Is Starbucks opening minds by closing stores for training?

The coffee retailer's anti-bias training is drawing both praise and criticism.

If you drink coffee or know someone who does, then you probably also know that this afternoon, Starbucks is closing more than 8,000 stores for four hours of anti-bias training for its nearly 180,000 workers.

Today’s well-publicised training is focused on “unconscious bias training,” typically designed to get people to talk about implicit biases and stereotypes in encountering people of color, gender or other identities.

According to Yahoo! Finance, many retailers including Walmart and Target said they already offer some racial bias training. Target says it plans to expand that training. Nordstrom has said it plans to enhance its training after issuing an apology to three black teenagers in Missouri who employees falsely accused of shoplifting.

Starbucks has described the session as a “collaborative and engaging experience for store partners to learn together.”

Developed with feedback from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Perception Institute and other social advocacy groups, today’s training will give Starbucks workers a primer on the history of civil rights from the 1960s to present day. Workers will also view a short documentary film.

Workplace experts say the company’s one-day event is shedding new light on training efforts by companies, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“All eyes are on Starbucks, and the company has a really unique opportunity to show other companies how to do this well,” said Erin Thomas, who leads the Chicago office of Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy consulting firm.

Starbucks previously said it plans to share the content and curriculum of its training session with other companies.

“I do think this is historic,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. She is one of several racial justice leaders Starbucks contacted in the wake of the Philadelphia arrest who have been serving as unpaid consultants to help the company devise a strategy.

“I don’t know of another company as ubiquitous as Starbucks is … that has stated their willingness to directly confront racism and bias within their own company,” Ifill said.

But there are drawbacks to unconscious bias training, a term that some experts dislike because it puts “a negative pall” on what is a normal mental reflex.

Bobby Gordon, vice president of client relationships at Prism International, which has provided training around diversity issues for 25 years, told the Tribune he worries that unconscious bias training has become a catchall buzzword for all things diversity, when in fact it won’t help clients understand how diversity and inclusion can benefit their business or help employees understand cultural differences.

Still, Gordon said, unconscious bias training imparts a “critical skill” for managers and business leaders. The training tends to be most effective when businesses can connect it to the work employees do day to day, and when they have infrastructure in place to ensure the impact lasts through changes in leadership and employee turnover, he said.

This story was first published by Human Resource Executive® magazine in the US.  It was authored by Web Editor Michael J. O'Brien.

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