Commentary & Opinion

Sending All Employees to Racial Bias Training Unlikely to Solve Starbucks’ Problem

By Susana Rinderle

Apr. 19, 2018

Once again, someone in an organization made a poor behavior choice whose harmful consequences were recorded and made public.

This time it was coffee giant Starbucks, and once again, people are freaking out. Starbucks is freaking out so much, the company is investing millions of dollars to close 8,000 stores and send 175,000 employees to racial bias training the afternoon of May 29.

This is what happens when the ancient “downstairs brain” is running the show. While this part of the brain is very effective at “fight or flight” in situations of imminent physical danger, it should not be in charge of leadership decisions. While the danger to Starbucks’ brand is clear, and their leadership is right to take responsibility and respond quickly, 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.

Effective leadership is usually more about responding well than reacting quickly. Responding well in crisis requires two things: (1) pausing and (2) using that pause to bring the more sophisticated “upstairs brain” back online to critically examine the data.

Here are the data: On April 12 two African American men were waiting in a Philadelphia Starbucks for a third person to arrive for a business meeting. They asked to use the restroom and were denied because they hadn’t purchased anything. The manager asked them to leave and when they refused, she called 911. Police arrived and arrested the men for alleged trespassing, even after the third party showed up for their meeting.

Based on these data, here are five reasons why racial bias training won’t help.

We don’t really know the problem. Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” As a culture we have this backwards, especially when the “downstairs brain” is in control. Some questions that need to be answered are, what are Starbucks’ policies for public restroom use? Why? Are those policies working? How are they to be implemented? What is their protocol for when to call police? To call 911? Why? How are managers and staff trained on those policies and protocols? Is that training effective? How are they held accountable to those expectations? Did the Philadelphia manager know the policies and protocols? If not, why not? If so, did she follow them? If not, why not? What is the protocol for police to follow when called to a situation like this? Why? Why were police compelled to make an arrest in this situation, instead of de-escalate? Are these police procotols working? Having answers to these questions gets us to the root cause of the problem, and professionals in process improvement and root-cause analysis are the experts to engage.

Training is a solution only when lack of knowledge and skills is the problem. I’ve written often about the costs when leaders just throw training at “diversity” problems (see “When Diversity Training Is a Waste of Time and Employers’ Money”). If the Starbucks manager and police lacked necessary knowledge and skills, was this a glitch, or does it point to a systemic flaw or gap? If so, then training may be an effective solution. But if they were correctly following policies and procedures, the policies and procedures need to be changed. Then those must be hard-wired in the organization’s processes, modeled by leadership and integrated into systems of accountability.

Systems drive behaviors much more than individuals will. U.S. culture is highly individualistic, so we fixate on eliminating or “fixing” individuals instead of addressing how the larger environment sets us up for success or failure. Mahzarin Banaji, the co-creator of the 20-year-old, scientifically robust Implicit Association Test, says the test picks up on “the thumbprint of the culture on each of our minds” and cautions against focusing on individuals as the problem or the solution to bias. Banaji herself has said she doesn’t think implicit bias training makes a difference. What the research shows that does make a difference are individual practices like pausing for 20 to 30 seconds before acting and getting enough sleep to exercise “cognitive control” in the moment. (I cover six other research-based practices in this 2014 article). But systemic approaches tend to be easier, cheaper and more reliable. Examples include automated reminders at key decision points (like a computer notifying a doctor of racial disparities in how a drug is prescribed, before they prescribe that drug), eliminating bias triggers (removing names from resumes to eliminate racial bias in hiring practices) and prompting supervisors to ponder their biases before conducting a performance evaluation.

Racial bias training is only effective if created and delivered by people qualified to do so. Starbucks bringing in famous people like Bryan Stevenson, Sherrilyn Ifill, Eric Holder Jr., Heather McGhee and Jonathan Greenblatt is impressive. They are brilliant pundits, lawyers, business people and thought leaders on policy. All but Greenblatt are African American. But these qualities and qualifications don’t make them experts in implicit bias, adult learning, organizational development or change management. No one would ask a surgeon to do their taxes, or an accountant to do their knee surgery. And yet it’s common for organizations to invite respected but unqualified people to conduct mission-critical employee trainings instead of those who are less famous, but actually possess the required expertise. Highly ethical subject matter experts are best qualified to conduct a rigorous needs assessment, identify organizational gaps, make recommendations, define goals, conduct necessary training and leadership coaching, and assess results.

Racial bias training is only effective if focused on clear, concrete actions that are supported back in the office. I’ve seen firsthand how even some well-known firms providing unconscious bias training do not define clear, measurable training goals; do not provide concrete tools or clear action plans during training; do not assess training results and don’t work with clients to ensure their systems and office culture support the knowledge and skills employees gain in training. Awareness and knowledge alone don’t move change or shift cultures. (For more, read Six Ways to Set Up Training for Success.)

I applaud Starbucks for taking the community’s concerns seriously. I hope the millions of dollars and thousands of employee hours invested in their racial bias training produce results beyond good PR.

Perhaps participants will gain some skill in cognitive control so they can disrupt their downstairs brain next time it hijacks their decision making ability under perceived threat. But training won’t change the culture imprinted on all of our minds — a culture where people of color are perceived as threats when they’re just going about their lives, where it’s acceptable to call 911 whenever their presence is deemed inconvenient, and where it’s common for police intervention to exact life-altering tolls on those people of color.

Until we all commit to doing the long-term, un-sexy tasks of clearly defining the problem, doing what actually works to increase equity and inclusion and being dogged about accountability and broader systems change over time, we will see incidents like this again and again.

What will you do today to ensure your organization won’t be next?

Susana Rinderle is president of Susana Rinderle Consulting and a trainer, coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email


Susana Rinderle is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry, and a coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email

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