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We Need Better Implicit Bias Training in Food and Retail

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at CU Boulder chapter.

For most jobs, you will be asked to complete an online training curriculum covering basic company guidelines illustrated by a selectively-diverse group of actors — hey, maybe they’re even animated — and you’ll probably pay just enough attention to pass the multiple-choice question quizzes before you start working. “Be a tolerable coworker” will probably be the only takeaway, and even through the peripheral route to persuasion that most platforms attempt, their effects won’t be long-lasting. “I got it,” you might say, eager for the endless list of modules to conclude. But imagine that every new employee that gets onboarded across every field has that same attitude, “I got it”-ing their way through training, convinced that none of these important reiterations apply to them. When this is the case, no one’s got it. It’s time for a change. 

Minimum wage jobs (i.e., retail and food service) are historically the most accessible to the most diverse pool of candidates because of their widely applicable and accepted skill sets (cash handling, customer service, multitasking, teamwork, product knowledge, etc.). As of February 2022, there were 15.7 million Americans employed in the retail industry and 11.2 million employed in the restaurant industry, according to Statista. Despite the large percentages of the United States population working in these sectors, not enough is being done to teach both management and teams how to achieve a truly shareable, equitable space. 

Popular onboarding software like WorkRamp, WorkDay, Red Carpet, Trainual and Lessonly have features that support human resource training, but usually it’s up to individual companies to decide which curriculum they instate. The depth of the training varies between organizations, but typically courses can be completed with a passing score on a short quiz with no true integration or follow-up assessments. This norm was temporarily disturbed in 2018 when an employee called the cops on two black businessmen, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who’d entered a Starbucks in Philadelphia to meet with a potential business partner. They were arrested for asking to use the restroom after not ordering anything, according to the Washington Post. 

Forty-seven days later, on May 29, Starbucks closed all of its U.S. locations to conduct what the company called “racial-bias education.” It was presented to over 175,000 partners, and Starbucks claimed to release 12 new training modules centered on cultural perspectives, empathy, and diverse team-building over the next year.

Instances of discrimination happen in stores all the time, though not always on the same scale of intensity as Starbucks’s offense. In fact, it’s not always discrimination that occurs, but the sheer consequences of implicit bias. A native English-speaking sales associate might make less of an effort to converse with or sell to a foreign customer than somebody without a language barrier. Women might be targeted more often as potential store-credit-card holders than men, and young shoppers might be more attentively-monitored than older ones. These behaviors are rarely intentional but can be extremely damaging if they aren’t addressed early on in the onboarding process. 

The dangers of discrimination don’t only show up in employee-customer relations but also within organizations themselves, even under Acts like Title VII. As social justice and inclusivity are pushed by youth entering the workforce, there is an increasingly vital responsibility placed upon hiring managers to create a diverse company culture and to ensure that all employees feel safe coming to work. According to a report released by Glassdoor in 2019, 61% of U.S. employees have either experienced or witnessed workplace discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation or race, and 32% never reported their incident because they weren’t sure if it was “a big enough deal.” 

When comparing codes of ethics between companies, common missions come up, like a push to create “work environment(s) where [we] all feel welcomed, valued, and respected,” settings where the culture “[values] diverse voices and approaches,” and a zero-tolerance policy for “discrimination, bullying, harassment, or retaliation.”  While these are great approaches to strive for, a truly equitable workplace needs to start with training that tackles harmful attitudes at the root. 

We need implicit bias training that doesn’t stop at the end of onboarding. In a survey conducted in 2021 by Harvard Business Review, a sample of 500 working adults revealed that most organizations make implicit bias training voluntary because they’re worried about a backlash, most companies don’t collect or track information about the hiring trends they claim to be trying to improve, and only 10% of companies give their employees concrete strategies to reduce bias. Luckily, there are approaches being developed (or rediscovered) and implemented that have proven successful, one being “prejudice habit-breaking” by Patricia Devine. This model educates participants about implicit bias, explains how it can be measured and highlights how it affects marginalized communities. Participants take an implicit association test, receive feedback on their results, and are taught how they can target their weaknesses.

Even beyond better implicit bias training, cultures where speaking up is encouraged and hires of all backgrounds are welcomed are the foundation for more equitable workplaces. It will take an entire company to execute big changes, but you can start small. You can offer to be an advocate for coworkers feeling ostracized or unsafe, bring up concerns in meetings, and be responsible for your own bias. One step at a time, work will become a safer space for everyone. 

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Sydney is a contributing writer and Editor in Chief for Her Campus (CU Boulder). She joined Her Campus during her first semester of freshman year, and her favorite things to write are concert/album reviews, reflective essays and pieces about local events or organizations. She loves getting to empower women to explore their voices and contribute their insights. When she's not writing or studying, you can find her taking photos, hiking or trying her hand at barre chords on guitar. Sydney is currently a junior majoring in strategic communication and pursuing minors in journalism and creative writing. She is a Norlin Scholar, an active member of PRSSA and interned with Renewable Energy Systems' marketing department over the summer. Following undergrad, she hopes to combine her passions for creative writing, public relations strategy and clean energy to ensure a brighter future for upcoming generations. While she's not writing or studying, you can find her playing music, attending concerts around Denver, shooting senior portraits, hiking at Chautauqua or spending time with her family. She hopes to publish a novel someday.