Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

Starbucks's Diversity Training

What are the evidence-based practices?

Posted May 29, 2018

May 29th is the day Starbucks will do a widely publicized mandatory diversity training across all of their locations. This event is in response to two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, being arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April (they were waiting for someone at the Starbucks).

The public outcry in response led to the nationwide training and thus the event certainly makes sense from a damage control and public relations viewpoint. Yet, the real question, one that is invariably asked when such training events are done, is what difference will all this make in the long run? Do Starbucks corporate brass, the public, activists, or anyone else really think a day of training (Starbucks calls it anti-bias training, typically these programs are called diversity training or similar) will be the thing that makes these ugly situations stop?

Diversity training, and the injustices like the one in Philadelphia it is designed to prevent, is a big part of the national conversation right now. We have watched it with interest because we’ve studied diversity training and tried to identify evidence-based practices. It’s a fascinating topic since diversity training is inherently about groups of people understanding one another and treating each other fairly.

In our research on 40 years of diversity training programs, we examined hundreds of individual studies of diversity training programs and through a meta-analysis of 260 samples we published in the journal Psychological Bulletin and found there were some common themes that successful training programs had, as opposed to, unfortunately, programs that had no effect or even "backfired" (the program made people so resentful their attitudes were worse than before the training. Yes, such things have happened!).

So how does the Starbucks approach stack up? Is it likely to work or is it just window dressing to save face? We have thought about specifically the Starbucks's situation and broadly the question of whether diversity training is "worth it."

To be fair, Starbucks claims it will be doing more than the one-day training which has gotten all the media attention. Research indicates this is good, because we found that one of the most important factors that separated good programs from the rest was that they are not one day or one-time events. Good diversity training needs to be an ongoing part of how the business or organization lives. This was more important than a lot of other things you might think would be important. Whether it was a classroom or a ‘role-play’ or some teaching or training method didn’t matter as much.

How about making people take the training, versus the Starbuck approach of letting people volunteer for it and risk “preaching to the choir” as some critics say? Nope, again we just didn’t find any definitive effects for any of these things. 

The clear difference between training that “stuck” over time and that where people went back to their old habits was that better training was more substantial, ongoing, and connected to the way people worked. Better results were also apparent when it was focused on emphasizing the similarities we share rather than sharpening the differences between different racial, ethnic, genders or other groups.

The good news is that not only do we know there is good diversity training and bad diversity training, but we also know what effective diversity training looks like. There are approaches, like we have discussed above, that are simply better than others. The catch is that the good training methods take more investment of time and money for them to have a real effect on people in an organization–an investment many businesses cannot, or will not, make. So, while we will surely see incidents like what happened to Starbucks over and over again, hopefully enough companies will make the effort in fostering a fairer workplace for everyone. Good luck with your training!


Bezrukova, K., Spell, C.S., Perry, J., & Jehn, K.A. (2016). A Meta-Analytical Integration of Over 40 Years of Research on Diversity Training Evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 142 (11), 1227-1274.