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THE INC. LIFE

Recent Incidents at Starbucks, Yale, and Nordstrom Rack Prove That Every Company Needs to Talk About Bias

With diligent effort, we can create environments where everyone feels like they belong.

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BY Sonia Thompson - 17 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Last month, two black men waited for a colleague in a Philadelphia Starbucks and were arrested after an employee called the police. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized, and Starbucks will close more than 8,000 stores for a few hours on May 29 to conduct racial bias training.

Earlier this month, three black teens were shopping for prom attire in a Missouri Nordstrom Rack when another customer harassed them and accused them of stealing. Employees called the police. The president of Nordstrom Rack reached out to the families to "offer sincere apologies, listen to their concerns and express our extreme disappointment that this situation occurred."

Last week, Lolade Siyonbola, a black graduate student at Yale fell asleep in the common area of her dorm while writing a paper. A white student called the police. It took 15 minutes of questioning for police to determine that Siyonbola had every right to be in the building. In an email to the university community, Yale President Peter Salovey wrote:

"Universities are not utopias, and people of color experience racism on our campus as they do elsewhere in our country. This fact angers and disappoints me...Each of us has the power to fight against prejudice and fear. I hope you will join me in doing so."

Can you spot the trend? Here's some bad news: Your company is prone to making the same mistakes.

The good news: You can do something about it.

Businesses aren't utopias, either. Here's what to do about it

Business is about belonging. That's why you will consistently win customers when you make them feel like they belong with you.

The incidents noted above, in addition to various other recent marketing fails by Heineken, H&M, Dove, and Pepsi show that many companies are struggling with how to create that sense of belonging with diverse customer groups. As a result, they're pushing those customers away. No bueno.

These challenges are really a symptom of a larger problem. Without a company culture committed to diversity, inclusion, and belonging, you can't have a high-performing team poised to serve your customers.

It's a shame, because most companies invest a ton in diversity and inclusion programs, offices, and policies designed to cultivate teams where everyone feels like they belong. But far too many diversity and inclusion efforts are ineffective. They're just lip service. In many instances, they don't address the root cause of what thwarts real progress: bias.

Dr. Aviva Legatt teaches a course on bias at the University of Pennsylvania. She told me addressing bias head-on is the key to unlocking the power of high-performing diverse teams that can serve customers like no other:

"People really need to get uncomfortable in order to talk about and learn about diversity...The reality is we can't really put ourselves in a place to confront what might be hindering diversity and inclusion and belonging until we look at our own biases."

We all have biases. If you aren't aware they exist, it'll be difficult for you to see how they impact your interactions with others. It'll prevent you from developing the kind of empathy you need to effectively work with and serve people whose life experiences are different from your own.

The free Harvard Implicit Bias test is a great starting point. I recently took one of those assessments and was intrigued by the biases it revealed.

You can also, of course, put your team through bias training (like Starbucks is doing). Recognize that one training session won't be enough. Creating a culture that leans into empathy, dialogue, and cultural intelligence will take time and diligent effort.

When you walk a mile in the shoes of others, the experience won't be as comfortable as the journey in your own. The insights, perspective, and awareness you'll gain in the process will be worth any temporary discomfort.

As a result, you'll be equipped to create a culture where everyone feels like they belong. They'll be able to create the same environment for your customers.

All of them.

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