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April 19, 2018

Sending All Employees to Racial Bias Training Unlikely to Solve Starbucks’ Problem

Starbucks

Once again, someone in an organization made a poor behavior choice whose harmful consequences were recorded and made public. This time it was coffee giant Starbucks, and once again, people are freaking out. Starbucks is freaking out so much, the company is investing millions of dollars to close 8,000 stores and send 175,000 employees to racial bias training the afternoon of May 29.

This is what happens when the ancient “downstairs brain” is running the show. While this part of the brain is very effective at “fight or flight” in situations of imminent physical danger, it should not be in charge of leadership decisions. While the danger to Starbucks’ brand is clear, and their leadership is right to take responsibility and respond quickly, spending millions and losing millions in revenue to send employees to a half-day training is a knee-jerk reaction likely to produce few results.

Effective leadership is usually more about responding well than reacting quickly. Responding well in crisis requires two things: (1) pausing and (2) using that pause to bring the more sophisticated “upstairs brain” back online to critically examine the data.

Here are the data: On April 12 two African American men were waiting in a Philadelphia Starbucks for a third person to arrive for a business meeting. They asked to use the restroom and were denied because they hadn’t purchased anything. The manager asked them to leave and when they refused, she called 911. Police arrived and arrested the men for alleged trespassing, even after the third party showed up for their meeting.

Based on these data, here are five reasons why racial bias training won’t help.

We don’t really know the problem*. Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” As a culture we have this backwards, especially when the “downstairs brain” is in control. Some questions that need to be answered are, what are Starbucks’ policies for public restroom use? Why? Are those policies working? How are they to be implemented? What is their protocol for when to call police? To call 911? Why? How are managers and staff trained on those policies and protocols? Is that training effective? How are they held accountable to those expectations? Did the Philadelphia manager know the policies and protocols? If not, why not? If so, did she follow them? If not, why not? What is the protocol for police to follow when called to a situation like this? Why? Why were police compelled to make an arrest in this situation, instead of de-escalate? Are these police procotols working? Having answers to these questions gets us to the root cause of the problem, and professionals in process improvement and root-cause analysis are the experts to engage.

Training is a solution only when lack of knowledge and skills is the problem. I’ve written often about the costs when leaders just throw training at “diversity” problems (see “When Diversity Training Is a Waste of Time and Employers’ Money”). If the Starbucks manager and police lacked necessary knowledge and skills, was this a glitch, or does it point to a systemic flaw or gap? If so, then training may be an effective solution. But if they were correctly following policies and procedures, the policies and procedures need to be changed. Then those must be hard-wired in the organization’s processes, modeled by leadership and integrated into systems of accountability.  Read the final three reasons on Workforce Magazine!

** Update 4/19: With time and thoughtfulness, stakeholders are starting to identify the multiple problems here.  This afternoon, Commissioner Ross said neither he, nor the officers, knew that people spend time in Starbucks without making purchases.  The police, and perhaps the 911 operator, need a protocol for non-emergencies like these to ask questions to get to the root of the problem before deploying or escalating: “What’s your store policy on using the facilities without making a purchase?” “What are the customers doing that poses a threat?” Of course officers won’t intuitively know a business’s policies, but they can ask.  Also, intent does not equal impact.  The officers may not have had the intent to intimidate, but their behavior had an absolutely intimidating effect. 

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