The Bitter Taste of Unconscious Bias

The Bitter Taste of Unconscious Bias

Starbucks. 8,000 stores closing on May 29th for racial bias training. Bloomberg estimates the cost to be approximately $16.5 million.

There has been no shortage of opinions on this matter, but I personally commend the retailer for taking swift, public (and costly) action to address a difficult but critical business issue.  At a time when headlines have been inundated with stories of workplace hostility, there have been many public “parting of ways” with toxic leaders. However, very few organizations have publicly stated how they will be improving conditions for marginalized groups moving forward.

We are all familiar with the expression “it takes a village” – usually in reference to the extended group it takes to support the growth and development of a child.  Unfortunately, it also “takes a village” to protect and perpetuate the actions of a toxic leader in an organization. The protectors, fixers, and bystanders – along with the entire employee base – need to know that discrimination is not tolerated.  Starbucks has boldly committed to this important next step.

The good news is that you don’t have to dominate the news cycle with a damaging story to get started. Here is how we help our client’s break it down:

First, be honest about the intricacies of human bias.

I am probably the greatest proponent of the power of the HR community. But, when it comes to racial or another kind of bias, we need to be honest about what HR can and cannot do.  Bias is baked into the fabric of who we are – starting with our family of origin, our conversations around the dinner table, and our personal experiences. By the time we hire and welcome an employee into our organization, we should expect people to arrive with their own histories and bias. The idea that we can simply “train this out of people” may not be a realistic starting point.

Next, proactively manage out the damaging effects of unmitigated bias.

After recognizing and accepting how complex and deeply embedded bias can be, HR teams are now in a position to take meaningful action.  More specifically, HR can play an important role in filtering, managing, and reducing the negative impact of bias among employees by proactively doing the following:

1) Define your values. At the outset of any bias-related initiative, companies really need to decide who they want to be.  Does your company have clearly stated policies and consequences regarding bias-related incidents? We might not be able to ensure every employee’s personal values match our company values. But, we can ensure our corporate values are clear and that leaders send a strong message, through both words and action, that discrimination is not accepted or tolerated.

2) Screen out obvious bias.  I wish there was a simple, binary interview question we could ask prospective employees to screen out bias, but most people have been subconsciously trained not to admit their personal prejudices.  However, you can learn a lot about how a candidate would treat marginalized groups through a hypothetical or situational style interview question. For example, “Suppose you were managing a diverse team.  In a private meeting with you, a teammate referred to another employee using a common racial slur. How, if at all, would you address it?” Questions like these not only help you learn more about a candidate but also send a clear message that diversity and inclusion are a priority for the organization.

3) Don’t just train, challenge. Employees need to first acknowledge that we all have bias, some that we might not be proud of.  At a minimum, we can make clear that employees need to leave their personal prejudices at home, especially if their personal beliefs are in direct conflict with the organization’s stated values.  But a good inclusion and diversity training program will also challenge your employees’ preconceived notions about our differences, and illuminate the power of diversity in our communities.

4) Evaluate and measure.  Knowing that “what gets measured gets managed”, some companies have included a metric in their annual performance appraisals that evaluates how well employees demonstrate the company’s diversity and inclusion standards.  Anything that is tied to promotion opportunity and compensation will definitely get people’s attention.

5) Reinforce. To me, reinforcement is the exciting phase when HR hands of their good work to the rest of the organization.  Reinforcement includes everything from regular communication that promotes inclusion, to rapid responses to policy violations.

In the case of Starbucks, their planned training day seems like an important step towards addressing the difficult issues around explicit and implicit bias.  Training employees about the organization’s values is a very important step and will have an even greater impact if it is sandwiched between well-defined expectations and a good measurement and reinforcement mechanism.  To learn more about how Inspire can help your organization take its next steps, contact me at [email protected] or (917) 612-8571.