Starting conversations about unconscious bias in the public sector

Governments can address unconscious bias by reinforcing the idea that not only are public services employees able to speak up about issues, but are expected to do so

“The notion that a four-hour class will solve problems that have taken generations to develop is completely unrealistic. However, as cynical as some might be about the effort, I support Starbucks in taking the steps they have and feel a sense of optimism that this training initiative will make a difference,” wrote Linda Willing, a retired career fire officer and consultant working with emergency services agencies and other organizations.

She offered the following insights on how starting the conversation about racial bias, and how unconscious bias training should evolve, within public organizations.

Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores across the country on May 29 for the purpose of training all employees on the topic of unconscious bias. This move follows the arrest of two African-American men who were waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks in April.

The company committed a large amount of resources to the effort. As one employee observed, “If you think about 8,000 stores closing down for a day, that’s a lot of money. They are willing to put money on the line to make sure things like this don’t happen.” By some estimates, Starbucks invested over $15 million in this one training initiative.

Providing formalized training in this way is also the first step toward a more consistent approach to matters that involve personal judgment. Another worker stated, “It’s important that Starbucks, or any company for that matter, present the same values across all their establishments; in this case, that everyone matters and will be treated fairly and the same.”

In four hours:

  • You can start a conversation about a tough topic and model respectful ways of having that conversation.
  • You can challenge people’s preconceptions with activities that require them to make judgments and decisions.
  • You can provide a safe forum that allows people to understand that others may feel very differently about something than they do.

And, as an organization, you can provide a consistent leadership vision and mandate that involves clear expectations of what kinds of behavior are encouraged and what will not be tolerated.

Continue Unconscious Bias Training

Four hours may not be long enough to create a new skill set. If you want people to improve their abilities to resolve conflict, communicate more effectively, or work better in teams, then further training and development efforts will be needed.

But, that’s the whole point. This type of training should always be the beginning, not the end. Rather than “checking the box” and being done with it, such training should open the door to new ideas, unresolved issues and difficult challenges.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that this type of training, when done well, can create a new sense of personal responsibility and empowerment among members of an organization.

At best, such training will reinforce the idea that not only are people able to speak up about issues on the job, but they are expected to do so.

“I think we need to hold each other accountable,” one Starbuck worker said. “We need to stop giving our friends, our coworkers, our family members and our neighbors passes on racism, classism – on any of it. And stop pretending you don’t see it. We can’t always see our own flaws, but if we can help each other, maybe we could.”

Many fire departments struggle with the same issues Starbucks has confronted. At best, this effort will encourage all organizations to not only start the conversation with such training, but to keep the conversation and commitment going through action and accountability every day.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail