Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. As a result of unconscious biases, certain people benefit and other people are penalized.
Lauren Lathrop is a Certified SCA Trainer, a United States Barista Championships Head Judge, and both a World Barista Championships and World Brewers Cup Certified Judge who recently moved from Portland OR to Minneapolis, MN. Lauren recognized how important the conversation about Unconscious Bias in Specialty Coffee is, and through her involvement in coffee competitions, was able to put those thoughts into action by giving a Unconscious Bias Training during US Barista Championships Judge Calibration in 2018, which expanded to all US Coffee Competitions in 2019. The talk has been growing and evolving ever since.
Lauren and I talked just before she made her move to Minneapolis this spring.
ANGELA FERRARA [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: So, you said you did a talk on Unconscious Bias in Customer Service recently?
LAUREN LATHROP: Yes! I guess the way that it started is that I took the Unconscious Bias talk that I give to USBC judges and presented it at an event for The OCB (Oregon Coffee Board) which is a community coffee board that hosts meetings and events and tries to be a community resource in the Portland area. Last year they hosted an event specifically for HR professionals about hiring, interviewing, and job posting and the focus was about letting people know that your company is diverse and embraces diversity and like, how can you make sure that your hiring practices are showing that you’re an equal opportunity employer. We had some really cool speakers. We had a woman from the Human Rights Campaign who was there talking about her own story and Trans Rights and making a safer space for trans people in the workplace. We had someone from a local private university who worked in a diversity resource center. He worked with all the other departments at the university to make sure they were hiring racial and ethnic minorities and how to do that the right way. And then they asked me to speak about unconscious bias training. I explained that what I did was really for judges of coffee competition which is very specific to this weird event that we host and many people may not know about that event. So I kind of approached it from the perspective of like, “if you had to create unconscious bias training for your company and you had to take in all the specific needs and job tasks of that company, what would that training look like?" So I was like, “Here’s what we do in competition” and I gave like a 4 minute introduction to what USBC is and what happens there and then I broke down what our bias training looks like. Basically saying, you can create this for any group of people to help support them in any job that they’re doing in order to help them recognize and acknowledge bias in those roles. The talk went really well. I was really happy with it. Then a few weeks later, someone reached out to me about doing another talk and said I could make it about whatever I wanted, but they really liked my unconscious bias talk. I had just gotten back from the Small Changes, Big Impacts event in Denver, and I had given a talk on customer service there. I really love talking about customer service and I was beginning to take the training that I do for my company and start to personalize it and make it more about what I wanted to focus on. There’s a connection… I want to write an hour long lecture about that intersection and about how we have these unconscious biases about people we serve. Especially in a place like Portland, which is very very racially homogeneous, and where a lot of the access to specialty coffee is really geared toward white customers. I was thinking, it might be kind of uncomfortable, but it might be really useful if we started having that conversation.
We have a pretty big problem here in Portland in regards to who we think our specialty coffee customers are and what they look like. When people don’t look like that, we give them a very different type of service. I always give the talk, which I give to judges too, “I’m not an expert, I’m not a sociologist or a psychologist. I don’t have a degree in any of these things. I’ve read a lot about this. I think I can apply it to what we do in our jobs, and I think that if we start thinking about these things, it will benefit everybody.” Again, I got a lot of good feedback. I heard from some people that they really wanted to bring that conversation back to their staff, have a shop meeting around those ideas, and start to change policies. Whether they are going to have the same greeting for everyone that walks in the door, or they’re going to change the way information about coffee is presented. One of the things I said was that we all decide who gets that Seed to Cup story when they order a certain coffee, and then when people order a different kind of coffee we don’t tell them about the farm or processing. We think if someone is ordering a vanilla latte, they probably don’t care. That right there. That’s bias. All coffee drinks taste delicious and everyone may or may not be interested in this information. So right now I have that in my back pocket. I’m hoping to keep expanding it and keep talking to people about it.
A: What are some ways you see unconscious bias in customer service? You mentioned this a bit about like not only by what a person looks like but also what they’re ordering.
L: That’s something that I pulled directly from the USBC judges training. We come into these events with bias about certain types of coffee. For our Brewer’s Cup judges, they have biases about brewing methods. For our Barista Judges, they have biases against certain place settings, even colors of cups or types of cups on the table. It’s not too outlandish to say that if someone comes into the competition competing with a Brazil, then we, as experienced coffee professionals, are going to think that we already know what that coffee is like. Oh this is a pulp natural from a huge producing country? I already know this isn’t going to be high quality. I mean, I did that in my first year as a sensory judge. Someone was serving a naturally processed coffee and I got all uppity with my Head Judge about that fact that it had distinct berry notes and those hadn't really been described by the competitor. I argued that that was a huge missed opportunity and those were flavor calls that they could have offered but didn’t and so that should affect the accuracy score. And my Head Judge at the time was like, “but did it really taste like that?” and I thought, “it tasted like what he described but he didn’t describe these other things and that’s what natural coffees taste like.” My Head Judge said, “you cannot go into these panels thinking that you already know what that coffee tastes like. That’s a huge issue.”
