On the afternoon of May 29, Starbucks plans to close more than 8,000 stores to give its employee racial bias training. Although corporate leaders may mean well, Starbucks is deluding itself if it thinks that a few hours of bias training will change deeply ingrained perceptions or prejudices among their staff. This type of compulsory training has a poor record of achieving the positive outcomes that corporations hope for, and there is little evidence this time will be different. 

Racial biases are in the national spotlight because of the arrest of two black men, who were non-paying guests waiting for a colleague and who wanted to use the restroom at a Philadelphia Starbucks store. The viral video of the arrest tarnished Starbucks reputation as one of the most politically progressive companies. 

The company quickly announced it would put 175,000 employees through mandatory bias training. This was an effort to address the ensuing racially charged uproar and buy time as the company figured out its corporate policy on loitering. 

This week, Starbucks finally clarified that non-paying guests can use its cafes, including restrooms, and provided detailed instructions on how staff should deal with disruptive behavior. This new policy may lead to a host of other issues, but at least it removes the discretion that led to the infamous 9-1-1 phone call. 

Starbucks still plans to proceed with the bias education to ensure that the Philadelphia episode never happens again. The action plan is bound to fail, though, because compulsory anti-bias training does not work. Not only does it fail to change people’s perceptions over the long-term, it can also trigger an unexpected backlash.

For decades corporations have employed diversity programs and anti-bias training as tools to increase diversity and prevent embarrassing events. The intention of diversifying staff is important and needed, but the programs have failed to deliver meaningful or lasting results.

Harvard Business Review analyzed three decades of data on diversity programs and interviews with management at over 800 corporations. The researchers found that training does not usually work because while it teaches participants how to answer questions about bias correctly, they forget those right answers within a day or two. The information is not internalized and so does not become transformational. 

This happens because people don’t respond well to compulsory courses, but rebelagainst being force-fed information. By contrast, voluntary training leads to the opposite response and delivers better results, such as increased numbers of minority groups in management. Anti-bias or diversity training also often uses negative messages such as “Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.” But people aren’t won over by fear. 

Such training has also led to the unintended consequences of activating biases about others. Participants have reported leaving training confused, angry, or feeling more animosity toward differences and other groups. When groups of people such as managers are targeted for added training, they resist the message because they feel singled out as culprits for something they may not have done.

Even effectively designed, voluntary training may not stop incidents like the one that has generated so much controversy for Starbucks. In that case, the store manager acted within her discretion over how to apply the company’s corporate policy on loitering. Although the company’s new open-door policy may help change that. 

Starbucks gets some credit for trying to address an issue that has divided Americans for generations. However, this anti-bias training is likely to be a flop. Like the company’s “Race Together” cup-writing campaign, which was meant to stimulate conversations about race, this effort may also get panned as tone deaf with customers and burdensome to baristas. 

Rather than anti-bias training, Starbucks should formulate a clear policy that demands all guests be treated equally and ensures that its employees act consistently.