It was only a few years ago that the phrases “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias” started making the rounds in the legal community.
I can trace the discussion on this blog to a 2014 guest post from a former law professor of mine, Kim Norwood, who talked about it in the context of her own experiences here. I also talked about it in the context of a 2014 study that showed that married men with stay-at-home wives had negative attitudes towards working women.
Implicit bias has gained steam over the last several years. Indeed, Professor Norwood came to our firm in 2015 to give a presentation on The Mischief Biases Play in Law and the Legal Profession. Suffice to say, it was well received and she was asked back again for a further presentation.
All of this is a precursor to what I think may be the biggest development thus far in the mainstreaming of the “implicit bias” theory and training.
Earlier this week, Starbucks announced that it will close all 8000+ of its stores next month to conduct anti-bias training for its 175,000 employees. My guess is that it is one of the biggest single-day training events of its kind attempted in the United States.
The open question is: Will such training work?
According to The New York Times article, the answer remains unknown. Some studies show their effectiveness. But in some instances, it can have a negative effect as well.
Other academics and experts on bias caution that anti-bias training is a sensitive exercise that can be ineffective or even backfire if handled incorrectly. Any training that involves explicitly telling people to set aside their biases is especially likely to fail, said Seth Gershenson, an economist at American University who has also studied anti-bias training, because it requires so much mental energy it can exhaust people.
Even with training, some said, it is exceedingly easy to revert to the original biases. “In the moment of stress, we tend to forget our training,” said Mark Atkinson, the chief executive of Mursion, which provides a simulation platform for training workers in skills like interpersonal interactions.
I’m eager to see how Starbucks continues to develop this. Its response to an earlier incident may be used as a role model to other companies who have had to deal with these types of issues. We should all be hoping its succeeds.