The types of biases that I talk about in the customer service conversations starts with what I call people’s Service Languages. Borrowing the phrase from Love Languages. We all have a certain way that we like to be loved and I believe we all have a type of customer service that we prefer. My type is different from yours and might be very different than someone else’s. I know the type of service that my mom wants and if I received that type of service I would think it was overwhelming and too personal. The type of service that I prefer and really appreciate, someone else might think kind of rushed and impolite. I like short, convenient, efficient but pleasant interactions and someone else might like more conversation, more questions, more eye contact, or to take more time. And so, I broke down this idea into four or five different service styles, or Service Languages. One has to do with the atmosphere of the cafe itself. A lot of people will go to a cafe just because it’s a good place to work or to hang out and the coffee is really secondary. And another kind of person might have a product-focused Service Language. They’re there for the coffee, for the best espresso in town, for the locally sourced pastries. Those two customers might not go to the same shop because they're looking for something different. If they do end up in the same shop, the chances that they’re going to have equally great service experiences is a little lower. My argument is that cafes tend to just focus on one thing. This is the thing that we do really well. And the way that impacts bias is that if you are a product-focused shop, your atmosphere might be a little stark or bare-bones, but it shouldn’t matter because the product is so incredible, people don’t mind waiting a little longer, people don’t mind paying a bit more money for that product because it’s worth it. But if the kind of people who are coming to your shop are atmosphere focused or are used to going places that are more atmosphere focused, with comfy couches and tons of outlets and free wifi and free refills, they are going to come to your shop and feel very unwelcome and very uncomfortable. And this isn’t because those shops don’t want you to hang out there for hours and enjoy yourself, it’s just not what it looks like on the surface.
And so the responsibility really falls on the barista to make sure that people know this is a place they’re welcome. And when someone walks in with a book bag or laptop case, that we don’t roll our eyes… because that’s not welcoming. So you have to be a bit of a mindreader. I talk about this as challenge: to try to figure out what someone’s Customer Service Language is in less than a minute when they walk through the door and when they’re ordering from you, listening to those queues in what questions they ask or what kind of service they’re giving *you* and reflecting that service back to them. And as I said, if you’re going to be a place that offers a lot of information about the coffee, then you need to give it to everybody. You can’t qualify based on what someone orders or what they look like if they’re worthy of receiving that information. And if you’re not going to be that kind of shop, if you’re going to be fast, convenient, and get people in and out of the door, then don’t linger with your regulars and give them a ton of attention and conversation because everyone else can see that and think why don’t I get preferential treatment? Why was my interaction so rushed?
A: Yes! I’ve worked at shops where the service model was to greet certain regulars with their order because we knew what they would get and could have it ready for them when they came in. Sometimes that’s great and is what the person wants but I think other times it almost feels like you’re pushing the person out. I think that’s another place where you could find that person’s Customer Service Language and really find what they’re looking for in that moment instead of just treating everyone the same way.
L: We talk about that sort of interaction in the regular customer service training, too. You’re doing a bit of a disservice to your regular because you’re not letting them change their mind or try something new. I have a regular order at most cafes, too, but I’d still like to know if there’s something new or something special that they’re running. You’re really closing people off to that if you have their regular order already poured for them. And that also sends a message to the person who maybe is trying the cafe for the first time that morning that they don’t belong there because this regular seems to know some sort of language so that they come in and get exactly what they want, really without even having to talk and I’m over here fumbling with… I mean, there may or may not even be a menu. There may or may not be clear definitions on the menu of what all those drinks are, which is very intimidating. I think every time you dive into that valley of familiarity with certain people you sort of naturally exclude other people who aren’t “in the know”.
A: Right. It’s almost never just the barista and one other person in a cafe, but I feel like most customer service conversations that I’ve been a part of all revolve around one interaction that the barista is having with one other person. In reality, that interaction trickles down and sets a tone for all the other people in the space.
