14 Jun 2018 21:33 IST

What you can learn from Starbucks’ ‘racial bias training’

A worker puts away patio furniture at a Starbucks Corp drive-through location closes down for anti-bias training as the coffee chain closed all 8,000 of their company-owned cafes in the US, including this location in Oceanside, California

Such training is just the first step in a long journey

On May 29, more than 8,000 Starbucks storesclosed early so that more than 1,75,000 employees could undergo racial bias training. It was perhaps the single biggest training events any organisation has undertaken — suspending its services and running the training during that time.

The trigger for this was an incident in April, which involved two black customers. On April 12, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The men were waiting for a business associate and asked to use the bathroom when employees called the police. The video of their arrest went viral and there was outrage against Starbucks with even a ‘boycott Starbucks’ call getting momentum. To their credit, after an initial hiccup, Starbucks responded quickly.

There are quite a few leadership lessons we can draw from their experience and response.

Openness

At the Starbucks training, staff broke out into one-on-one or small group conversations in which they were prompted with open-ended conversation starters:

~ When did you first become aware of your racial identity?

~ How do you choose to alter your communication style to avoid playing into stereotypes?

~ Describe moments you’ve found yourself treating someone differently because of their race, dress, or sexual orientation.

These acted as triggers for awareness and openness. The idea was to help employees begin the process of talking about a difficult issue. That itself marks dramatic progress, because several organisations prefer to ignore the ‘elephants in the room’ and carry on with business, as though nothing has happened. With awareness and openness, the foundations are laid for change.

Different biases

Often in our organisations in India, biases of religion, caste, language, which-university-you-studied-at exist — most often below the surface — but at the same time, they are very real and are expressed in ways that hurt both employees and their careers. Grand vision and mission statements often mask mean managers and petty leaders who practice discrimination while claiming to be above it.

In corporate India, this is rarely spoken about. Movement has begun on discrimination against women, with several organisations now committing to aggressive diversity goals in their hiring and compensation practices. Similarly, there is some movement on accepting physically challenged people into the workspace with many organisations playing a pioneering role by investing in this process. But deeper, more entrenched biases and discriminations still fall in the ugly-to-discuss zone and are therefore not brought up.

It will be up to the new generation of leaders to call these out and to force their organisations to be open in first acknowledging that biases exist, and then to begin the long hard conversations to the next step.

Acceptance

Once there is openness, then the gates are slowly opened to acceptance for the need to change and actual change itself. In Starbucks’ case, Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ Chairman, has a personal history growing up poor — in a housing project in Brooklyn, that helped him appreciate the situation. “We realise that four hours of training is not going to solve racial inequity in America,” he said. “But, we need to have the conversation. We need to start.” He also added that the company is “deeply committed to this being a long-term journey.”

With that support coming from the leadership, employees then find they are more ready for the change journey, though they recognise it will be both long and difficult. As one employee put it, “Honestly it was a painful day for many of us.” Acceptance can only come once employees are able to change their beliefs and attitudes. But leaders who encourage the right environment to embrace diversity can accelerate that change.

In India we need to do a lot more to accept, first, the need to change and then actually drive the change within the organisations we lead.

Reaching out

Outreach involves some element of discomfort and often some business and personal pain. As Howard Shultz pointed out, the training cost Starbucks tens of millions of dollars in lost business; and he even spoke of pressure from at least one investor who asked him to call off the training because it meant that Starbucks would lose money from the exercise. But in deciding to do the training in spite of the cost and investing in doing it across the board, Starbucks showed it was willing to walk the talk.

In many organisations there is a hesitation to reach out. We have the ongoing case of the Air India stewardess who has accused a senior officer of sexual harassment. It has taken her years to even be heard. Her case is not an isolated one with leaders often turning a blind eye. Sometimes, the excuse is the worst possible- “But he is a performer.”

This willingness to sacrifice principle and the protection of the discriminated at the altar of business performance is terrible leadership. Leaders need to show the courage to stand by diversity principles even when the cameras are off; when the PR machine is not humming, and even when there is no risk of exposure. They need to do it simply because it is the right thing to do.

Accepting diversity

Diversity of all kinds will grow in organisations — sexual orientation, physical or mental challenges, employees suffering from sickness or depression, employees who refuse to follow certain business practices, because they are violations of personal or religious beliefs.

In this environment, leaders need to grow all these traits — openness, acceptance and being able to reach out. It will not only help them to be better leaders but make their organisations better places to work.

There is no magic solution. Often, these kinds of exercises don’t create an immediate transformation. They don’t create the solution, but they do create the first steps towards a solution.

Stanley Nelson, the award-winning documentary maker who teamed up with Starbucks to produce a short video that was part of the training summed it up well. “I don’t think it will stop racism; them closing their stores for four hours. But I think it was an honest try. They got a conversation going and maybe that’s the best they can do. It won’t change the world but if it got anybody thinking ‘Wow, there are these different lives that we each are leading,’ then that’s something.”

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