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Starbucks is preparing for an ambitious project in a couple of weeks. It'll train employees throughout the company on ways to eliminate discrimination and bias, even unconscious bias. This is part of the company's response to the inappropriate arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks last month. Behavioral scientists have an evolving view of what's effective in addressing unconscious bias. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on some of the challenges.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: David Rock founded the NeuroLeadership Institute on the idea that leaders can learn a few things from brain science, like, for example, how to better motivate workers and get them to learn more or how to reduce the effects of bias.
DAVID ROCK: Mitigating bias is one of the hardest things in human existence.
NOGUCHI: Eliminating it would require people to become completely self-aware and objective about their own thoughts. Rock says no one's found a way to do that.
ROCK: Any strategy that essentially relies on people to try not to be biased is doomed to fail. That's the heart of the problem.
NOGUCHI: But Rock says people are adept at identifying the biases of their peers. In his work as a consultant, he recommends workplaces develop what he calls if-then protocols involving decision making by teams. If a person asks for a raise, then take it to a committee. If a man walks into a store and buys nothing, then consult colleagues about an appropriate response.
ROCK: You've got to shift the focus from individuals trying not to be biased to teams being able to catch bias. There's decades of research showing that format of strategy actually is the best format for behavior change and habit formation.
NOGUCHI: In other words, create structures that don't rely on the individual to change. Heather McGhee agrees.
HEATHER MCGHEE: Starbucks has very aspirational goals for the values it wants to set both within its company and in the world.
NOGUCHI: McGhee is president of the social advocacy group Demos. She along with former Attorney General Eric Holder and the NAACP is advising Starbucks on its training and policies. She says training is just one of many steps in what she calls an ongoing public education, one she says no other company has tried to tackle at such a large scale.
MCGHEE: So few companies, if any, have taken the kind of responsibility that Starbucks has to have said, A, this was about race. B, this wasn't just one bad apple. And C, we have the right and responsibility to do something about it.
NOGUCHI: McGhee says her main goal for the training day is to create a shared language and understanding about why inclusion and diversity are critical for a company as public as Starbucks. She says she's glad to see the company facing it.
MCGHEE: If addressing bias is not mission critical for your company, then you shouldn't do it at all because it's just too difficult to do if it's not something that is essential to making your company succeed.
NOGUCHI: Howard Ross, an expert and consultant on bias training, says there are companies that have done this successfully. Denny's, the restaurant chain, faced a similar crisis in the 1990s, ultimately paying more than $54 million to settle a class-action suit brought by black customers.
HOWARD ROSS: They didn't try to shun the responsibility for it. They started looking at their organization from top to bottom and put in place a number of different things that seemed to move the organization in a very different direction.
NOGUCHI: Within a decade, Denny's earned a reputation as one of the most minority-friendly workplaces. Ross says in addition to systemic change, workers need constant reminders about the company's priorities and an ongoing method of assessing its reputation among customers and employees. Starbucks adviser Heather McGhee agrees this is a work in progress, one she hopes will eventually spread to other companies.
MCGHEE: I know that other CEOs have reached out to the leadership of Starbucks and said, you know, we assume, and we know that we have a problem with this, too. So thanks for going first, and we'll be watching.
NOGUCHI: Starbucks will close on the afternoon of May 29 for the training. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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