Managing Bias with Behavior

Managing Bias with Behavior 150 150 Wally Hauck, PhD, CSP

A great deal of time, effort and money is being invested to reduce or eliminate bias in our society.  It seems we are now hyper sensitive to any kind of bias that we may see it even when it might not exist.  Starbucks is now on the front line of this investment.  How do we manage this hypersensitivity and maintain our trusting relationships?  Please notice I asked how to manage bias and not reduce or eliminate.  Managing bias is all we can do. The purpose of this blog to explain why and how.

Two African American men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in early May 2018.  Their arrest spurred accusations of racial bias.  They asked to use the restroom.  The manager explained, “Only paying customers can use the restroom.”  The men sat without purchasing anything.  Soon after the manger asked them to leave.  Her justification was the policy at this Starbucks i.e. “only paying customers can occupy a table.”  The men objected to leaving the store claiming to be waiting for a colleague for a business meeting.

To make up for his incident, Starbucks funded a $200,000 inner city grant program.  The two African American men agreed to facilitate training for inner city entrepreneurs with the money.  Starbucks corporate also decided to close all 8,000 corporate owned stores on May 29th for an all-day training program to help its employees to avoid racial bias. (Jason Hanna, 2018)

Was there bias?  Did the manager act inappropriately?  Did the African American men behave inappropriately?  Why were the police called?  Was it because of racial bias?  According to two decades of research we now know all have unconscious biases which can influence our behaviors and/or our decisions. (Mahzarin R. Banaji, 2003)

We cannot control our bias.  It is often unconscious because this is how our brains work.  We associate people with the probability of certain actions based on our experiences. These associations are helpful.  They can also be harmful because they can create biases.

Here is the good news.  It is more useful to accept the fact that we have biases and to behave accordingly.  It is better to accept our biases than to think we can remove them through an all-day training because the research shows removal of bias is impossible.  I could make the case the African American men in Starbucks acted inappropriately because they behaved contrary to the store policies.  I can also make the argument the Starbucks manager behaved inappropriately by calling the police without optimum communication and without seeing any provocation from the men.

If we have bias and cannot remove it with training, what are we to do?  The key is to follow specific behaviors to assure we are always respectful.  Furthermore, it’s useful to have policies which always serve customers.  The African American men may not have been customers that moment because they did not buy anything at that moment.  They were certainly potential customers.  Their behaviors may not have matched the exact store policy, but they were not being disrespectful.  If they had behaved disrespectfully, the manger would have been justified to call the police if they refused to stop.

Our “unconscious” bias is one of the reasons why the typical performance management process often backfires.  A typical performance discussion will have two people with unconscious biases.  Rarely does the performance management process provide an opportunity for the two participants (manager and employee) to acknowledge their bias.  This will create a barrier to trust and communication.

How do you manage bias?  You always behave with respect, you articulate your bias, you optimally communicate what you need to do, and you avoid tolerating those who behave disrespectfully.  Policies should not be treated as inflexible law.  They are guidelines for which there are always exceptions.  The key is to always behave with respect, to consider how to serve customers, and to act respectfully even when those customers are being disrespectful.

Starbucks is investing a great deal of time and money in an all-day training that will not accomplish its purpose.  Perhaps they should just acknowledge bias and conduct respectful behavior training instead.

Check out the interview on C-Suite Best Seller TV to learn more about how to stop leadership malpractice and replace the typical performance review:

Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal.  Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.   Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP.  Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.


Jason Hanna, K. S. (2018, May 3). The men arrested at Starbucks are paying it forward big time. Retrieved from

Mahzarin R. Banaji, M. H. (2003). How (Un)ethical Are You? Harvard Business Review.

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