"If the customer were white, would you be acting that way?" This is the simple conversation starter that can prevent racial problems in stores and restaurants. 

Nordstrom Rack president Geevy Thomas flew to St. Louis to personally apologize to three black teenagers who were accused of shoplifting and even had the police called on them, when, in fact, they were simply shopping.

The three teenagers, Mekhi Lee, Dirone Taylor, and Eric Rogers, described having their every move followed by two store employees. As if that wasn't enough, after they made purchases and headed out the door, police were waiting for them.

In April, Starbucks made headlines when a store manager called the police on two black men who were sitting in the store and had not purchased anything, saying they were waiting for a friend. Waiting for a friend to arrive before purchasing a drink is extremely common Starbucks behavior. Yet it escalated into arrests of the two men. (Notably, these two men, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, settled with the city of Philadelphia for $1 each and $200,000 for a program for young entrepreneurs. That's classy.)

Starbucks plans to shut down 8,000 stores on May 29, 2018, to have employees complete "implicit bias" training. Implicit bias is the theory that we're all biased and we don't know about all our biases. It doesn't mean we're bad people--it just means that we're normal people. We couldn't get through our day if we had to stop and think through everything we do carefully. We use our past experiences to help us make rapid decisions.

The problem is that our past experiences, whether gained through personal experiences or media reporting, can lead us to make false assumptions about the people in front of us. That's why Kristen Pressner, global head of human resources at Roche Diagnostics, has a simple method of "flip it to test it" that can help us sort through our biases.

Most businesses cannot afford to shut down for a day to train employees. And even if you could, businesses like Starbucks and Nordstrom Rack have relatively high turnover compared with white-collar jobs. So you have to keep the training going constantly.

It's not a problem to incorporate it into your onboarding, but you should be supplementing it with the simple conversation. 

It's not just race--shopping while looking poor is also frequently a problem. Ask your employees to stop and think, "If the customer looked rich, would I be doing this?" 

The nice side of this is that it doesn't require an in-depth understanding of how your brain works or any of the academic articles on an implicit bias. It's simple and it works. 

Published on: May 10, 2018