Confronting Racial Bias in the Workplace-How to Avoid Becoming the Next Hashtag Movement

Q.  How do I help my company avoid unconscious bias in the workplace?

A.  A bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared with another. We all have biases. Biases can be based on any number of stereotypes, whether it is race, gender, age, national origin, religion, etc.  In a perfect world, individuals would not act on their biases, however, our world is far from perfect and employees can and do bring their biases to work.

When employees bring biases into the workplace, whether they are overt or subtle, the consequences can be damaging for the employer, especially in this social media age, when racial biases can and will be caught on camera and “go viral” almost instantly. A recent example of such racial biases resulting in racial profiling occurred in a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, when two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend.  The police arrested the two men who, nine hours later, were released without being charged.  The arrest was videotaped by a bystander, who commented that the men did nothing wrong.  The incident resulted in protests in Philadelphia and a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that took on a trending life of its own.  Starbucks however, took swift action by terminating the store manager, apologizing to the two men, and announcing plans to close 8,000 U.S. locations for a day in May to provide a racial-bias education program.

A similar incident occurred recently at an LA Fitness facility in Secaucus, New Jersey, when three LA Fitness employees called the police on a black man, who was an active, paying member of the fitness club for no apparent reason, than believing that he did not belong there. LA Fitness immediately terminated the employees involved, issued a public apology and stated that it is exploring potential training content and opportunities to better train the staff.

Stories like these are not new, however, the platform to raise awareness of racial bias and profiling has expanded with social media. So the question remains, what can and should employers do to confront racial biases and avoid becoming the next #boycott{insert Company name} hashtag?

First and foremost, companies must educate, train, and re-train their employees. In industries that are open to the public, such as retail, for example, employers should regularly conduct racial bias training upon hiring as well as on an annual basis.  This is particularly important in industries with high turnover to ensure that all employees are receiving training.  To be most effective, the training should include real life scenarios that are applicable to the industry where employees can openly talk through how to handle certain issues.  Next, employers should make sure they have clearly defined policies on hand.  These policies should be reviewed during the training and be accessible for reference to all employees.

Even more important than having fair policies, employees must be taught how to consistently enforce such policies. For example, if a coffee shop has a policy that requires patrons to order food/coffee in order to use the internet, bathroom or remain on the premises (which Starbucks does not), this must be enforced by all stores and applied to all patrons, regardless of race, gender, national origin, etc.  If the company has concerns as to whether certain policies will be applied consistently, the most prudent approach is to discard that policy altogether.  Additionally, if a company enforces policies/restrictions regarding entering or remaining in a location open to the public, it should be clearly posted.

Even with the best training programs and clearest policies, a company may still end up on the wrong side of the racial bias equation. So what now?  What should a company do if one or more of their employees exhibits racial bias or profiling towards a customer or member of the public?  Even assuming that the incident does not “go viral,” employers should investigate any incident of alleged racial profiling, including reviewing any video footage and witness accounts.  If the allegations are confirmed, the employer must take corrective action.  In today’s society, there is a low tolerance for racial, ethnic or religious profiling, and failing to do anything other than termination (assuming the profiling is confirmed), could result in public backlash.  The response must be quick.  However, employers must balance the need for speed with the need to conduct a proper investigation.  Companies must also offer the individual who was the victim of profiling a sincere apology and consider including some type of monetary award, depending on the circumstances.  Additionally, employers should review their policies and take the opportunity to re-train employees and redistribute applicable policies.

Kali T. Wellington-James