Racism in Customer Service

We recently published an op-ed in The New York Times highlighting some of our research on racial discrimination in customer service. The op-ed was in response to the recent arrests at Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two black men were arrested for simply spending time without making a purchase. Almost immediately following the incident, Starbucks announced that it would mandate a day of racial bias training for all of its employees.

We argued in our op-ed that racial bias training alone is not enough. In our research, we emailed thousands of U.S. hotels from fictitious email accounts asking for local restaurant recommendations. We found that discrimination in customer service is widespread. It occurs often in subtle ways that are difficult to detect, raising the need for companies to enact long-term structural changes to address bias.

A focus of our research has been to identify and quantify the quality of service that employees provide to individuals (who may or may not be customers).

There is one additional point we would like to make here: To date, researchers have primarily focused on discrimination as a binary outcome (e.g., whether to call applicants back in hiring or not, whether to rent out one’s home or not). But customer service is complex and nuanced, transcending someone’s willingness to render service. For instance, in our research examining how employees responded to potential customers (e.g., how helpful and friendly they were), the quality of customer service employees provided varied dramatically. Some employees did not respond at all. Others—not very helpfully—included a link to Google. And an enthusiastic few recommended tens of restaurants with their own annotations (e.g., “their puff pastry is my favorite!”).

These observations invite further questions. How does the quality of individuals’ interactions vary? In what ways can scholars quantify these intangibles? Our hope is to highlight subtle nuances of discrimination and develop a systematic way for researchers to investigate these topics.