Can unconscious bias be fixed?

Starbucks’ plan to close 8,000 stores in the United States for ‘racial bias training’ has both proponents, detractors

Can unconscious bias be fixed?
Protesters demonstrate inside a Center City Starbucks on April 16, where two black men were arrested, in Philadelphia, Penn. REUTERS/Mark Makela

Starbucks faced protests in its stores and social media scorn recently after a viral video showed two men at one of its locations in Philadelphia being arrested.

An employee had asked the two black men to leave, apparently because they did not make a purchase, and one had asked to use the bathroom. The men were actually waiting for a friend to go over a business transaction, but ended up at the police station for eight hours — with no charges laid.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly responded, apologizing for the incident and promising a thorough investigation. He also announced 8,000 Starbucks outlets, with 175,000 employees, would close May 29 for “racial bias training” to “address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination.” The training will also become part of the company’s onboarding process for new recruits.

While there are many proponents, particularly when it comes to training for implicit or unconscious bias, some critics are questioning its effectiveness.

“The cheaper, more effective program would be to have on the cash register a little sticky note to say, ‘Don’t be racist,’” said Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto. “I don’t try to minimize or deny that racism exists, I’m making fun of this concept that they’re peddling, which we don’t even know if it’s true (or) it’s effective.”

“I’ve seen zero evidence that it would actually work.”

Uncovering blind spots, biases

True study of unconscious bias emerged in 1998 when researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., introduced the implicit-association test (IAT) to measure implicit attitudes and beliefs people are either unwilling or unable to report. These days, the test is widely used and can be taken online.

Recently, consulting firm Accenture decided to roll out unconscious bias training for all employees in Canada, with both online and in-person elements.

“It can take so many different forms and that’s what, in my opinion, is so important about doing training on raising that awareness,” said Nicholas Greschner, HR director at Accenture in Montreal. “There’s ways for us to make sure that (the biases) don’t become something that can escalate to something that’s not really positive.”

Unconscious bias are elements “that are not front-of-mind for us, that may provide some micro advantages or disadvantages towards certain groups of people, certain parts of the population,” he said.

“It’s a blind spot, if you will, that as humans we may encounter, and it’s something that we don’t intend to do because it’s in our unconscious.”

The training helps with inclusivity and diversity at the 4,000-employee company, said Greschner.

And the type of training is important, as is the followup, he said, such as having an “accountability buddy” to call you out when you may have a blind spot.

“It could be as simple as ‘Have you checked the distribution list you’re using?’ when you’re sending out emails because there could be micro inequity there or micro advantage or disadvantage. So little tips like this so we can make sure it’s kept alive.”

Questionable results

But when it comes to training around unconscious bias, that can be problematic, according to Amitay.

“People can change, but they have to start from the conscious. So, if somebody is consciously a racist, for example… you would have to actively work on their conscious beliefs or conscious biases and prejudices,” he said. “But to think that you can work on something they’re not even aware of, they can’t even accept — no.”

Anecdotally, people may praise unconscious bias training, but “they’re learning something about their conscious biases,” said Amitay.

“The only way to measure the change is if there was either a noticeable change in the person’s attitude or behaviour, or their responses to some kind of questionnaire — all of which would be a reflection of their conscious. Answering questions would be conscious; the behaviours and attitude, we don’t know whether it was due to their unconscious or conscious.”

Jared Brown, lead counsel at Brown Litigation in Toronto, is also not convinced.

“They’re shutting down 8,000 stores with 175,000 people because something happened in one store, to undertake what appears to be very dangerous educational exercise. It seems to me that’s not only overkill but actually bad practice,” he said.

“Trying to chase down the ghosts of someone’s unconscious bias is quite dangerous — you’re getting into people’s deepest, darkest aspects and corners of their psyche without knowing if that even impacts how they’re acting in the real world.”

“They may be using a sledgehammer on something that requires a scalpel.”

For one, it’s been shown the IAT results are not repeatable, “so they don’t rise to the level of what normal psychological testing should achieve (where) you get the same outcome or similar outcomes within a variance each time it’s taken,” said Brown.

And research has found no correlation between these biases and discriminatory behaviour, he said.

“They’ve not been able to prove that there is a connection to how someone might behave,” said Brown.

“They’ve also concluded there is little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behaviour, meaning after the training is conducted, they have no significant evidence to say that will actually result in behavioural change.”

Finally, researchers have said this test might actually be damaging, he said.

“In a nutshell, the test has been shown to make people more aware of their differences, more racist, if you will…. (it) actually makes people more reticent and more reserved when dealing with people outside their group,” said Brown.

“People begin to start to think of themselves as an identity group instead of part of the team. They become very self-conscious about their differences from other identity groups within the workforce.”

Employers considering this type of training are advised to stay clear, said Brown.

“There are likely better ways to achieve the goals you are seeking to achieve of a harmonious and discrimination-free workplace. Unfortunately, this particular tool and industry that’s grown up around it provides the risk that you actually take your workforce in the opposite direction.”

Starbucks to be commended

But Ann Divine, CEO of Ashanti Leadership & Professional Development Services in Halifax, is a big believer in the power of unconscious bias training.

“It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, it’s (about) constantly working together, being aware of our own personal biases, our own prejudices, the way we are raised, the influence that social media has on us. We are unaware of how much we take in, and how we actually behave towards each other.”

People can change, but they must be willing to open themselves up to new learning, she said.

“We must be able to say, ‘This is what I discovered about myself today, that I am biased, that I do treat people differently and I would like you to call me out if you see that I’m doing something that is not right.’”

Unconscious bias comes from social stereotypes, attitudes and opinions, she said. It’s the stigma people form of other people, and how they perceive their social location, culture and upbringing.

“We’re not consciously aware of it, it’s just there in the background,” said Divine.

“Initially, it was a way of protecting us so we can decide who we can trust and how we can learn to protect ourselves, but as we evolve as human beings, things have changed. And the fact is every one of us is biased, all human beings, we are inherently biased, profoundly biased towards each other. We prefer to be with people who look most like us, those who conduct themselves and behave like us.”

Starbucks’ efforts are to be commended, said Divine.

“(The CEO) has raised that level of awareness, not just for Starbucks, but people of other organizations to think when situations like this occur: ‘What is it we need to do?’ Recognizing that this doesn’t just affect one individual or the individuals involved, it impacts an entire workforce, it impacts an entire community, and, therefore, we must address it and address it immediately.”

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