L: And if I’m the next person in line, and I’m not a tall guy with a beanie and a tattoo on my forearm, and I get to the counter, and I just heard them talk forever with that first guy about the co-op and the importer and all this other shit and I place my order and the barista is like, “Cool. medium coffee. Here ya go.” I know a lot about those things, too. And I’m interested, too. You’re making a pretty big assessment about who I am and how connected I am to this industry. In Portland, that’s much more likely to happen to a person of color than it is to happen to a white person.
A: There’s definitely a generalized idea of what The Human Who Wants The Coffee Information looks like. In DC I see it a lot of times based on age. If someone over 50 come into the coffee shop, they’re much less likely to get the whole speech.
L: When I worked in downtown Portland, one of the only people who came to my weekly cuppings was a guy in his mid-to-late 50s who I think was considering starting to roast on his own at home. He had nowhere to go for that information. There’s not really a lot of resources where you can talk to a human about coffee. You can certainly pay to go to classes, but if you just want to go have a conversation with someone whose job it is to talk about that stuff… you basically have public cuppings. So he showed up and he definitely fit that bill, like if he was in my line I’d think maybe he’s just old and he doesn’t know. We do that all the time to people.
In my experience with competition judges, we have people who have been in the industry for 20 or 30 years, and we have people who are first year baristas coming to judge. And so, I do interact with “coffee professionals” who are 21 all the way up to people who have grown kids. Through that exposure to that range in age, I’ve realized all of those people can be experts. It doesn’t matter how old you are. On the first day of calibration, we try not to spend too much time on introductions, talking about where people work and what their job title is, because that establishes bias and a sort of hierarchy. Based on those facts alone we can assume one person might know a lot more than another person. And sometimes that might be true, but it doesn’t matter. If they both go through judge certification together, and they’re both calibrated, then they’re both going to be worthy and effective judges. That’s the point of the day, that everyone has just as much reason and ability to be there. So, I don’t ask that information during introductions. I encourage people to start having those conversations one-on-one when we break into panels as a way to get to know your team. Every time I do this, I find myself asking a judge two days into the event what their position is and I’m always astounded. Like maybe I just assumed, with my own bias, based on their age or what they're wearing, that someone is a working barista, or still in college or something, and then they’re like, “I own a roasting company and we have 100 wholesale accounts.” Holy shit. I never see it coming at all. I have to check my own assumptions all the time. It’s a good reminder for when I go back out into the world to bring that information to my classes. We do not know who people are based on how they present. We do ourselves a huge disservice when we act based on these assumptions.
A: You mentioned this briefly, but have you experienced a lot of that sort of bias, being a customer?
L: Yeah, to a smaller extent. I recognize my privilege every time I step into a coffee shop. I think I have gained a small amount of recognition in Portland because of my involvement with the national coffee community. I also work a bit with Pacific Foods and so I’m in their advertisements a bit and in Barista Magazine. You can also usually see like, the back of my head, or my profile, in Sprudge recaps from competition. So I think with those things, I am a bit more recognizable than others. But there have definitely been times, and oddly enough it seems to be times when I go into coffee shops with other coffee professionals who are men, where I get totally passed over because the guy I’m with is more easily recognized or well known. It has certainly happened when I’ve gone out for coffee with one of my best friends in town, Nathanael May, who is tall and very recognizable and just seems to know everybody. And it’s not even that I don’t get recognized. It’s that the service is for them and I just happen to be there. I’m not being ignored, but the eye contact is not for me. If they offer a really exciting thing to taste, I’m just a bystander for that. You know? And in terms of severity experiencing bias myself, it’s certainly not as bad as just getting really bad service because people assume that I don’t know. I’m there with those guys so they probably assume that I know something about coffee. But you see the difference in the level of engagement in those interactions, for sure. It’s a great reminder that those kinds of things happen to other people all the time.
A: What else do you want people to know about unconscious bias?
L: A big takeaway is that just knowing that you are biased is a very good first step. Being able to say, “I have biases. That’s part of who I am.” Whenever I ask a group if they think having bias is a bad thing, the whole group raises their hand. Hold on. Let’s unpack this. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Biases help us save time by making a million decisions for us in our subconscious. They are not always based around how we interact with other human beings. Most of them are based around how we go about doing daily tasks, which are such small things that if we had to pause and really think about them, we would go crazy. We would overthink everything we ever did. We have to lean on those biases to help save time, to speed up small decisions. I would also argue that sometimes when they’re applied to people, they help us get to know people faster and make deeper connections quicker. Because you can say, “Oh you’re from there? I know someone else from there and I really liked them. I’m going to treat you the way I treat this other person I know from there.” And sometimes maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe those people are alike and things feel great and friendly and familiar. It’s when those biases are based on something that’s not true that it becomes more harmful than it is helpful. But that isn’t all the time. And so we talk about that, and have this long conversation and at the end I ask the group to raise their hand if they have a bias. And everyone raises their hand. And I ask them to raise their hand if they think that would always be a bad thing. And everyone puts their hand down. That’s the takeaway. Let’s go into the weekend knowing this is a big part of us, and knowing who we are and how we think, embracing that. Just make sure that it doesn’t affect how we judge and how we score people. If we are aware of it, we can move forward as a group. I’m not perfect at this. I’m not an expert on it. But I know the conversation needs to be happening, and if I’m not leading it, I’m not sure anyone else will. So, I’d rather do it and have it not be perfect than have it not happen at all.
