'Behavioural change requires time': Starbucks closes U.S. stores for anti-bias training

Starbucks outlets across the U.S. will close today so all of its employees can undergo bias training in the wake of a racially charged incident in Philadelphia. But diversity experts warn that such sessions are just a first step on the road to real behavioural change.

Company's mass training session comes after outcry over the arrest of 2 black men at one of its stores

Michelle Brown, left, demonstrates outside the Starbucks in Philadelphia where two black men were arrested while waiting for a business meeting to start. The incident prompted a face-to-face apology from the company's CEO. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

As more than 8,000 Starbucks outlets across the U.S. close their doors today to allow workers to undergo racial bias training, diversity experts say they hope the coffee chain's commitment to taking a long-term approach to learning can set the standard for employers looking to better educate their staff about bias in the workplace.

The coffee giant's decision to offer the training comes after an incident last month at a Philadelphia location that saw an employee call police after two black men sat down at a table without ordering anything. The pair — who had arrived early for a business meeting — were ultimately handcuffed and led out of the café, and videos of the arrests were widely shared on social media, stoking national outrage over racial profiling.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly apologized to Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, and promised to take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again, including today's cross-country training for the company's 175,000 U.S. employees

(Canadian stores will follow suit on the afternoon of June 11.)

"We are here to make Starbucks a place where everyone — everyone — feels welcome," Johnson said in a video released last week to preview the training curriculum.

The preview also contains a message from rapper and activist Common, who will lend some star power to the day, and one from Starbucks' founder Howard Schultz.

Employees will spend the rest of the four-hour session listening to diversity consultants from the Perception Institute, as well as reflecting on their own personal stories of bias, the company said, calling the training "a first step," not a solution.

Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, settled with the city of Philadelphia for a symbolic $1 a few weeks after their arrest. (Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press)

While Starbucks' swift response after the Philadelphia incident has shone a spotlight on anti-bias training, the company is not alone in its efforts. 

Across North America, employers and organizations are scrambling to provide employees with diversity training, typically designed to educate people about implicit biases and stereotypes, including acknowledgement of their own.

Some large retailers, including Walmart and Target, say they already offer some form of unconscious bias training. In Canada, such training is being rolled out to some hospitals, school boards and police forces — even city halls.

Taking a long-term approach

"Trainings can raise awareness around topics; trainings can also provide strategies and tools," said Shakil Choudhury, a Toronto-based consultant who has been conducting diversity training for about 25 years.

"But ultimately we're looking for behaviour change, not just 'Wow, this was a great training,'" he said. "Behavioural change requires time."

Even the most well-crafted, one-day sessions can only do so much, said Choudhury. 

He said his most effective programs have been with companies that have held multiple training sessions spread out over the course of a year, giving him the chance to track the impact his teaching is having.

Shakil Choudhury, co-founder of consultancy Amina Leadership, has spent 25 years trying to get people to identify their own unconscious biases. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

And a paper published in the Harvard Business Review — titled "Why diversity programs fail" — found that the positive effects of diversity training "rarely last beyond a day or two."

Choudhury also argues that comparing programs — and their results — can be difficult, as there are no industry-wide standards outlining what diversity training should look like and what actually works.

"There are lots of critics saying diversity training might not work. Well, my question is: 'What diversity training? Because there's no systematic training," he said.

'Stereotype rebound'

Others who study such training, like Sonia Kang, caution it can lead to "stereotype rebound" — when stereotyping and discrimination actually increases after training.

Kang said she sees potential in what Starbucks has laid out, but noted there are often unintended consequences to diversity training in the workplace.

"If you tell people not to think about a white bear, they basically can't think of anything other than a white bear. The mere act of suppression leads to a heightened activation of whatever concept you're trying to suppress," said Kang, who teaches organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto.

Sonia Kang, who has done research on race and the workplace, cautions that diversity training can sometimes have unintended consequences. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Diversity training can also lead to a backlash, she said, "because people feel like they're being coerced into it."

In order for such training to be successful, Kang suggests that participants need to "buy into the end goal" and fully understand the intended outcome.

For Starbucks, that includes the recognition that today's training is aimed at setting the foundation for a long-term effort, which the company says will play out "in the coming weeks, months and years."

It's an attempt that Choudhury says "certainly feels hopeful."

"But I'm not willing to give [Starbucks] a gold star until I see what those next steps are," he said.


Laura MacNaughton is a field producer in the business unit of CBC News. She joined CBC in 2007 and has produced a range of national television, radio and online stories. Prior to joining CBC, she spent several years producing morning talk radio programs at CJBK in London, Ont.

With files from The Associated Press