Why all companies should have racial bias training—before public outcry

A Starbucks location in New York.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Tuesday afternoon, Starbucks closed 8,000 of its stores for an afternoon of racial sensitivity training. The coffee chain's mass closure comes one month after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia location while waiting to meet a friend, prompting national outcry.

Though the company's sensitivity training is a promising first step in addressing racial bias in the workplace, diversity experts note that it should be implemented well before a national scandal, rather than as a response to public backlash. In order to be effective, sensitivity training must be part of a holistic top-down company culture that promotes diversity and inclusion.

"Unconscious bias training is important, but it's a baseline," says Frans Johansson, diversity expert and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm The Medici Group. "You need an overarching philosophy about why diversity and inclusion matters."

Companies must establish this culture from the onset, he tells CNBC Make It. From there, they can then develop comprehensive racial based training that targets things like improving customer service and enhancing employee performance.

Ripa Rashid, co-president at the Center for Talent and Innovation, agrees that sensitivity training must be part of a larger scale multi-pronged effort. But what she often sees are companies reacting to scandals. Rashid calls these "wartime instances."

"So a bad thing happens, either dollars are lost or there's a brand hit or a reputation hit, and the crisis management system goes into action," she tells CNBC Make It.

However, what really speaks volumes is what a company does during "peacetime," she says.

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"It really sends a signal about what you stand for in your role as economic player in America," explains Rashid. "We do encourage organizations to get ahead of this."

There are three core ways to promote a culture of racial inclusion that "go beyond training," she says.

First, organizations must hire a diverse C-suite. Organizations with diverse decision-makers at the executive level have a "higher chance of being preemptive around these types of issues," says Rashid.

Next, businesses must understand how their employees and customers feel. To get ahead of the curve, Rashid advises that companies include questions about racial bias on employee and customer engagement surveys.

She suggests questions like, How included do you feel? Do you feel like you're working in a safe space? Do you feel like you're treated equally?

Finally, organizations must hold themselves accountable when it comes to tackling racial bias and consistently be making progress on it, says Rashid.

Last month, Starbucks announced that its sensitivity training would focus on implicit bias, which deals with how people ascribe certain characteristics to individuals based on how they were brought up, says Rashid. This strategy mirrors that used by companies like Facebook and Google.

However, Rashid says that the arrest of the two black men in Philadelphia is a clear case of explicit bias, because the men were racially profiled. "There's nothing implicit about that kind of bias," she says, "so I think the first step is to really distinguish what kinds of bias you're talking about."

She adds that companies often hide under the nomenclature of implicit bias, which implies that these biases can't be helped. But that's not true, she says. Instead of differentiating between implicit and explicit bias, Rashid advises that companies focus on racial bias as a whole, rather than getting bogged down in the terminology.

As for sensitivity training, she emphasizes that it's not a "once and done" strategy, but instead, it requires "constant vigilance."

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