About the authors
Hakeem Jefferson is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan and incoming assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.
Neil Lewis, Jr., is an assistant professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University and faculty affiliate of the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality and Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.

In 2015, after a group of black women was kicked off a Napa wine train for laughing too loudly, the company’s chief executive said he would provide additional diversity training for his employees. A year ago, Delta Air Lines announced that it would begin providing diversity training for its crews after a flight attendant dismissed a black physician who volunteered to help an ailing passenger by saying, “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down, we are looking for actual physicians.” And of course, earlier this month in Philadelphia, a Starbucks manager called the cops on two black men waiting for a business meeting. Their crime? One of them asked to use the restroom without having purchased anything. In response, Starbucks announced that “it will be closing its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.”

Diversity training seems to be corporate America’s new go-to response to racial incidents that create public relations nightmares. A video, tweet or Facebook post goes viral accusing an employee of discriminating against a minority group? Announce you are spending a few million dollars on a new diversity training program. Problem solved. Bonus points if you hire high-profile activists to be involved in that program, as Starbucks did:

The curriculum will be developed with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. Starbucks will involve these experts in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures we undertake.

But how would we know if the millions of dollars invested in diversity training programs (both programs developed in response to viral incidents and more proactive programs) actually produced meaningful returns — if they actually changed the attitudes and behaviors that lead to these “reprehensible” situations? To answer that question requires a different approach than what is standard practice for diversity training in corporate America.

Let’s take the case of Starbucks. A few days after news of the arrests broke, the company announced that it would be conducting diversity training for its nearly 175,000 employees. To its credit, the company has invited an impressive group of activists and lawyers familiar with the pernicious and long-standing consequences of discrimination in the United States to help them.

We have great respect and admiration for this decorated team, but we were disappointed to see that social and behavioral scientists are absent from the conversation. Those most capable of helping to design and implement an effective diversity training program are those who know, from research, what works and what doesn’t. And it matters that these experts are absent from the table.

Creating effective interventions is hard. It is particularly difficult when the attitudes and behaviors the intervention is trying to change are socially sensitive, as is the case with prejudice and discrimination. At the 2018 annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, two entire “pre-conferences” were devoted to examining the factors that influence the effectiveness of interventions. One focused on the design, implementation and evaluation of interventions; the other dealt with what it takes to successfully bring interventions to scale in large organizations. They featured a combined 25 talks by experts who spend their working lives studying issues directly relevant to the types of programs companies are developing.

These behavioral scientists presented research on why who delivers the message and how well they deliver it matters for its effectiveness. They also discussed how the medium (for example, video or mobile devices) can shape attention and how the presence of other people in the room might alter individuals’ responses to the message. The relative subtlety or heavy-handedness of the delivery can also matter under certain circumstances. The point is that those who are serious about effecting change must consider a range of factors and work to ensure the intervention they develop will have its intended effects. There are scholars working across various disciplines whose expertise Starbucks can leverage over the next several weeks. The interest and willingness to help is abundantly clear.

But the corporation has yet to give any indication that it wants help from the people who best understand how to do what it’s trying to do. This is a missed opportunity.

Without the expertise to know what makes an intervention more or less successful, it is hard to imagine that Starbucks or any other organization stands much of a chance of developing a successful diversity training program that has long-term, sustainable effects on its culture. Moreover, Starbucks claims that it is interested in knowing whether the training program it will implement will be effective. As social scientists, we know firsthand how difficult it is to measure the effects of an intervention, and we wonder who on Starbucks’s team is sufficiently equipped to do this. The track record of those Starbucks has included in its announcement is remarkable, but it is social scientists — not lawyers or activists — who are trained to adequately and rigorously assess whether this intervention works, or if it will join the long list of those that don’t.

The inclusion of social scientists at every stage of the process can make diversity training more than feel-good PR moves that are of little consequence. Yes, engaging the scholarly community will mean that the process will be slower. But as bias expert Brian Nosek said, if Starbucks and its corporate peers think interventions like this are worth doing, they should certainly think that it’s worth doing well.