Starbucks: Beyond Day One of Training

Why this week's unconscious bias training at the coffee chain is just the first step in a much longer journey.

Caffiene-needing workers had to pick a spot other than Starbucks for their mochas this week when the Seattle-based coffee brewer closed 8,000 stores for an afternoon of unconscious bias training. For those that are in need of a refresher, the progressive company since April has faced a torrent of criticism after a manager in one of its Philadelphia locations made the very unprogressive decision to call the cops on two black men waiting for a friend after one of them tried to use the bathroom without buying anything. Since then, the two men have become national heroes while Starbucks’ amended bathroom policy is facing its own backlash.

The episode, and its aftermath, created such a media whirlwind that MSNBC deemed it big enough to warrant a one-hour special aggressively promoted on social media and airing tonight called #EverydayRacism. The network isn’t wrong—that’s what unconscious bias essentially is, after all. But while what gets said in Starbucks locations May 29 was important, it’s what happens from here on out after that will ultimately decide if its unconscious bias training is successful. “The reality is that a day’s worth of training is just that,” says Louis Montgomery, a senior member of Korn Ferry’s Human Resources and Corporate Officers practice. “It can improve awareness in the short term, but the challenge is making it permanently stick.”

Put another way, today shouldn’t be looked at as the end of the episode—it should be considered the beginning. “Telling employees you want to be customer focused, for instance, isn’t going to instantly make everyone customer focused,” says Craig Rowley, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry. “Being customer focused means different things to different organizations as well, so you have to consistently drive home what that looks like for your organization.”

But with something as opaque as unconscious bias training, or latent subjective factors like cultural fit or college attended that hinder diversity and inclusion efforts, measuring success is difficult. Beyond mandated legal requirements, what’s on the scorecard for measuring whether associates, store managers, regional managers, and others in the organization are treating colleagues, job candidates, and customers with equality and respect? For Starbucks, as Rowley notes, it can track how customers are rating their experiences, if they are coming back more or less often, if their buying patterns are changing, and more through its loyalty rewards apps. On the employee side, Montgomery says adding diversity and inclusion survey questions, such as how welcome and valued associates feel within the organization, can serve as a barometer for the success of unconscious bias training. Retail industry turnover is notoriously high, so a reduction in churn could indicate employees are happy with how they are being treated. Montgomery also advises building diversity and inclusion metrics into performance reviews, for instance using the 360-degree review model to add a wider selection of colleagues to the feedback loop or adding customer feedback through a barista rating system à la Uber at store locations.

Both Rowley and Montgomery say the most important thing is to make today’s dialogue and training a regular part of the organization’s dialogue and training. At the most basic level, that means adding unconscious bias training to the onboarding process, having regular dialogue with customers about how they are being treated, and being consistent about its brand values.

“The way you sustain unconscious bias awareness is by continuing to reinforce it,” says Montgomery. “This is not the final step. It is the first step in a much longer journey.”