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Rashon Nelson, left, speaks as Donte Robinson looks on during an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia in April. Their arrests at a local Starbucks quickly became a viral video and galvanized people around the country who saw the incident as modern-day racism. 

Associated Press

On May 29, Starbucks will close 8,000 stores to engage employees in training on the topic of unconscious bias. This is the result of two African-American men being arrested waiting for a colleague to discuss a real estate deal. The men were in the store for two minutes before the manager called for police. The incident is described as an act of unconscious bias. What is unconscious bias? Unconscious bias happens when your background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context have an impact on your decisions and actions without you realizing. In short, implicit or unconscious bias happens when our brains make incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realizing. Closing the stores is a noble effort; however, unconscious bias can’t be “trained” away.

Training on this topic increases awareness about bias. Leadership is the primary cause of behavioral change related to bias. Diversity and inclusion leaders leverage training to set expectations for the type of behavior needed to show equal value for employees and customers. Everything rises and falls on leadership when addressing difficult situations related to diversity and inclusion.

Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, is demonstrating behaviors consistent with repairing damage caused by incidences of bias. I notice he seems personally impacted by this situation. A conversation with the men provided insight into their experience. He had the opportunity to think about how he would feel if this happened to him. Simultaneously, he is keenly aware that the loss of significant amounts of money is a real outcome if he does not lead Starbucks through this moment. One of the compelling reasons companies engage in diversity and inclusion work is because of the impact on the bottom line. Companies want diverse customers interested in doing business with them because it brings more money. However, all it takes is one incident of bias to turn diverse customers away.

It is for this reason that training is a good tool for educating about the impact bias has on a company. However, leadership from the CEO and front-line managers can create company cultures resistant to acts of bias. This happens because leaders are developed to challenge biased behaviors in “real time.” What could have been different if the Starbucks manager was confronted to challenge her assumptions prior to calling the police? I suspect the incident would have been avoided.

Managing bias is a practice in companies committed to diversity and inclusion. Leaders help employees understand the benefits of valuing diversity and inclusion as part of an overall company strategy. Additionally, leaders help employees understand negative effects of bias on team dynamics, productivity and customer relations. The goal is to send clear messages about bias being counterproductive to the achievement of company goals.

It is not easy to confront bias in the workplace. However, specific actions on the part of a leader help with this important leadership task. If something remotely appearing as bias happens, leaders ask themselves questions to determine how best to handle the situation. How does my response, or lack of response, affect the company? If I don’t respond, is it possible I carry the same bias? Am I willing to challenge my own biases? What can I do to help employees change biased behavior?

When it comes to bias, leaders must help the company behave its way out of situations it behaved its way into. Speaking up is a good way to restate company policy and a leader’s personal position about bias in the workplace. Walking away and saying nothing works if employees are managing bias among themselves or with customers. Remaining in the presence of an incident and saying nothing provides time to observe situations to determine factors causing bias. Each action is a viable response if a leader has been developed to use them properly in alignment with company practice. In the end, employees and customers hear what leaders say, but only believe what they see them do. This behavior is the key to turning situations of bias around.

Companies with a publicly stated commitment to diversity and inclusion frequently focus on the joy of creating cultures intent on demonstrating value for diverse employees and customers. It is equally important to prepare leaders to address situations where issues of diversity and inclusion present reputation and fiscal challenges for a company. As we are witnessing with Starbucks, a leader's behavior really matters in these moments.

Founded by sought-after lecturer, conference keynote speaker and leadership development expert Gwen Webber-McLeod, of Auburn, Gwen, Inc. exists for the sole purpose of helping leaders achieve business goals by focusing on the competencies of confidence, competence, courage and calm. The company’s hallmark division, The Leadership Connection: A Resource Centered on Great Leadership, provides leadership education, professional consulting/facilitation, mentoring/coaching and technical assistance in organizations, businesses and public venues. Gwen, Inc. also produces You Can’t Fail, a conference for professional women of color and those who support them. For more information on Gwen, Inc., visit gweninc.com.

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