An adviser who helped develop Starbucks' anti-bias training tells us how to determine if it works

Mark Makela/Getty ImagesProtestor Donn T (C) demonstrates inside a Center City Starbucks on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Police arrested two black men who were waiting inside the Center City Starbucks, which prompted an apology from the company’s CEO.
  • Starbucks will close all its stores for much-anticipated racial bias training on the afternoon of May 29.
  • Many people are wondering: Will the training make a difference?
  • Heather McGhee, an outside adviser to Starbucks who helped the company develop the training, spoke with me about how the training was designed, and how to decide if it works.
  • Possible evaluation tools for Starbucks’ ongoing anti-bias programs include secret shoppers to measure stores’ equal treatment of black and white customers, and customer sentiment surveys in minority communities.

On Tuesday, Starbucks will close all its company-owned US stores for four hours to undertake anti-bias training.

This is a step the company announced as a response to an incident last month in which Starbucks staff called police to arrest two black men who were waiting for a meeting at a Philadelphia Starbucks store.

The training comes at a time when brands are increasingly finding themselves at the center of fraught cultural controversies, often involuntarily.

Starbucks has an unusual track record of leaning into such conversations, sometimes in ways that have enhanced its brand (as with its programs to hire veterans and refugees) and other times less effectively (as with its much-mocked “Race Together” initiative.)

This latest move by Starbucks has been met with wide interest and also some scepticism: Is this training mostly for public relations, or will it be designed in a rigorous way that is likely to produce lasting cultural change at the company?

On this week’s episode of KCRW’s Left, Right & Center, I spoke with Heather McGhee, the president of the progressive policy groups Demos and Demos Action. Heather has been one of Starbucks’ outside advisers on developing an effective anti-bias training program – now intended to be an ongoing initiative, with Tuesday’s training as the first step.

Heather described why she chose to work with Starbucks for free (“Starbucks’ response was not what I expected. They could have simply said this has nothing to do with race, which is what many companies have said in similar instances”) and what can be done after the fact to figure out if Starbucks’ training has worked (“You can do a spot audit where you have an African American and a white person come in and ask for the same kinds of accommodations, and find out how they are treated. And then you can monitor that over time. You can also take consumer sentiment surveys in the communities.”)

An abridged transcript of our conversation is below, lightly edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the whole conversation using the embedded player or at this link.

GettyImages 493987234Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Seven Squared MediaHeather McGhee, President of Demos, and Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator, on October 23, 2015 in New York City.

JOSH BARRO, BUSINESS INSIDER & KCRW: Can you talk a little bit about how this came together and how you came to be involved?

HEATHER MCGHEE, DEMOS & DEMOS ACTION: Sure, happy to. So just like many other Americans I watched with outrage as the video circulated online. I have come to know Howard Schultz through a number of different meetings and conferences-

BARRO: Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks.

MCGHEE: The chairman and founder, yes.

The company’s black employees had invited me two years ago to speak at their Black History Month celebration; I had had some touchpoints with the company. Howard Schultz called me – and also called Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defence Fund; and Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative; three people very much outside of the corporate world who are nonetheless established leaders on racial and social justice – and asked if we would be willing to advise their efforts to respond.

Now, it wasn’t an obvious yes for me, I will say.

I am not in the business of doing corporate anti-bias training. And frankly my earliest memory as a child is of being chased out of a store, with my brother, by a white store manager who thought we were going to steal something. So this issue of being black in spaces of public accommodation is very fraught.

And yet, Starbucks’ response was not what I expected.

They could have simply said this has nothing to do with race, which is what many companies have said in similar instances… They could have said this is one bad apple. And they didn’t; they said this is actually a pervasive problem of racial bias in the country that of course affects our 200,000 employees, and we want to take a proactive step.

And so what we’ve done over the past whirlwind – what, four or five weeks? – has been to help provide an outside set of volunteer, pro-bono – we’re not being paid by the company – eyes and ears on the training that they’re putting together, and push them to ask broader, structural, systemic questions.

We’ve connected them with dozens of experts who do this kind of social science work on behavioural change and cultural change in organisations, who recognise that bias is pervasive, and yet that there are some systems and policies and practices that teams can use to short-circuit a natural association that often fosters stereotypes in the human mind.

And we’ve told them that this is not just a Starbucks a problem, this is an American problem, that the history of exclusion and discrimination of African-Americans and other people of colour in public accommodations is something that needs to be a part of the training, needs to be a part of the context through which is this seen.

BARRO: My sense – would you agree with this? – is that the track record of these sorts of trainings is mixed, and that some of them seem to work and some don’t. How did you guys look at that and try to figure out how to do something that doesn’t just call attention and say, “Hey, we take this seriously as a company,” but that is actually likely to lead to persistent cultural change?

MCGHEE:So yes, like any effort to change the organizational culture of any massive enterprise, there are things that don’t and there are things that don’t.

What we did first was we had interviews with, and the company had interviews with, I think upwards of 40 different experts in this field, and were able to garner lessons and best practices.

Again, I think that what’s happening on May 29 is the launch.

It’s important for the nearly 200,000 front-line employees – who are mostly just working- and middle-class Americans who have these part time jobs, many of whom did not go to college, who may not have had some of the basic understanding about American history, and who certainly have often not had the time to sit and reflect about their own personal identities and the power dynamics that attend to different group identities in our society – to be able to go through role-playing and scenarios about things just like what happened in Philadelphia, and how another outcome could be possible.

BARRO: One aspect of this I find interesting: I feel like corporations have come to take up a larger portion of our emotional space over time as other institutions recede. People identify more with them emotionally, and like it or not, whether they are well-suited or not, we’re going to be relying more on these sorts of entities to engage in social leadership.

And it’s interesting to see Starbucks – especially because they have basically put themselves out as “We’re the third place, we’re not just a company, we’re part of your community” – it’s interesting to see them sort of step up here and say, “This is our responsibility,” and I’m interested to see whether it works or not.

How will we measure, after the fact, whether the training has worked? Is there a rigorous way to look back and figure out whether Starbucks has changed?

MCGHEE: I think there isn’t a way to show a demonstrable difference from the four-hour training on May 29. But this overall effort, absolutely.

BARRO: How do you measure that?

MCGHEE: You would measure a couple of things.

Many retail companies do spot audits of their stores for lots of different things. You can do a spot audit where you have an African American and a white person come in and ask for the same kinds of accommodations, and find out how they are treated. And then you can monitor that over time.

You can also take consumer sentiment surveys in the communities. One of the pieces that has become clear through this process is that Starbucks is often – and certainly this was the case in Philadelphia – sort of the leading edge of what, on the one hand, is good economic development. A Starbucks comes to the neighbourhood, you know that it’s going to have a certain kind of resident following. But that is, for the longtime residents, gentrification.

So, what is the sort of relationship and sentiment: Do the longtime residents – who may be of colour, may be Asian, African American, Latino – feel welcome in the stores? And I think what they have been surprised by is how that’s not always the case.

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