February 23, 2021 8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Black History Month is the quintessential time of year to center black voices in your company. But the month of February shouldn’t be the only time your company focuses on black employees.
The voices, contributions, and needs of black employees should be an on-going effort. Because when they feel seen, heard, and valued, the company culture as a whole can improve.
Here are some real and tangible ways you can lift the voices of black employees in your company and continue to deepen your company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.
Understand that not all black people are a monolith
People get themselves in trouble when they start to believe that all black people are the same. We’re not. It’s that plain and simple. Why? Because every black person has a different experience. Whether we’re from the continent of Africa, Europe or America, we experience oppression, culture, family, love, language, and social dynamics differently.
We may be from South Carolina or California and have learned to adapt to the culture of our states differently. Some of us carry divergent beliefs on religion, family, and sexuality. Some of us identify as Christians and some of us as Atheists. Even more, many of us carry complex and intersectional identities like queer, black, disabled, and so on.
One of the ways your company can offer more allyship to black employees is by understanding we’re not a monolith and that we carry different, oftentimes overlapping, identities. Encourage your staff and executive team to interact with each black coworker as an individual and get to know their unique personality, beliefs, needs, and values.
Make historical black holidays mainstream
As much as we are not a monolith, black employees in your company may share similar historical struggles like slavery, colonization, and displacement. Therefore, we may have shared holidays that help us acknowledge our past in meaningful ways.
One holiday that’s important in Black-American communities is Juneteenth. The day that marks the abolishment of slavery in the 1800s. Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th every year and is considered an important holiday in many black communities.
Some black employees may wish to spend time away from work and instead dedicate Juneteenth to being with their friends, family, and community. Consider making Juneteenth an additional day off or as a floating PTO holiday in the company.
Of course, let’s not forget Kwanza. If you don’t know, Kwanza is a Black-American holiday that was started in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University. The holiday was created to unify Black-Americans after the traumatic events that happened during the Watts Riots of 1965. Kwanza lasts seven days at the end of December, with each day focusing on a different theme like community, unity, and self-determination.
Consider this: when you send the company-wide holiday email wishing your employees a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah, include “Happy Kwanza” if relevant. Including Kwanza in your company’s communications acknowledges black employees and the black community at large who may also celebrate the holiday.
Create a black voices empowerment series
How in touch is your leadership team with the needs of their black employees? One way to keep stock of how black employees are feeling in the workplace is to support a space for them to have clear and direct access to share honest feedback with executive leaders.
You can call this space a Black Empowerment Series. This experience creates a safe space for black professionals to center their needs in a semi-private setting.
These are spaces that can be useful for HR and the leadership team to listen and learn to the deep underlying needs of black employees. These spaces may offer answers to the questions your team has been wanting to know, like:
- What do black employees value at the company?
- What are the black employees’ lived experiences in the company?
- How can the company support black employees to feel more seen, heard, and valued?
I’ve seen these series be successful in a few companies I’ve worked with. It has allowed microaggressions, unfair treatment, and other problems in the workplace to surface safely and be brought to the attention of HR and leadership.
But keep in mind, some employees may find this idea preposterous. They may think spaces like this are exclusionary and shouldn’t exist in the company. But I encourage your leadership team to think about all the ways discouraging spaces like this may derail the health, safety, and happiness of black employees in the company.
A simple gathering like this can bring new ideas and fodder to your company’s DEI efforts and bring about clarity and actionable change that can greatly improve your company’s culture in the long-term.
Offer a racial equity challenge
One sobering truth about being a minority in the workplace is that the minority group often has to do the heavy-lifting on educating their coworkers and leadership team about DEI. Black employees, in particular, can sometimes feel like they’re speaking into the void and that their fellow coworkers aren’t doing the self-education work to make lasting change in the company. Fortunately, a racial equities challenge can help remedy that.
A racial equity challenge provides a platform for self-education to begin amongst the employees at your company. There’s no one-size fit all. Racial equity challenges can look different for each company. It can look like a series of workshops, a week of intentional conversations centering on various DEI topics, or it can be a company reading challenge on a book related to racial equity.
Whatever challenge your company may want to host, the important thing is to make sure the heavy-lifting of education comes from the participants, not just the black employees in the room.
The challenge encourages each employee to explore the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion and to understand how it shows up for them in their personal and professional lives.
Change in the company starts from within. As more employees begin exploring the topic of race and inequality, it eases the burden on black employees to have to always educate their coworkers on topics that are sensitive and sometimes painful to address.
Launch an exercise to look at your company’s pay gap, leadership makeup, and industry trends
It’s no surprise that black employees in the USA don’t have a seat at the leadership table in most major companies. Most companies in the states are still made up of primarily white and male leadership. It’s an important exercise to analyze how and why black employees don’t make it to leadership positions.
This is particularly important work for the leadership team to address because it allows them to take stock of how unintentional and hidden biases have taken hold at high levels in the workplace.
I challenge your leadership team to also analyze salary inequities in the company. Compare two employees with similar job titles, backgrounds, and contributions, but different races, and analyze the difference in pay.
Leadership can also look around and see who makes up the managers, executives, and other leadership roles in the company. Then, compare that with the industry at large.
But, let me be clear: these exercises aren’t designed to install black people into leadership positions and pay them more in order to be on the “right” side of justice. Rather, they’re designed to take stock of internal and implicit biases that happen in the workplace and to begin to look at the root causes. Diving deep on the issue of unequal pay and leadership makeup can enlighten the leadership team and bring forth new foci to advance DEI for black employees in the workplace.
Black History Month is almost over, but it doesn’t have to end
It’s in your company’s complete control to extend the effort, work, and initiatives to support black employees year-round. It’s possible to let the month of February go by while continuing meaningful efforts to advance DEI in the workplace. Small changes like adding more historic black holidays onto the company’s paid holiday roster can be done within a calendar year. While deep dives into the company’s pay gaps and hosting racial equity challenges may take more time. Either way, the efforts are worth it because black employees will notice and feel the difference. DEI is a company-wide effort and with everyone on board, black employees can feel seen, supported, and acknowledged during Black History Month and beyond