Starbucks is taking a powerful stand against racial inequity: The coffee giant is closing its US stores on May 29, 2018, to offer anti-bias training to 175,000 employees.

That’s a good start. Training is an important element of any strategy to combat unconscious or implicit bias in a company’s culture. But the root problem is deeply ingrained habits and behaviors; serious behavior change requires serious, long-term effort.

“Obviously, I’m not privy to the details of the training that Starbucks will do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the training itself didn’t do that much to change behavior; I think the main thing is that this is the ‘serious face’ action from management,” said Julie Dirksen of Usable Learning. “They are saying, ‘We are closing every single store to try and fix this’—whether the training works or not, that’s a pretty substantive message from Starbucks about how serious they are about trying to fix this. That’s millions and millions of dollars in lost revenue,” she said. (MarketWatch estimates that the shutdown will cost Starbucks $12 million.) “That’s not a small investment on their part, so that message from upper management may actually have a bigger impact that the training itself,” said Dirksen, who studies behavior change.

Understanding and acknowledging implicit bias

The Starbucks training will address implicit bias, according to The New York Times; it’s a response to an April incident in a Philadelphia store where two African American customers were arrested.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines implicit bias as “relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behavior.” Individuals can explore and uncover their own implicit biases with tools like the Harvard IAT (Implicit Associations Test), which measures how strongly a test subject associates two concepts. All humans have associations, preferences, and biases. Even very young children develop preferences and associations, for example positive associations with the face and voice of their primary caregiver—and, often, people of the same gender and race as that caregiver. The IAT is just one tool to help people identify biases they might not even be aware are influencing their behavior; some say it is a flawed tool, while acknowledging that implicit bias can be very tricky to measure.

Biases are a product of our upbringing and culture, of the time and place we live. They might be created or reinforced by experience and exposure to the beliefs and behaviors of trusted family, friends, or other role models. A defining characteristic—and what makes implicit bias so hard to eradicate—is that the attitudes and resulting behaviors are unconscious; in fact, many people who consciously profess non-prejudiced attitudes and intentions harbor implicit biases that color their behavior, according to a study by Patricia Devine and three other researchers.

In the workplace, implicit bias can—and does—result in discriminatory treatment of employees and discriminatory outcomes in hiring, pay, and advancement opportunities, and in unequal opportunities to socialize, network, and interact with both co-workers and managers. Researchers have even found that implicit biases can result in reduced access to lifesaving medical care.

Training to counteract implicit bias—and its limitations

Numerous approaches are suggested to “train away” undesirable behaviors, including those resulting from unconscious bias. In their study, Devine and her coauthors had participants learn and practice using five strategies for combatting stereotypes and replacing undesirable behavioral responses to incidents that activate those stereotypes:

  • Stereotype replacement: Recognizing that a particular behavioral response is based on a stereotype, reflecting on why one responds in that way, and coming up with an unbiased way to respond to a similar situation.
  • Counter-stereotypic Imaging: Detailed imagining of famous or familiar individuals who do not fit stereotypes of members of their group. This strategy enables learners to challenge stereotypes by bringing to mind positive examples of members of the stereotyped group—examples that refute the stereotype.
  • Individuation: Obtaining specific information about members of the stereotyped group to evaluate them as individuals, rather than making assumptions about the group as a whole.
  • Perspective-taking exercises: Putting oneself “in the shoes of” members of the stereotyped group, attempting to see a situation through their eyes.
  • Increasing opportunities for contact: Seeking ways to increase interaction among members of different groups. Positive interactions can challenge implicit bias by “altering cognitive representations” of the group.

To succeed, these and other behavior-change strategies require motivated participants. Some individuals are strongly motivated by their own values to avoid behaving in prejudiced or biased ways; others might need education about the negative effects of prejudice or inequality on their co-workers and other members of their communities. However, many individuals believe that they are not biased or that bias is not a problem. These individuals may not be willing to undertake the sustained effort needed to change ingrained habits and behavior.

Thus, as Devine and her co-authors wrote, “First, people must be aware of their biases and, second, they must be concerned about the consequences of their biases before they will be motivated to exert effort to eliminate them. Furthermore, people need to know when biased responses are likely to occur and how to replace those biased responses with responses more consistent with their goals.”

Starbucks deserves kudos for taking a whole-company approach to eradicating biased behavior. Sending individual employees or departments to diversity or anti-harassment training in response to an incident—a common approach—can cause those employees to feel singled out. Rather than contributing to a more respectful environment, the training can cause employees to feel resentful and can even exacerbate biased or undesirable behaviors.

But short-term training is unlikely to change ingrained beliefs or behaviors. Identifying and eliminating implicit bias or changing unconscious—and deeply ingrained—attitudes and the behaviors they influence is hard work that individuals must do over time. “Traditional diversity classes often produce good intentions but little behavior change, and rarely address the deep level of unconscious bias,” Dirksen wrote in a blog post. She cites Devine’s study as a “remarkable and rare” example of changing deeply ingrained behavior. That intervention took place over 12 weeks and included education and training, along with opportunities for participants to discuss their experiences.

And other research has identified limitations and risks inherent in one-time experiences with both immersive and perspective-taking approaches to combatting stereotypes. So, while anti-bias training can prod individual employees to assess their own biases and behavior—and perhaps make changes—training and behavior change are only part of the solution.

Eradicating bias—and changing behavior—requires broad effort

When Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, agreed to an audit on pay equity in his company, he was sure that no gender gap existed—but it did, and Benioff spent $3 million to address the problem. That was just the first year.

Benioff was disturbed to find, in the next year’s audit, that inequality had crept back in, partly due to acquisitions of companies with gender pay gaps. Benioff told 60 Minutes that ensuring equal pay requires constant vigilance; an annual audit is insufficient. Furthermore, he said, that’s only one component of gender inequity. Equal pay “is part of a total package. You can't look at one of these things independent of the other,” Benioff told 60 Minutes, describing his company’s multifaceted approach to ensuring gender equity.

“You can say equal opportunity is one critical part of gender equality. Then you can say equal advancement, that's a critical part of gender equality. Then you can say equal pay, that's the third door. And the fourth door is preventing sexual harassment. All of these things together is gender equality,” Benioff said.

A similar approach would be needed to address racial and other inequities that result, in part, from implicit bias. Anti-bias training is a good place to start, though, and critical to that “fourth door,” preventing harassment of any kind in the workplace or business. To learn more about creating effective anti-bias training, join Julie Dirksen at her one-day workshop, Design for Behavior Change, on October 22, 2018. This Certificate Workshop precedes The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo, October 24 – 26, in Las Vegas, Nevada.