firm. When it moved away from that, she said, “it became more readily received” inside organizations.

Unconscious-bias training, meanwhile, starts by helping workers understand that many biases are ingrained, whether by giving them a test or generally helping them understand the science behind their inherent nature. That is followed by a discussion around how that plays out in the workplace and — hopefully — some strategies for tackling those ingrained biases at work.

The format of implicit-bias training varies greatly, said Calvin Lai, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis who is on the executive committee of Project Implicit, a nonprofit collaboration among researchers who study the issue. While some may involve training from live instructors with tangible ideas for taking action, others are “just these online computer modules that HR sends you, or potentially a series of PowerPoint slides.”

He says that although a couple of experimental or “quasi-experimental” studies show a link between unconscious-bias training and positive change, there also is research showing it can have unintended consequences. Duguid's research found that people who were told a stereotype was common were actually more likely to express those biases. “The unintended consequence is creating a social norm where people feel less constricted — it has this ironic effect,” Duguid said. “The message we found was more effective was [to say] most people or the vast majority of people try to put checks on their stereotypes.” 

Even if the data is not clear on the training's effectiveness, she and others said what was key was making sure people learned more than just “everyone is biased” and offering concrete or systemic ways to try to mitigate those stereotypes. For instance, erasing applicants' names in initial resume screens or adding mentorship programs that formally pair up workers can help reduce our tendencies for bias.

Joelle Emerson, founder of the diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm, which has worked with many tech firms, said that “instead of just coming in and saying, 'Isn’t it fascinating that we all have biases,' and calling it a day,' ” companies have to give people strategies to put that recognition to work and make it part of a broader diversity and inclusion program. “Unconscious-bias training is an easy thing to latch onto as a solution,” she said, but companies should not think “they can just do training and be done with it.”

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