Waiter Taking Female Customer's Order In Coffee Shop

Grappling with Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

By Sarah Leavitt | 2-min read

Recently, Starbucks has been faced with the issue of biased behavior in the workplace. The coffee giant saw widespread media coverage as a result of an incident filmed and shared worldwide, in which unconscious bias may have played a role. The company quickly addressed the behavior by making it clear that it’s not in line with their values. They’re also showing their commitment to addressing the problem, by closing every store for a day to provide training on biased behavior. And most recently, they’ve changed the operational policy that was at the heart of the incident.

What is unconscious bias? An unconscious (or implicit) bias is a prejudice that favors a certain group of people over another. We develop these biases over time without realizing it, and sometimes they even contradict who we think we are and what we believe. Unconscious biases can be based on our upbringing, our individual experiences, or what we hear and see represented in the media. As we absorb biased ways of thinking, we adapt our behavior. Biases can lead us to behave illogically or inappropriately, and can even drive us to treat others unfairly.

What Starbucks is doing – publicly apologizing and reacting strongly and quickly with an awareness training program – is important. Starbucks has taken an important initial step. Yet, studies have shown that biased behavior can be difficult to change. We don’t have control over what we’re not even aware of, and gaining that awareness isn’t easy. It takes significant effort and careful un-learning of years of ingrained messages and learned associations.

A one-day training on implicit bias is a great start. Over the longer term, there are two additional actions that companies can take to create a more inclusive culture both in how employees treat customers and in how they treat each other. The first is to recognize that awareness alone is not enough. After all, getting people to admit to holding bias doesn’t mean they’ll change their behavior to account for it. To ensure long-term changes in the everyday behaviors of employees in all ranks, companies can provide ongoing reminders, nudges, and actions that keep bias awareness relevant and current for employees.

The second action they can take to ensure long-term change is reframing the tone of trainings. Many existing diversity trainings focus on the punitive – they’re mandatory, and they transmit the message that if you mess up, and this or that bad thing will happen to the company. While well intentioned, this negative messaging doesn’t always lead to a more inclusive and welcoming culture. Instead, when people are given the choice to opt-in to diversity trainings, it helps them self-identify as pro-diversity, and begin to internalize that sentiment.

These two actions can help amplify and sustain the impact of immediate training, like what Starbucks is doing this month. Given that unconscious bias is developed over time, it makes sense that ongoing, consistent, and positive reinforcement is part of the solution needed to inhibit it. And the impact of changing this behavior is significant: doing so will ensure a positive experience and journey for employees and customers alike.