Business and finance journalist, Matt Packer discusses key news stories with the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) head of research, policy & standards, Kate Cooper.
Nothing a large American cooperation does is ever likely to escape media coverage or public scrutiny for long. Especially if it’s seen in any way to be a publicity stunt rather than for the benefit of real people.
Two such companies to receive either criticism or scepticism in recent weeks for supposedly positive educational initiatives are Starbucks and Walmart.
Coffee chain Starbucks closed all 8,000 of its US outlets on 29 May so that staff could take part in mandatory unconscious bias training.
The initiative stemmed from an incident in which black men Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson – both 23-year-old entrepreneurs – were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks store for acting “suspiciously”. The attending police officers had responded to a phone call from a Starbucks employee at the outlet who had said that the men were “trespassing”. However, while Nelson and Robinson had not yet ordered food or drink, they had simply been waiting for a friend to join them.
The on-site arrests set social media channels ablaze, alarming Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson and chairman Howard Schultz. Johnson quickly announced the day of mandatory bias training for all employees.
However, staff who spoke with Time magazine for an article on the training day cast doubt on whether the approach and delivery was really addressing the issues.
In the piece, BAME Starbucks staff indicated that the initiative was superficial and decidedly non-interactive, with employee Jason saying: “It seems like a lot of talking from the videos, and not enough discussion from us … It kinda reaffirms things that I know already.”
Mexican worker Alicia added: “They told us we need to be ‘colour brave’ instead of colour blind, and it was the whitest thing I’ve ever heard. Me and my co-workers of colour felt uncomfortable the entire time.”
Clearly no company is going to solve racial bias by itself in the course of a four-hour session, but how can we achieve true cultural change through unconscious bias training?
“While I acknowledge the comments in the Time article,” says Kate Cooper, “I still applaud Starbucks for what they have tried to do here. The real issue is that, for any massive, company-wide initiative in an organisation of this scale – and Starbucks is sprawling – it can’t be just a one-way transmission, however engaging the content.”
She explains: “The objective is to put people in situations where they can carefully consider not just what unconscious bias means in general, but what it could mean to them – and how it may impact upon their behaviours. That’s really specialist work, and it can’t be done cheaply. It has to be properly resourced.”
Cooper points out: “as the company has made an ongoing commitment, there’s scope here for following the initial session up by breaking teams into smaller groups and venturing into greater depth with more of a two-way format. Which will be where it gets more expensive. Even if they’d got the content of the introductory session absolutely spot-on, it would still need to be consolidated in additional sessions or work streams. It takes that kind of extra effort to change people’s behaviours.”
She adds: “Starbucks has sparked awareness in a consciousness-raising exercise. Now it’s a matter of keeping on with that message and with the challenge to staff to do better and set an example. Now we have had critiques in a high-profile publication from Starbucks staff about the programme’s whiteness, the people who structured the initiative are also in the position of being challenged – and of having to challenge themselves as to what is appropriate, and how much advice one must take from those who are most affected.”
Over at retail giant Walmart, meanwhile, bosses have recently offered employees a very different kind of training.
Each of its 1.5 million US employees is being given the chance to take a higher education course for just $1 per day, with Walmart subsidising the rest of the courses’ costs.
However, the initiative was met with scepticism from some for only applying to specific subjects – and a limited list of universities.
A shared language
In a doubtful article about the scheme, Fast Company wrote: “The subsidised college education is for online courses only, and only through the University of Florida; Brandman University in Irvine, California; and Bellevue University in Nebraska. And you can’t just study any major you want. You’ll need to either major in business or supply chain management.”
However, the business journal did concede that thousands of Walmart’s employees could find a programme like this advantageous. “The appeal of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and coming away from it debt-free can’t be denied,” it said, “even if the major isn’t in your preferred subject area.”
Cooper argues that the positive impacts of investing in employee learning and development enable organisations to provide their staff with high-quality, non-financial rewards. “By encouraging people to learn,” she says, “the benefit is not just a reward for the individuals who are doing the learning. You’re also saying, ‘We’re a learning organisation. We want people to grow and develop’.”
She notes: “By being as focused as Walmart are here – in terms of stipulating the types of courses that staff are able to take – that will yield shared benefits, such as a sharper business awareness across the firm. Plus, a shared language for discussing business goals and concepts.”
However, Cooper warns that it won’t necessarily add to the enthusiasm of staff who simply think that learning is great for its own sake. “The Ford motor company has always been a real pioneer on this front,” she explains. “They run a scheme called the Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), whereby you are able to do any course on any subject, anywhere. That could even include arts and humanities subjects, such as photography. The reported impacts upon morale, retention and a host of other areas that leaders are always looking to improve have been significant.”
She adds: “The firm must ensure that it is able to harness that enthusiasm and not let people feel that their journeys are in any way wasted. Any such feeling may be a natural by-product of the firm having such a tight focus on what it wants its staff to learn. If you sponsor people on a degree, they will come back as subtly different people, with higher expectations. So, if you are unable to accommodate those changed and more developed individuals, the risk is that it could lead to some dissatisfaction. Walmart must watch out for that.”
About the authors
Matt Packer is a business and finance journalist who provides expert comment for organisations such as CPA Global, Inemmo Leadership Development Consultancy, The Institute of Leadership & Management and the Chartered Management Institute.
Kate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). She has appeared on BBC Television, BBC Radio 4, has a regular column in Dialogue magazine, is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda.