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Companies like Starbucks love anti-bias training. But it doesn’t work — and may backfire.

“Diversity trainings are filled with good intentions and poor evidence.”

Philadelphia Police Arrest Of Two Black Men In Starbucks, Prompts Apology From Company's CEO
Protestors demonstrate outside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

A viral video of two African-American men getting arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia — for reportedly doing nothing other than waiting for a business associate to arrive — sparked demonstrations, calls for boycotts, and an apology from the coffee giant’s chief executive, Kevin Johnson.

“What happened in the way that incident escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible,” Johnson said in a video message after the April incident. “I will fix this.”

The solution Starbucks has come up with to prevent its staff from discriminating against customers is “anti-bias training.”

On May 29, the chain’s 8,000-plus Starbucks operated US stores will close for the afternoon and forgo profits so that employees can attend a training that will “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome,” according to the company. (Starbucks’ 7,000 licensed stores — those in airports, grocery stores, universities — will stay open.) The training has been developed with expert input from the likes of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, NAACP president Sherrilyn Ifill, and former US Attorney General Eric Holder, the Washington Post reported.

But according to five social scientists I spoke to who study racial bias, a few hours of training won’t begin to solve the problem that infects corporations like Starbucks. “We should be skeptical of the training’s ability to transform, in any meaningful way, white workers’ biases toward black customers,” said Hakeem J. Jefferson, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Michigan.

That’s because the evidence we have suggests trainings generally fail to alter racial biases and behaviors in the long term — and can even backfire. So this one may do no more good than Starbucks’s failed attempt to spark conversations about race by asking baristas to write “race together” on coffee cups.

“[Starbucks] felt they needed to make a symbolic gesture,” Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin told me. “The problem is that corporate America has been making this symbolic gesture since the 1970s.” (Disclosure: Vox Media, like many companies, has run its own anti-bias and sexual harassment trainings.)

“These efforts are just window dressing,” Dobbin added, just as corporate sexual harassment trainings have become the default response to the #MeToo movement.

Any corporation that wants to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, needs to look beyond token gestures like trainings to the other measures that can begin to truly address inequality. They might be harder and take longer, but they’re a more sincere way to avoid damaging, hurtful incidents like calling the cops on customers of color.

How implicit bias works

Before we get into the efficacy of anti-bias trainings, we need a quick primer on how bias works. The type of bias Starbucks is hoping to stamp out of its staff members is referred to as implicit bias — the idea that people unconsciously categorize others based on things like their occupation, sex, or race.

Implicit bias is about assumptions or inferences about behavior — like whether someone is friendly or threatening, caring or indifferent — and we’re not usually aware we’re even engaging in that type of thinking, University of Oregon law and psychology researcher Erik Girvan explained. These implicit associations often lead to explicitly discriminatory behaviors in our workplaces and communities.

For African Americans, the biases people hold tend to be disturbingly negative. Researchers have found, for example, that we associate black skin with evil; we see black children as older than they actually are; and we see young black men as taller, heavier, and more muscular — and more physically threatening — than young white men.

These biases can shape how we act, which the Starbucks incident demonstrated. A manager in the store reportedly said the men were trespassing and refused to leave after being asked, as Vox’s Emily Stewart reported. A swarm of police hovered over the two men, while another patron in the cafe asked, “Does anybody else think this is ridiculous?” and called the incident “absolute discrimination.”

“The manager saw the men as more threatening because they’re African American,” said Girvan. “Even if that person wouldn’t have said they were racist, and may not be consciously aware they were seeing [the Starbucks patrons] as different, [that bias] resulted in a police call.”

The bias that drives racial profiling is common and certainly not unique to Starbucks staff. It’s easy to find examples of it in the US police force — and it can lead to the unfair arrests and killings of innocent black people.

It also pervades the American workplace, where racial minorities are more likely than white people to be the victims of harassment and “exclusionary behaviors,” such as being left out of social events. While corporations have long sought to address systemic racism, as Vox’s German Lopez reported, a 2017 study reported that anti-black hiring practices are as common today as they were in the 1980s, despite the proliferation of diversity programs and anti-bias training.

