Wake Up & Smell The Bias

Unless you’ve spent the the last month in hiding or a coma, you have likely heard the story of two Black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, being arrested by Philadelphia police in response to a Starbucks’ Manager calling 911 after two minutes of their “loitering.” (Some would call it waiting.) (Full story) The reaction was resounding and sparked some powerful think pieces and thought, some from my colleagues here at The Kaleidoscope Group.

I’ve been struck, though, by a particular reaction: shock.

On the one hand, yes, the entire incident is shocking. On its face, the notion that this manager would call 911 for police assistance in this situation is… well… shocking. On the other hand, for many, including me, who live the racial reality that drove that call, the incident wasn’t shocking at all.

How could it be that this bias-driven incident could be mind-blowing “in this day and age” for some and merely a reminder of personal profiles in profiling for others?

The gap between shock and familiarity is one worth exploring.

I May Be Biased

First, let’s look at bias. What is it?

Bias is simply a preference, for or against.

Simple enough, right? We all have our biases, and in many cases the impact of our biases is relatively low. I am from New York. My wife is from Chicago. I like New York style pizza. My wife, apparently, likes… to be wrong. (But I may be biased.)

Things get far more complicated, though, when we turn our attention to biases that impact how groups of people and individuals within those groups are treated.

Our biases can:

So, while it is true that we all have our biases, if we’re to have companies (and a society) that live up to our ideals around merit, fairness, and ultimately, justice, it is also true that we must become aware of our biases and manage them effectively.

Further, given the significant and ever-growing body of evidence that diversity and inclusion contribute to the bottom line through, for example, the identification of a wider talent pool, the formation and development of more effective teams, and the spurring of innovation, it is clear that there is an opportunity cost paid for unmanaged bias.

Like Water To A Fish

One question is obvious: If unmanaged bias is bad for the bottom line, why don’t we manage it?

Quite simply… it is our privilege not to manage it.

Let’s go back to the shocked (and not so shocked) reactions to the StarbucksⓇ story. See, I’ve been followed through stores, stopped on the street by police and… encouraged to allow them to search my bag and/or person, asked for identification while simply trying to get to class on time. So, I see that story, shake my head, and think, “Waiting while Black. Add it to the list.”

For someone who has not had these experiences, this might all be invisible. They may never face the reality of the bias because they are never faced with the reality of the bias. That’s privilege in action, the opportunity to remain blissfully unaware of a given bias or set of biases. Privilege to the privileged, to the societal insider in a given dimension, is like water to a fish; it is so ubiquitous it goes unnoticed, but without it, life as they know it would be impossible.

Managing bias requires that we increase our awareness of bias. And that may mean learning some things about ourselves.

Sizing Up Bias

Now, not all biases or biased acts are created equal. The results can range from awkward moments to grave danger. Let’s take a look at the range. And, staying with our StarbucksⓇ theme, let’s define three sizes: Tall, Grande, and Venti.

Tall: I travel for work and, as a result, find myself on planes fairly often. One particular time I boarded and took my seat, as I normally do. Then, as we got underway, I heard a woman’s voice announcing flight details. For a moment, I was confused. I spotted all of the flight attendants and none of them were speaking. Who could– “Hey, dummy,” my mind interjected, “…it’s the pilot.” I sat there with that “revelation” for a while. Here I was, on my way to deliver diversity and inclusion training, and my own bias kept me from the obvious answer to the ridiculous riddle. The pilot was a woman.

Somewhere in me existed the bias that pilots are men. Had you asked me a minute before if a woman could fly a plane, my conscious answer would’ve been, “Yes. That’s a ridiculous question.” But that bias, however unconscious, was obviously there.

Now, luckily, I’m not in charge of hiring pilots. So, my bias never cost anyone a job or a raise. That’s why I designate this incident as a Tall. However, the incident did get me to ask where else this gender blind spot existed.

Grande: There are instances where we act, unconsciously, based on our bias. These instances qualify as Grande because they do impact others. One example of this is the “Hire Like Me” phenomenon.

We don’t set out to be discriminatory in our hiring, but sometimes we “just like that guy” or feel “she would be a great fit.” While that can all seem innocent enough, it can be far from harmless. The reality is that most of us are most comfortable with what is most familiar. Therefore, leaving these “instincts” unchecked and unchallenged can lead to workplaces that are (almost) as segregated and monolithic as workplaces of years past when signs were placed in windows. (https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-cant-silicon-valley-solve-its-diversity-problem)

Just as I had to take a tough look at my bias about women pilots, individuals and organizations must constantly look at policies, practices, and underlying beliefs that could be leading to a lack of diversity and the diminished productivity that is its hallmark.

Could that shelf be lower? Is that element of the dress code relevant to performance? Does parental leave signal a lack of commitment?

Just because the bias is unconscious doesn’t mean we get a pass. It is our individual and collective responsibility to become evermore conscious and to do no harm.  

Venti: But let’s be honest. Sometimes, both the bias and the action it spurs are conscious. This is the biggest “size” because it often has the biggest immediate impact.

That may be why the reaction to the incident in that Philadelphia StarbucksⓇ struck such a collective nerve. Not only did that manager clearly work from some biases about who Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were and why they were there, but she then moved to the extreme action of engaging the police to have them removed.

The ripples that emanated from that action are better described as waves:

  • Two men spent hours in police custody, completely unnecessarily, experiencing whatever fear, humiliation, frustration, and/or anger we all might, subjected to such injustice. (Further, given statistics on disparate treatment and outcomes, along racial lines, in police interactions, there is also the reality that their very lives were placed in increased danger once the call was made.)
  • StarbucksⓇ, as a corporation, was thrust into crisis mode. Though StarbucksⓇ CEO Kevin Johnson took swift, decisive, and effective action to address the crisis, (https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2018/05/06/the-psychology-of-apology-how-did-starbucks-ceo-kevin-johnson-do/#2b665264ac8d), there’s no denying that a torrent of negative publicity, complete with threats of boycotts were damaging to the brand.
  • The decision to shut down operations, company-wide, for racial bias training may be an effective first step in “downsizing” the effect of racial bias on the company, its employees, and ultimately, its customers. That said, there was certainly revenue lost and the collateral damage of inconveniencing and even upsetting customers whose daily routines were interrupted by the closures.

All of that from one ill-advised 9-1-1 call made by a single manager. Bias costs. And when it plays out as “venti,” it costs big.

So, wake up and smell the bias. It may be a tall, grande or venti, but it is almost certainly there, on some level, whether you’ve spent years working on it or never thought about it until this moment. Whatever the size, though, the sooner we wake up to our biases and their impact, the better off we’ll be.

The lasting lesson of the Philadelphia incident may be that the best part of waking up… is learning how much better we can be, our companies can be, our world can be when we “stay woke.”

Orlando Bishop
Thought Leader
The Kaleidoscope Group
E: orlando.bishop@kgdiversity.com