On Monday, reeling from an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia that prompted accusations of racial bias, Howard Schultz, the company’s executive chairman, called the head of a nonprofit public-policy organization to discuss ways to prevent similar episodes in the future.
His idea: provide anti-bias training for his work force.
“He called and expressed that he felt personally accountable, and that the company was responsible, and took ownership over all of the events that unfolded, and then we went on to discuss his idea for this training,” said Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, the public policy group.
The next day, Starbucks announced that it would close its more than 8,000 stores in the United States on May 29 to offer anti-bias training for 175,000 employees.
The announcement, which the company has not provided more details about, has thrust a fundamental question to center stage: can such trainings actually relieve people of their biases?
The particular bias the company alluded to, known as unconscious or implicit bias, occurs when people make decisions based partly on stereotypes without being aware that the stereotype has influenced them.
Academics who study unconscious bias say that training can help alleviate it. In one study involving five California middle schools, math teachers were asked to read up on the reasons students might misbehave, and urged to make students feel heard and respected. They were then asked to write down how to employ these concepts in practice, a technique that tends to helps people internalize material.
The researchers found that suspension rates at those schools plummeted for groups of students traditionally suspended at very high rates, and who may have been victims of bias.
“It allows people to just think in a more mindful way when interacting with other people,” said Jason Okonofua, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was the lead researcher. “It’s putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, seeing humanity in that person.’’
Some workers have seen the benefits of these exercises. Darion Robinson, a volunteer and community engagement coordinator at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, said he took a three-day anti-bias training course when he started in July and felt that it helped build a sense of community.
“I think it’s pushed people to be open and have real conversations about things that are going on,” he said.
Other academics and experts on bias caution that anti-bias training is a sensitive exercise that can be ineffective or even backfire if handled incorrectly. Any training that involves explicitly telling people to set aside their biases is especially likely to fail, said Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University who has also studied anti-bias training, because it requires so much mental energy it can exhaust people.
Even with training, some said, it is exceedingly easy to revert to the original biases. “In the moment of stress, we tend to forget our training,” said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Mursion, which provides a simulation platform for training workers in skills like interpersonal interactions.
Mr. Atkinson said Mursion attempts to solve this problem using highly lifelike avatars to simulate real-life interactions. “You want to give people reps around stressful circumstances,” Mr. Atkinson said.
Some experts argue that the most effective way to eliminate unconscious bias is to limit the extent to which people engage in automatic, reflexive thinking. One solution is to try to nudge workers toward more thoughtful and deliberative decision-making.
In a study involving the Seattle Police Department, researchers randomly selected a group of officers to meet with their sergeants and have an open-ended, 20-minute conversation about a recent encounter with a citizen. The encounters frequently involved minor issues like loitering — a situation analogous to the Philadelphia Starbucks incident. Over a six-week period, the officers selected to have those conversations were about 12 percent less likely to resolve an incident with an arrest.
“We were getting the police officers to slow down their thinking,” said Emily Owens, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, who was one of the researchers. Although the study didn’t look explicitly at arrest rates by race, Ms. Owens argued that, “when you’re not automating, and you’re thinking slowly, bias is less likely to influence your behavior.” (Ms. Owens stressed that the study was only suggestive and that overall the evidence on the effectiveness of bias training for police is very thin.)
Still, Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, which advises companies on strategies for increasing diversity, argued that limiting employees’ discretion altogether can be a far more effective way of reducing bias than trying to alter their thinking.
Well-understood policies that leave less room for discretion can often save employees from having to make decisions that reflect bias, said Ms. Emerson, whose company advises several retailers. For example, rather than generally urging employees to keep an eye out for suspicious-looking customers in order to cut down on shoplifting, which can prompt sales associates to follow customers of certain races at disproportionate rates, stores concerned about theft might want to adopt a clear, uniformly applied security protocols.
“The whole challenge of implicit bias is that we’re not the best judges of when it’s impacting us,” she said.
Ms. Emerson pointed to hiring, another area that is often rife with unconscious bias. Many companies, including some of her clients, like Pinterest, have moved toward a more structured hiring process. For example, in an effort to remove subjectivity from interviews, her firm often encourages managers to come armed with examples of better or worse responses to questions.
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