A: Absolutely. I think the conversation is super important. I don’t think you need to be an expert to make a lot of steps in the right direction. Because of course, the outcome isn’t ever going to be, “Well. None of us are biased anymore. Everything is fine.”
L: Right. But that’s what people expect that the training is going to be! That we will all work toward getting rid of our biases. But that’s probably not going to happen. If you’re in your 30s, or even in your 20s, that’s a lot of years that you’ve been instilling these ideas. So, you’re not going to unlearn those during a training session.
A: In addition to the conversation where we can take a minute to acknowledge that we all have biases, what do you think can be done to become more aware of biases in the cafe setting?
L: I think starting the conversation is a really important and positive thing. Once people start to recognize and name their own biases, they can begin to foster a community where that language is embraced and de-stigmatized across a staff. If you can feel comfortable admitting that you experience personal bias and allowed that to affect an interaction, it can allow you to learn from the people around you. I tell judges that going into the USBC weekend, you are allowed to tell someone else that it sounds like they have bias around an experience, or a coffee, or a person. We aren’t going to get mad at each other for pointing those things out. Everyone should be looking out for bias on the score sheet, biased language in calibration and deliberation. If you hear someone on your panel saying something that sounds based in bias, tell them that. This is a safe space and we are going to hold each other accountable and hold each other to a higher standard. It’s not meant to break each other down. We’re there, ultimately, to support the folks competing. The best way you can advocate for your presenter is to check each other. I think you can do that in the cafe, as well. Ideally, you’d be able to say that to a co-worker. But it can only work if the conversation is started as a group, in a way that’s safe, affirming, and supportive. You can’t go into a totally new scenario with a co-worker that’s never had this conversation and say, “Sounds like you have bias!” That person is going to feel attacked and probably get defensive. If we have a conversation together about trying to be better and hold each other accountable, I think that’s a great next step. Then once people have the vocabulary, revisiting the conversation. You might notice it more. You might come back with better examples. And you might be able to admit times you had bias and what steps you took to counteract it. That could be a very valuable lesson for someone else you work with. Also, having a follow up training where you address what things you’ve changed in your approach with customers based on what your biases are. That’s actual action. Just having the conversation and saying you’re going to do better is fine, but where’s the action? I also encourage everyone to go out and do their own research. I’m not the only source of information someone should have. As students, it’s best to hear things from multiple sources until you find a way that it works best for you and find examples that are most relevant to your life. So I usually end my talks by suggesting other resources that I found helpful.
A: Thank you so much for this, Lauren. What are you excited about next?
L: I’m very very lucky to have the community that I’ve developed in Portland where I feel safe and comfortable standing up in front of a group of people and presenting what is kind of an uncomfortable conversation. I had a moment a few months back where I was grappling with the idea of moving. Like, why would I jump out of this swimming pool full of familiar places where I feel supported and respected enough that I can start a conversation like this and people will actually listen to me? You know? I have some credibility from being active in the Portland coffee community for 8 or 9 years. Why am I just jumping into this new pool where I’m much less well-known and have way fewer connections and my network is so much smaller? Is that the right decision for my professional career? But the answer is that this is an opportunity for me to get to know another community and understand their unique strengths and challenges and hopefully be able to be a resource with sharing some of this information. I hate the idea of arriving to a community to try to teach them how to be better. That’s very problematic and prescriptive. But I am very excited to be part of a new network of people, learn from them, and have the education of that community help me learn more about this topic. It’ll be a great opportunity for me to broaden my horizons and hear from a lot of new people. As you’ve probably noticed, I think a lot of the issues I’m talking about are very specific to Portland. I don’t live anywhere else. So, I’m excited to meet and connect with a new community and learn from them.
Some links from Lauren about Unconscious Bias:
A website which offers surveys to help you find out your implicit
associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics.
More real-world examples of bias and how it affects others
A few ways to influence your behavior to overcome bias
One of (several) great TED Talks about bias