By Jessica Miller Merrell

Early in my HR career, I worked for an employer that faced a class action lawsuit stemming from 20 EEO claims from employees who believed they were discriminated against at the location. The class-action lawsuit grew to 65 people from surrounding business locations who also said they experienced discrimination. The situation was hostile. My car was keyed and I was repeatedly threatened. I had to leave the location with another person, not because I was the one who had done anything wrong, but because I was caught in an escalated situation that included angry employees, picketing, and regular visits from the legal team and various corporate leaders.

I was assigned to work at the new location where I spent hours combing over employee records, cataloging employee promotions, raises, performance conversations, and even attendance, documenting all these incidents on a series of spreadsheets. This was before paperless HR. We pushed through seven years of employee files, job changes, terminations, and employee and manager conversations for a location that had 150% turnover on average and a staff of 200-250 employees.

What is Unconscious Bias?

What we were looking for was a pattern of discriminatory behavior, whether implicit or unconscious. The legal team took statements and talked in detail with all employees at my location in addition to the 65 people involved in the class action lawsuit.

As human beings, we are creatures of habit whether we know it or not. Our culture and experiences shape our decisions. Some of these decisions are made without a real understanding of why they came to be. When one of those decisions becomes a habit that happens without knowing the “why” or the “how” behind it, it becomes unconscious. It becomes bias when that decision or action targets or discriminates against a type of person.

In the recent situation involving Starbucks, the company is trying to determine if the actions of the manager in question (who asked African American customers who weren’t making a purchase to leave and who then called the police) if those decisions were not only discriminatory, but also if the manager knew that these decisions were made based on race without even realizing it, thus implying unconscious bias.

Implicit Bias Potential Considered In Every Employment Action

I’m not here to debate whether or not the decision was unconscious or conscious. I can be certain, however, that I have been in similar situations, having worked in retail management, working in HR, and also serving (on occasion) as the manager on duty. In my career, I’ve asked many customers to leave who have made disturbances or loitered without making purchases. I’ve called the police to have people escorted off the property, and I’ve banned individuals from returning to my store location. Never once was this decision or choice made because of race, rather because I was concerned about the safety of my store, my employees, and the customers for whom I was responsible. I can’t, however, speak for the Starbucks manager or for Starbucks.

Unconscious bias isn’t new. Working in HR, it’s something I’ve had to consider when I’ve been part of any employment decision. Is there a pattern of discrimination that exists in the employment actions of the company, a specific location, or a manager? I look at the 20,000 foot view of every single employment decision to consider if bias can be implied. Then I work with both the legal team and leadership to help them understand the potential liability of a specific employment decision that might have a pattern or bias, whether made unconsciously or purposefully.

Unconscious and Implicit Bias Training Is a Great Starting Point

To combat the implicit bias that exists, it’s important to educate your leadership, managers, and employees, and to drive awareness through training, development, and continuous coaching and conversations. While I applaud Starbucks announcing unconscious bias training as a great first step, there is more to be done. Companies need to find easier ways to identify and uncover these types of bias, whether customer or employee-focused, so that they can be immediately addressed. Change starts with a cultural shift and increased awareness that allows all employees to bring these type of issues to light.

My hope is that what unfolded recently at Starbucks helps all companies add unconscious bias training. Employees must feel comfortable and supported for reporting bias. It’s the only way we can make the workplace inclusive and accessible for everyone.



Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent focused on human resources and talent acquisition. Named to Haydn Shaughnessy’s 2013 list of top 50 social media power influencers, she’s the founder of Workology (formerly Blogging4Jobs). She can be contacted on Twitter at @jmillermerrell.