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Is Your Security Team Confronting Implicit Bias in the Right Way?

The security industry isn’t uniquely prone to implicit bias, but the costs can be particularly high if a bad security decision is made because of it. As sensitivities grow and reputational risks persist, minimizing the extent to which personal biases can impact retail organizations becomes increasingly important.

The security industry broadly has done an insufficient job of examining and responding to issues of implicit bias, according to presenters at the GSX security conference in September. After stints in corporate security for the Washington D.C. metro system and Visa, Burke Brownfeld said, “It dawned on me that this really was a blind spot for corporate security. We probably weren’t talking about it enough, and we continue to not talk about it enough.”

Burke Brownfeld
Burke Brownfeld

It’s important because “we’re asking people to make pretty substantial decisions on our behalf,” said Brownfeld — from who is suspicious, who to believe, who poses a risk, who to stop or detain, and even who “belongs” in a certain environment.

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It’s also important because the stakes are high. “It can impact the entire brand of a company,” said Brownfeld, founder & CEO of Sig Global Services. “There could be financial losses, lawsuits, and if you’re a publicly traded company, your stock price could go down from literally one moment or a bad decision based on an implicit bias.”

As a case study, Brownfeld recounted the dust-up between Sephora and singer Sza, after she claimed she was racially profiled in a California store. Shortly after the incident, Sephora stores nationwide and its corporate offices went dark for a day of employee diversity training. Brownfeld said the details of the incident are unknown, but the impact was substantial. When Starbucks similarly closed all its stores for a day of training, it reported a loss topping $16 million.

People of color disproportionately report being unfairly targeted in retail stores, according to Brownfeld. He cited a 2021 Gallup poll in which 35 percent of Black Americans said they were personally treated unfairly while shopping in the last 30 days. “That’s pretty impactful and pretty important to be aware of,” he said.

Changing Perception

Meredith Moore, M.Ed., CEO of Greylake Training Solutions, said it’s important to distinguish conscious and deliberate discrimination from unintended and unconscious bias, which can often run counter to our personal values. LP teams that carefully avoid any hint of discrimination in the application of store security are still beholden to individuals’ implicit biases, she indicated.

Meredith Moore
Meredith Moore

Discussions about implicit bias can be fraught, but Moore warned against shying away from them. Instead, she advised confronting it in a non-punitive manner, one that is careful to avoid labeling people in a negative way. Remove the shame that can surround the fact of unconscious bias, as we are all victims of it. “It’s a human issue that we’re all vulnerable to,” said Moore. “Good intentions don’t always cut it.”

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Moore advised tackling the topic with scientific research that’s been done on the topic, which can help remove some of the stigma attached to bias. “Our goal is to reframe the topic from something that is punitive to something that is more about self-awareness, because that’s what leads to behavioral change.”

Part of the challenge, says Moore, is that while people today must navigate complex social interactions, our brains are still tethered to our evolutionary past. Everyone, security personnel included, are hardwired to reflexively judge a person’s potential risk in every interaction. “That mental checklist that we follow is there from those hunter-gatherer days,” she said. “It’s important to note that we come to every interaction with all these preconceived thoughts and notions.”

Action Items

Potential gaps in training can create real world conflicts, according to Brownfeld. For example, there should be uniformity across a retail organization for when security should be asked to intervene in a potential incident. It’s also worth examining if store associates have the same view of what is “suspicious” as loss prevention associates. “Does everyone have the same perspective on that across the store?”

The speakers also advised addressing implicit bias in a broader context than just race. Implicit bias can be based on many factors, including age, gender, socio-economic status, and religion, and the same implicit bias that may cause someone to misjudge an individual as a threat can also allow a thief or a fraudster to go undetected.

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The goal of implicit bias training is different from traditional, zero-tolerance training to eliminate discrimination in store theft apprehensions. “You can never completely eliminate unconscious bias. This is part of how our brain works, it comes from millions of years of evolution, it’s part of our DNA,” said Moore. “But that doesn’t mean we are hapless in the face of disrupting bias.”

The panelists suggest:

  • Take and share with staff an Implicit Association Test (IAT) available for free online. “It can be really uncomfortable to see the results,” said Moore, but it helps people understand their biases and confront them. “The first step is having an awareness that this is an issue,” she said. The tool has its critics, but it’s a helpful way for people to “understand their baseline,” said Moore.
  • Train and raise awareness. “That’s the best way to counter bias in security professionals, retail associates, loss prevention specialists, and investigators,” said Moore. Training should be conducted quarterly and be tailored to the security and retail industry. General human resources training on implicit bias is not as useful for positively influencing behavior in a security context or helpful to the day-to-day judgements security personnel must make, warned Moore. Training should not be punitive, but should be based on self-refection, and intended to spark curiosity, she added.
  • Make it a topic of conversation. Formal training is great, Moore said, but it’s not the only way to address the subject. “Sometimes just informally talking about this with your team can be really helpful,” Moore said.
  • Workforce diversity is a natural disrupter to unconscious bias. “Diversity in thought, diversity in our backgrounds, all of that is really important in countering bias,” Moore said.

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