Bias Bit Starbucks in the Butt & Why You Could Be Next!

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Following the event that recently took place in one of Starbucks stores in Philadelphia, Starbucks officials have found themselves in some potentially deep trouble. They've received quite a lot of heat from the press. So much heat, that they decided to close all their US-based stores for a day. That's some 8,000 stores, for the record. I’ll let you do the Math on lost revenue that resulted from this.

Whether or not racial bias was the sole cause of the incident, this event has set into motion a much-necessary avalanche of deep-thinking and questions, from executives and companies across the world. One of them being:

Is unconscious bias hindering our company’s success?

Science marks subconscious bias as a negative trait, and in the context of managing people and making effective business decisions, it has significant negative repercussions. If you're a business owner or leader, you may want to examine this sooner rather than later, or you might just fall victim to what Starbucks did. 

In my work with leaders, I help them identify and mitigate multiple forms of bias. There are almost 20 biases. And every one of them messes with your decision-making ability. Until your team does a deep dive into the topic, consider these common areas of business where bias reveals itself:

  • Hiring Bias - Occurs at the very beginning of the potential work relationship. Based on the applicant’s race, skin colour, their name color or even that tattoo you happen to spot on their way in, you’re prone to bias. The people in the interview may prejudge the candidate and decide against hiring them without giving this person a fair chance.
  • Performance Review Bias - If we decide to perceive a person in a certain way in advance, we may unconsciously look for flaws in their performance at work, and emphasize the bad stuff while undervaluing the excellent work they do. Similarly, if someone favours (or owes them a favour), they’re likely to say far too many good things.
  • Promotion Bias- A person pre-labeled as faulty or possessing an undesirable personality feature is highly likely to be omitted when it’s time to evaluate them for a promotion. Watch out because you might just be overlooking someone who could get out there and create a lot more success for another company, or heck – they might even become your competitor.

Three Examples of Workplace Bias

  • Halo Effect - Occurs when we 'decide' that we like a certain person. Whether it's thanks to a positive first impression or some particular personality trait we like about them, we may end up treating a person better than anyone else. It happens due to a blurred perception, where we concentrate on the good and ignore or downplay the bad in a person.
  • Horns Effect - The exact opposite of the aforementioned 'halo effect.’ If someone makes a wrong first impression on us or makes a blunder, we may end up judging all of their subsequent actions based on our pre-made evaluation of that person. Quite unfortunate, and this can change how we perceive their abilities, skills and talent. The result – good people get missed and don’t have a chance to contribute to the success of your company. 
  • Beauty Bias – Humans rely on visual input to create their realities. It is a fundamental survival technique, but our brains have evolved over time and we now need to be mindful of the impact that visual cues offer us. Some studies indicate that beautiful people are considered to have a higher likelihood of success. On the flip side, someone’s looks may cause people to avoid taking them seriously. Women in the workplace are often conscious about people not perceiving them as “smart and capable” because they are ”pretty.” That bias also plays into working relationships with co-workers. People who are perceived as better looking might end up being the target or jealous or insecure colleagues.

So, how do you battle bias?

If nothing else, focus on these two simple strategies

  • Staff Training - As a business leader, the first step toward battling bias in your workforce is to familiarize your staff with the concept and its detrimental effects on team performance, company culture, productivity and the overall results of your business. Create space for open dialogue about this. If people don’t understand how their brains operate, they can’t change their behaviours.

Addressing unconscious bias is not just a fad. Failing to address this has a huge cost for your company (or perhaps it already has!). You might be driving away good people and promoting bad people and bad behaviours. Once staff is trained, monitor every-day habits to ensure bias doesn’t creep into their decision making.

  • Create Diverse & Inclusive Teams - Diversity has often been misunderstood. Companies need to cultivate two forms of diversity - cognitive and identity diversity. When they do this, people are less likely to display bias in their decision-making. A diverse team brings in multiple perspectives and new ways of thinking.

Diversity also teaches people the value of those who look and think differently from them. When diverse teams interact with each other, they open their brains to alternative ways and thoughts. In general, diversity is a powerful thing. Multiple studies have linked diversity to improved performance. It’s a key element in smarter and highly productive teams. It’s also a powerful way to minimize unconscious bias.

Companies may never be able to fully eliminate subconscious bias, and that’s not the goal. What companies need to focus on, is minimizing the impact of bias.

If you have a brain, you are biased. Bias helps us pick our friends, decide what we want to buy, what we’d like to wear and the types of vacations we take. Bias can help us but it can also bite us in the butt, the way it did Starbucks.

As leaders and organizations work through bias, keep in mind that this is something that happens naturally. There’s no need to crucify an employee for displaying bias (especially if he had no clue) but it is important to make them aware and have them become more mindful of their actions.

Right from the hiring process, understand the role of unconscious bias. Create structures that assess and mitigate these biases. Leaders must emphasize cooperation and nurture a merit-based workplace culture. Encourage conversations between your staff and let everyone describe their experience working at your organization. Invite your clients and customers in the dialogue (or 'trialogue,' rather), and ask for their feedback.

Bringing our unconscious to the forefront is the first step in tackling bias. Engage in conversations, educate yourself and your employees, and then start taking bite-sized steps to consciously shifting your mindset, and your actions.