Anti-bias trainings have proliferated — yet inequality persists

Given the ubiquity of prejudice, researchers have been trying to understand how to fight it. Since World War II, nearly 1,000 studies on the topic have been published. Yet one thing is now clear: A lot of the evidence on what to do about the problem isn’t very well-executed — and there’s a dearth of experimental studies that can answer the question of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to anti-discrimination efforts.

The best data we have suggests trainings often fail to fight prejudice. In a fascinating roundup of the evidence on diversity programs published in the Harvard Business Review, Dobbin and co-author Alexandra Kalev looked at 30 years of data as well as data from more than 800 US firms and interviews with hundreds of managers and executives. Here’s a quick summary of their findings on anti-bias trainings:

It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.

Diversity programs — which can include everything from hiring tests and performance reviews to ensure fair hiring and pay decisions as well as trainings — are designed to “preempt lawsuits,” they added, instead of truly stopping prejudice.

Another meta-analysis of more than 400 studies testing approaches to change implicit bias similarly found no evidence that getting people to acknowledge their implicit biases alters behavior.

“The short answer is that diversity trainings are filled with good intentions and poor evidence,” Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia researcher, summed up. “In terms of training in general, no matter what the topic, there’s very little evidence that it on its own can change behaviors that are usually what is of interest: reducing prejudice or bias that is unwanted. Implicit bias training is no different than that.”

Implicit bias trainings can even backfire

Some research suggests that trainings can even have a negative impact. “Training can bring bias to the surface,” Harvard’s Dobbin said. “It can make you think more about bias. It can activate stereotypes.”

This is especially true when the training is mandatory, researchers have found, which is exactly the approach Starbucks is taking. “People respond negatively to being forced to go and to being told that the reason they need to try to promote equality of opportunity and to advance diversity is because the law requires them to,” Dobbin said.

Starbucks’s failure to reflect this evidence in its approach prompted a tweetstorm from Nosek:

In one searing tweet, he wrote: “Spending millions to roll-out an intervention at scale within weeks is a basic violation of good practice. It provides the impression that the goal is not to change behavior but to address PR concerns.”

So how do you fight racial bias for real?

If Starbucks truly wanted to address its racial bias problem, there are a few approaches it could have taken. And they have nothing to do with corporate anti-bias trainings.

“We know from a lot of social science research,” Dobbin said, “the way to get people to change their stereotypes about other groups is to have them work side by side with members of other groups as equals.”

Here’s Dobbin in the Harvard Business Review:

It’s more effective to engage managers in solving the problem, increase their on-the-job contact with female and minority workers, and promote social accountability — the desire to look fair-minded. That’s why interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces have boosted diversity in businesses.

So instead of dedicating half a day to training, Starbucks could make the staff in its 8,000-plus stores more racially integrated and ensure there are minorities in leadership positions. “That’s going to change attitudes, it’s going to change racial animosity from all groups,” Dobbin added. “We see racial animosity goes down when [people] work with members of other groups.”

Another approach to consider: college recruit programs. When managers engage in going out to colleges to find good candidates who are women or minorities, it’s often followed by a more diverse workforce. Here’s Dobbin again:

Five years after a company implements a college recruitment program targeting female employees, the share of white women, black women, Hispanic women, and Asian-American women in its management rises by about 10%, on average. A program focused on minority recruitment increases the proportion of black male managers by 8% and black female managers by 9%.

So learning from the research evidence and trying programs that seem to work, instead of just doing the same old diversity training, is a good step. Starbucks has an incredible opportunity to try these approaches, or at least study the effects of its intervention — something social scientists have been asking of the company on Twitter.

“Starbucks could contribute to science; it could contribute to policy,” said Princeton psychology professor Betsy Levy Paluck. Designing robust studies to evaluate training programs and sharing the data, Paluck said, is “what we do when we have a massive public health and political problem on our hands. And this is is also what we should be doing in response to the problem of racial bias and discrimination.”

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