Starbucks was publicly shamed last month after two black customers were arrested in one of their Philadelphia outlets for reasons that still seem baffling. The two men were waiting for a friend to arrive before placing an order, but were asked to leave. When they asked why, the police were called. Almost inevitably the incident was filmed and the fallout has been wide-reaching. The chain, which draws annual global revenue in excess of $22 billion, faced accusations of unconscious bias and even open racism.
To their credit Starbucks wasted no time in addressing the issue. Over 8,000 US-based outlets were closed yesterday afternoon, enabling 175,000 staff to receive “unconscious bias” training. No expense was spared in the session and shutting up shop on a weekday afternoon meant a huge amount of expense was incurred, but the reaction has been mixed.
There’s anger among some employees that anyone should have to be trained not to be a racist. There’s also widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of the exercise. From a PR standpoint it may have looked like a good option but to those of us who’ve worked in environments that were poisoned by prejudice – conscious and unconscious – it seems optimistic in the extreme to expect that kind of negativity to disappear because people watched a video. Doing something is usually better than doing nothing, but what’s the best course of action?
We can’t blame Starbucks for the racism that pervades society and it’s harsh to blame them for recruiting people who are guilty of unconscious bias. Unspoken prejudice can fly under the radar in the most diligent recruitment interviews, so how can we deal with it and give it no room to flourish?
Those of us who remember the implementation of equal opportunities legislation in Britain in previous decades will recall that sensible employers made the new laws work for them by embracing them, recognising that good practice was good business and making no attempt to sweep problems under the carpet. In fairness to Starbucks there’s no indication that they’re trying to sweep anything under the carpet either, but it takes more than one training session to fix what’s broken in the mindset of a racist.
When we create an environment that gives prejudice no room to breathe, we give people of a prejudiced mindset no “safe place” to unleash their demons. Knowing their views won’t be tolerated or even understood by respected colleagues won’t change those views overnight and may never change them at all, but progress can be made. When written and unwritten workplace codes continuously hammer home the message that a certain type of behaviour is shamefully unacceptable, it takes a very thick skull to repel that message entirely.