Experts Question if Bias Training Works

Starbucks closed thousands of its stores for bias training Tuesday in response to an incident at one of its Philadelphia locations

Starbucks' decision to shut down its stores for a day of "unconscious bias training" is something a company of its size and scale has never tried before.

While employees were paid for their time, the training was not mandatory. But how do you teach employees about unconscious bias, and can a three to four hour training session really be effective?

Starbucks estimates it spent about $12 million on the training. Industry experts said public shamings like this one are unprecedented. They believe Starbucks crafted its response knowing it could be a template for how other businesses handled allegations of racism.

Here is a snippet of what their employees saw.

"Just saying, you know, everyone watch this DVD and now we won't have a bias in our stores -- that doesn't happen," Gary Moskowitz, a professor at the SMU Cox School of Business, said.

Despite his skepticism, Moskowitz applauded Starbucks' handling of the situation. Although there were nationwide protests, he said Starbucks stock has fallen less than one percent. He said he thinks other companies might not have responded so swiftly.

"Doing something so dramatic kind of changes the new story from, 'Oh my goodness they mistreated people in their store,' to 'Oh my goodness they're really serious. They don't want this to happen again.'"

From a business strategy standpoint, Moskowitz said he was not surprised Starbucks invested so much in education. His concern was the effectiveness of unconscious training in the past.

"The issue is that there is not a lot of evidence it works well. Looking at the research, there are a number of employees who if you tell them 'Don't go out and do x,' they're going to go out and show their independence. They're going to go out and do x."

Moskowitz said Starbucks should follow the precedent set by the restaurant chain Denny's. In the 1990s, the company settled an almost $60 million lawsuit brought by black customers.

As opposed to a public response, they restructured the company and retrained staff. A decade later they've earned the reputation as one of the most minority friendly workplaces.

Across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there are 36 Williams Chicken restaurants. Director of Franchise Development Tim Williams said diversity is often discussed.

While the majority of customers at the Cedar Hill location are black, which reflects the make up of the city the restaurant serves, Williams said each of his stores staffs at least one Spanish speaking employee every shift.

"You have to pay attention to your customers and I noticed our customers, especially our Spanish customers feel a little bit more relaxed, more at ease when they can communicate with a Hispanic person, or somebody who speaks Spanish."

When it comes to diversity, Williams said public trainings are a step in the right direction, but he said what happens privately is just as important.

"What does the top of the spectrum look like?" he asked. "What does the President, CEO, the Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing, Chief of Personnel-- what does that look like? Start at the top, because if you don't start at the top and work your way down, it's not going to work."

Starbucks said today's training was the first step in what it called a "long term journey." The company said it planned to share its curriculum and content with other companies, and make it a part of all new hire training.

Many retailers, including Walmart and Target already offer some racial bias training. In response to these events, Target said it planned to expand its training.

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