Are Implicit Bias Trainings Enough to Actually Stop Incidents Like Philadelphia Starbucks?


On 4/12, two black men were sitting at a table at Starbucks without making a purchase and were arrested when declining a store manager’s demand to leave.

Since then, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson has announced changes to its policy including mandatory implicit bias tests, shutting down all US Starbucks stores on May 29th. This opens larger conversations about what is implicit bias, how it can be harmful, and whether Starbucks’ implicit bias test can actually make a difference.

Implicit bias refers to the automatic associations people have in their minds about a group of people, including stereotypes. They are formed subconsciously and unintentionally, but result in the prejudiced behaviors, attitudes, and actions for or against a person or group of people.

According to CNN, studies have shown that implicit bias contributes to “shooter bias”, the tendency for the police to shoot unarmed black suspects more often than white ones

Starbucks’ Implicit Bias training intends to combat the issue of implicit bias. However according to Cornell professor, Michelle Duguid’s research, sometimes implicit bias trainings have a negative effect on its audience; by explaining to people that stereotyping is common, people are sometimes actually more likely to express those biases.

She explains,

“The purpose of the implicit bias training is to not only recognize that everyone is biased, but to provide concrete or systemic ways to mitigate these stereotypes.”

This can be done through erasing applicants’ names on initial resumes or adding mentorship programs.  Staff should read, watch, and get to know positive, counter-stereotypical portrayals of minority groups.

Joelle Emmerson, founder of diversity and inclusion strategy firm, Paradigm, adds on to say,

“Companies have to give strategies to put [bias] recognition to work and make it part of a broader diversity and inclusion program… Unconscious-bias training is an easy thing to latch onto as a solution, but companies should not think they can just do a training and be done with it.”

San Mateo County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services (BHRS) leadership staff are familiar with implicit bias testing and it is only one piece of a comprehensive effort to becoming a multicultural organization.  A multicultural organization is inclusive and responsive to a diverse workforce across all levels of the company;  encourages staff to contribute their unique perspectives; displays an absence of discrimination and prejudice and seeks to recruit; retains and promotes diverse staff in leadership roles. 

Staff are being encouraged  to take the Harvard Implicit Bias Test for race, disability, sexuality, weight and skin-tone and reflect on the following:

  1. What did you learn about yourself taking the test?
  2. How does a preference over one versus the other influence your attitude, behavior and decisions?
  3. What do you need (i.e. cues, reminders, tools, etc.) to be mindful of these biases?
  4. If you are willing, share with a colleague about your experience and the insights you gained.

The Office of Diversity and Equity looks forward to hearing more about Starbucks’ implicit bias training and hope it goes beyond a gesture by actually creating a positive impact on its staff. 

For more info about the Office of Diversity and Equity, visit their website. 

Written by Kristie Lui, Office of Diversity and Equity