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Back-to-back racial profiling allegations in St. Louis highlight need for training to combat bias
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Back-to-back racial profiling allegations in St. Louis highlight need for training to combat bias

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Starbucks Race Together

In this March 18, 2015 file photo, Larenda Myres holds an iced coffee drink with a "Race Together" sticker on it at a Starbucks store in Seattle. Starbucks baristas will no longer write "Race Together" on customers' cups starting Sunday, ending as planned a visible component of the company's diversity and racial inequality campaign that had sparked widespread criticism in the week since it took effect. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Private and public institutions are taking a closer look at bias among employees as alleged incidents of racial profiling grab headlines in St. Louis and around the nation.

On Tuesday, local grocery chain Schnucks fired an employee who initially denied two black customers a money order at the Concord Village location, where the customers alleged racial profiling. On the same day, Nordstrom Rack department store executives apologized for an incident last week where three young black men were falsely accused of stealing from a Brentwood location.

“We didn’t handle this situation well, and we apologized to these young men and their families,” Nordstrom Rack said in a statement, adding that the company is “enhancing our internal practices and trainings to help ensure this doesn’t happen again.” A spokeswoman said there were no more specifics on the process at this time.

A team of Schnucks executives and employees have held meetings since October to focus on diversity and inclusion, and to plan training for the company’s 13,000 employees in avoiding unconscious or implicit biases, company spokeswoman Erica Van Ross said Wednesday. She said the company is working with the Praxis Group, a local consulting firm, to develop the training, but its format might not be the same for each employee.

“What I face at my desk is very different from what someone working at one of our stores does,” Van Ross said. “So the question is what does the training look like when it’s applied at our stores.”

In March, Schnucks asked its security contractor to reassign two guards from working any of their locations after they blocked a drag performer from shopping at the Schnucks’ South Grand location. The performer, by the stage name Maxi Glamour, who had gone shopping after a show, recorded the incident on camera and later received an apology from the company.

Van Ross said the company hopes to roll out a plan for bias training “in the weeks to come.”

For some commentators on social media, the back-to-back incidents bolster the impression that St. Louis and Missouri have a long way to go in promoting a culture of racial equity. Just last summer, the national NAACP issued its first-ever “travel advisory” warning people of color against visiting Missouri, citing, among other concerns, a law that rolls back discrimination protections for employees of the state.

But similar racial profiling incidents in other states that drew national outrage may have presented opportunities for major corporations to promote unconscious or implicit bias training on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.

In April, Starbucks announced it would close 8,000 of its locations for a day on May 29 to put employees through anti-bias training. The announcement followed national outrage over the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia location who were waiting for a friend to arrive.

Starbucks incident highlights perils of shopping while black

Demonstrators occupy the Starbucks that has become the center of protests Monday, April 16, 2018, in Philadelphia. Starbucks wants to add training for store managers on "unconscious bias," CEO Kevin Johnson said Monday, as activists held more protests at a Philadelphia store where two black men were arrested after employees said they were trespassing. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

But the field of unconscious or implicit bias training, designed to combat the negative role of stereotypes towards certain groups of people, is still “a crapshoot,” said Calvin Lai, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

Lai is on the executive committee of Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization that has conducted research on the issue since the early 2000s. Lai said the bulk of relevant research was done between 1970 and 2005, which has generated consensus on broadly defined “best practices” that are essentially just starting points.

He said companies are more likely to have success if they use a multidimensional approach, not only with training but in tweaking policies to remove the potential for an employee to act on a bias.

“It’s more a look along the lines of, ‘Where can we reduce the amount of discretion or leeway employees have to use race in their decision making?’” Lai said. “‘What can we do where they don’t intentionally or unintentionally use race as a factor?’”

Research has shown some policy changes meant to address bias can have the inverse effect on some employees, Lai said.

“Historically, diversity training is more effective if it’s voluntary rather than mandatory,” Lai said. “If you make it mandatory you can get some resistant managers in the room who are then even less likely to hire or promote minorities than before.”

Formally established mentoring programs can also address bias among employees long term, Lai said. New and older employees often develop informal mentoring relationships, but ethnic minority employees disproportionately get excluded from such dynamics, which can affect performance and options for promotion.

“Companies can formally assign mentors to curb inequality and improvements and promotions of minorities to managerial positions,” Lai said.

But, ultimately, long-term solutions to bias between co-workers or between employees and customers are still a work in progress.

“It would be really difficult to imagine employers having so much power to change their employees’ hearts and minds,” Lai said. “But they can have a lot of power in controlling whether these biases manifest in how they interact with each other and with customers.”

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