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Why we should support Starbucks’ anti-bias training

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The much hyped and debated decision from Starbucks to close U.S. stores on 29 May to deliver anti-bias training has been enacted.

While many responses have been critical, saying that a few hours of training will have little effect on a larger problem, executive development specialist Michael Netzley, PhD, considers a different point of view.

This half-day of training will be good for Starbucks, and the leadership team has been both practical and smart with its decision to deliver anti-bias training across all its outlets in the USA.

Now having climbed out on that limb, allow me a moment to make the case.

Investing in store closure and training is not about deep personal change

As I read the larger conversation, much of the criticism has presumed that Starbucks’ aim is to eliminate bias in its workforce. A noble interpretation, indeed, but one that perhaps reflects the critics’ own biases and not Starbucks’ business agenda.

To illustrate, The New York Times ran an article titled Can Training Eliminate Biases? Starbucks Will Test the Thesis. Offering readers a balanced view, the article begins by sharing the benefits of training, such as helping people simply be more mindful and reducing the potential impact of these biases. However, other experts later caution us that such training can fail simply because setting aside biases requires tremendous personal effort.

Similarly, an editorial published online by Chief Learning Officer magazine titled, Sending All Employees to Racial Bias Training Unlikely to Solve Starbucks’ Problem, levels strong criticism.

The author writes that, “Starbucks is freaking out so much” about the racial bias events in Philadelphia that the company is allowing, “the downstairs brain” to make decisions. Consequently, “…spending millions and losing millions in revenue to send employees to a half-day training is a knee-jerk reaction likely to produce few results.”

The author concludes that Starbucks’ anti-bias training, “…won’t change the culture imprinted on all of our minds.”

At no point is the Starbucks CEO claiming to deliver deep and meaningful change that eliminates bias.

I have seen numerous posts online, LinkedIn for example, where critics eagerly tell Starbucks everything wrong with the decision to close stores for anti-bias training.

But here is the rub — when has Starbucks ever claimed their efforts will produce deep changes?

Starbucks wants to first solve the business problem

Listening to the video announcement from Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson, I hear him stating that 8000+ U.S. stores will close for: “…mandatory training around unconscious bias, conscious inclusion, and ensuring that we take every step we can so that every single customer that walks in our door feels welcome and safe.  Now this is just one step in the journey…” (emphasis added)

Johnson is quite clear. This investment is about customers, and that the training is only a first step. At no point is the Starbucks CEO claiming to deliver deep and meaningful change that eliminates bias. First and foremost, Starbucks needs to consistently deliver its business.

As a member of the corporate learning and executive development community, I fully appreciate the desire to look at Starbucks’ announcement with hope. To see a company make such a clear gesture elicits our hope that the training, in whatever form, will include best practices.

And rightly so, these professionals point out that best practices in anti-bias training require time.  There are no quick and easy solutions.  But yet, these same professionals may feel disappointed when they see the training is a one-off session in a single afternoon.  In their eyes this, such efforts do not embody the best practices they hope to see.

Taking Starbucks to task over what we want (i.e., best learning practices), rather than relying on an evidence of what the company is actually facing, however, has consequences.

Overlooking the business decision hurts the advocates’ credibility

Since that fateful day in Philadelphia, Starbucks share prices have fallen 2.06% according to MarketWatch.com, and the company’s reputation scores have also taken a hit.

Putting our own L&D ideals ahead of the business needs will likely do little more than damage our own credibility.

According to YouGov’s Buzz Index, Starbucks’ reputation has fallen from a score of 13 to -8 which is a decline of 21 points. This means that before the arrests in Philadelphia, 21% more people reported hearing positive news about Starbucks than negative. Only a few days later, 8% more people were reporting hearing more negative news than positive.

To put this reputation decline into some context, Chipotle experienced a 23 point decline after a food poisoning incident while Equifax experienced a 33 point decline after being hacked and reporting a data breach.

There is still plenty of good news coming out of Starbucks. The latest earnings call reports a 2% increase in same-store sales over this time last year.  The company has also committed to nice dividend payments (expected to be US$15 billion over three years), and Starbucks has been recognised as a best place to work.

But despite the good news, there can be no doubt that in the near term Kevin Johnson and his team still have a business problem to solve.

At the time of the training announcement, Starbucks needed to minimise or even stop behaviours that were damaging its reputation, earning negative media scrutiny, and potentially fuelling a boycott. Starbucks’ leadership did not want customers taking their business elsewhere.

Should such a negative wave continue in the wake of the Philadelphia, Starbucks’ sales would almost surely decline, share prices could be further hit, and potentially employment gets reduced or even put at risk. Fortunately, none of these undesirable consequences emerged and on April 26 Kevin Johnson reported, “We are not seeing an impact on comp sales as a result of Philadelphia.”

I for one give Starbucks credit for an effective crisis response. But I have to wonder if we will again hear the critics reignite their claims that the training is a waste of time?

Why would any executive who is under pressure request our assistance if our critiques suggest that we don’t appreciate the business pressures they face?

I hope not, because putting our own L&D ideals ahead of the business needs will likely do little more than damage our own credibility. Why would any executive who is under pressure request our assistance if, when the pressure is on, our own comments and critiques suggest that we don’t appreciate the business pressures they face?

HR and specifically our L&D colleagues can only invest in deep learning and eliminating biases, which would be highly consistent with Starbucks’ corporate values, if the core business is strong.

If we want to see Starbucks, or any firm, invest in best practices for people development then perhaps we can begin by appreciating the business pressures and remembering that without solid financials there maybe little investment in training.

Let’s get on board with solving the immediate business problem, create goodwill by acting as partners, and look at how learning best practices might be a next step for supporting the business, its employees, and customers.

Photo / 123RF

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