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February was Black History Month. That means now is a great time to review whether your workplace efforts were a success -- or were filled with missteps.
Every year since I can remember, proponents of the celebration found themselves validating its relevance and necessity to those whose bigotry and bias prohibit them from seeing the richness and significance of Black culture and the ways in which it has shaped this country. For myself and others, the endorsements were needed both in and outside of our respective workplaces.
This year, many organizations sought to recommit to their Black employees and spark new interest by celebrating Black History Month. Some revisited previous years' efforts, some decided to forgo more involved programs if many employees were working remotely, and others didn't celebrate at all. Whatever the situation and even when intentions are in earnest, many organizations miss the mark. With 2021's Black History Month in the rearview, now is a great time to take a look at what your organization did and take stock on how to improve in the future.
To that end, here are some important dos and don'ts. Leaders should get honest about where they succeeded and where they have room for improvement.
Don't think a few gestures are enough
Celebrating Black History Month should include meaningful efforts, not just hollow symbols. The goal of creating and fostering inclusive organizational cultures is not achieved with one month of Black history facts, changing the colors of your logo, having organizational leaders don Kente cloth for a photo op, adding the phrase "Black Lives Matter" to your company website or catering one soul food lunch.
An important Black History Month subtlety has largely been lost: From the beginning, it was never solely about the celebration. Instead, that celebration of Black lives, history and contributions is meant to further a political strategy that recognizes Black citizens as equal citizens. This requires an ongoing, active commitment to acknowledging and dismantling the systems and structures that created the inequity.
"Genuinely honoring and recognizing Black History Month goes beyond changing the colors of your business logo for the month, or sharing a poignant quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," said Tiffany Toussaint, talent acquisition leader at construction engineering firm M.A. Mortenson Company.
Don't overburden your Black employees
The responsibility to organize and execute Black History Month programs should not rest solely with your Black employees. This is not a time to organize panels, town hall meetings, or Q&As where Black employees regurgitate past professional and personal traumas. That approach is toxic and reduces their experiences to "historical performances" that become more entertainment than informative and problem-solving.
Don't be reactive
Instead of addressing the persistent instances of racial inequity inside of their organizations, some leaders view Black History Month as a bandage to appease their Black employees. In the past few months, there have been a number of instances in which former Black employees from large, global companies have publicly shared the ways in which Black employees were paid less, promoted less, and faced constant microaggressions and discrimination. Inspired by these brave people, some Black employees brought these same issues to their employers' attention, only to have their concerns explained away or pushed aside as happening less often than they actually are.
Leaders must take such feedback seriously, and HR departments in particular have an important role to serve. That means truly taking an active listening and empathetic approach.
"Don't respond to complaints of racial inequity by countering with a list of the good you've done," said Justin Harris, HR business partner at the Henry F. Jackson Foundation, an organization headquartered in Bethesda, Md., that seeks to advance military medicine.
Don't take a one-and-done approach to Black recognition
Far too often, organizations recognize Black History Month in ways reminiscent of elementary school assemblies or classroom bulletin boards. While posting timelines of important dates, people and "firsts" on the organization's intranet is helpful, Black people are making history every day. Relegating the celebration and acknowledgement of Black people, especially your employees, to one month misses the mark completely.
"Black History Month is not simply restricted to the month of February; Black History is happening daily," said Wendy Kelly, director of HR at staffing firm Kelly's HR Services, located in Troy, Mich. "Organizations should simply use [the] month to dig deeper, exploring and providing in-depth and thorough understanding of diversity and inclusion within the workplace."
Organizations should not limit their efforts to newsletters or email blasts for just a month, but should explore multiple resources and history relevant to all employees throughout the year, Kelly said.
Do take meaningful action
Toussaint was pleasantly surprised when her employer, Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson, started the month by showing its commitment to Black employees and the community they serve. Via the intranet, the company provided a Black History Month overview, links for additional resources and a link to the organization's charitable giving site, which featured a Black History Month giving campaign that included five nonprofits directly serving Black communities. For her, this was a significant change from what she experienced at previous employers.
For organizations that are stuck on where to start, they could do something similar or follow the blueprint of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and stick to the year's theme or come up with a theme that closely ties to your organization's industry. For example, a technology company that chooses a theme of connecting past innovations to the present and future can highlight innovations made by Black technologists, feature stories highlighting Black employees who are blazing trails inside or outside of the organization, and invest in future technologists by sponsoring, providing mentorships and creating scholarships for a local National Society of Black Engineers chapter.
Do create safe spaces
In my experience, Black employees don't feel empowered to advocate for themselves in a ways that will produce impactful changes. Organizations with small Black employee populations may not know how to open dialogue and ask how they can best serve this marginalized employee population. Many organizational business and HR leaders, as well as others involved in these efforts, mean well but create communication failures or make missteps.
As in other areas, taking ownership of mistakes quickly can go a long way to upholding a positive employee experience.
"Listen and own your shortcomings and acknowledge errors and opportunities for improvement," Harris said.
Consider getting assistance from an outside consultant to help you increase dialogue and engagement with the employees who have felt silenced as well as take the pulse of the satisfaction of your Black employees. February was a great month to solicit assistance from an outside consultant for these purposes. But you can choose to do so now, even if you missed the mark.
Do honor and support Black lives all year long
The commitment to Black employees shouldn't stop just because February and the official Black History Month are over.
Apart from a solid diversity strategy, providing assistance, resources, money and support to Black employees and causes shows real commitment. No organization is perfect, and even the ones that are close have areas where they still fall short.
Ensure a safe environment for them to share their experiences and suggestions for improvement candidly and without fear of retaliation. Audit hiring practices, retention data, salaries, promotion data and performance reviews. Also, take the time to reevaluate and retrain line and senior leaders and implement programs and set goals for greater racial equity.
Black History Month has its roots in Negro History Week, a weeklong celebration of the accomplishments of Black people in the United States. Journalist, author and historian Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro History Week on February 7, 1926. With guidance from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History to deepen the examination of Black American history, the week was marked with celebrations that included a theme and specific study materials, lesson plans, historical performances and posters outlining important dates and people. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, asking the public to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
Keirsten Greggs is the founder and CEO of TRAP Recruiter, LLC, a recruiting consulting and career coaching firm.