Thaly Germain is general manager of Transformation & Culture at BerlinRosen.
Every February, Black History Month rolls around and companies scramble to get programming together to celebrate the occasion. With little advance planning and strategic thinking, many issue statements that ring hollow and carry out actions with no real meaning or impact. These companies may even have a strong commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion and DEI strategies that they can align with. What is the impact on black, indigenous and colored personnel? In my experience, there is often a sense of tokenism, erasure and marginalization. It is a missed opportunity to connect, it erodes trust, it is a cultural breach and it can lead to failure.
If you want to avoid wasting this opportunity again this year, here are some tips to help you mark the opportunity in a way that advances your DEI strategy.
1. Celebrate the black workforce and culture all year round.
While it’s a “bonus” to have a month devoted to the celebration of Black history, workforce, culture, and achievements, creating a work environment that includes Black (and other) people requires much more than that. The hallmark of true inclusion is when black employees can feel as seen and valued in, say, September as they did in February.
To make inclusion a year-round practice, ask yourself: Do we welcome and reward different approaches to work? Do we reward excellent processes and relationship building as much as great results or results? Do we invite and celebrate people who show up as their full selves and avoid coded language such as “unprofessional” or “out of tune” that put up invisible barriers to success? A Bain & Company study asked thousands of employees what makes them feel engaged and identified “a common denominator that drives inclusion for virtually everyone: opportunities for professional development and growth.”
2. Celebrate Black History Month with everyone.
Black History Month is as much a celebration for black people of all things black – from history to culture and achievement – as it is about educating non-black people to create empathy, closeness and connection with people. If you make the mistake of assuming that all of your Black History Month activities should be for your black employees only, you’re missing out on the opportunity to have conversations about differences and honor black employees in the eyes of everyone else. This elevates our humanity, our culture as a collective and our complex individuality.
Inclusive practices in this direction can be facilitating virtual Black History Month programming which can be attended by colleagues from anywhere in the world or reinforcement options focused on black communities, promoting black culture and entertainment appropriately at organization-wide events. The bottom line is, you can keep all-black spaces for your teams while also creating spaces to highlight black employees, their contributions, and their experiences for your other employees.
3. Center your celebration around elements of your DEI strategy.
Planning for Black History Month should start with rethinking your DEI goals and making sure your decisions advance your objectives. For example, if one of your goals for the year is to improve black workforce retention, consider ways to focus on that topic throughout the month and generate ideas for creating change in this area. If another of your DEI goals is to build a culture of trust, your process will likely involve soliciting input and involvement from staff, demonstrating your transparency and intent. A 2021 McKinsey report, “Race in the Workplace: The Black Experience in the American Private Sector,” highlights confidence-building measures that promote that goal. If you made lofty promises in 2020 and have fallen short since then, this is an opportunity to revisit your goals and inject the resources to make it a priority.
4. Ensure an inclusive and timely planning process.
To be inclusive in a diverse workplace, you need to take the time to find people from the community and make sure they shape and influence the process and outcomes. For Black History Month, that means starting your planning process early and allowing plenty of time to find and center the voices, experiences, needs, and desires of Black personnel. It should raise black voices and recognize the complexity and diversity within the black community.
At the same time, your process should include non-black personnel to “carry the water” for black personnel and contribute to the execution of the vision and plans formed by black personnel. We’ve all heard the stories of burnout and strike back when organizations rely too heavily on BIPOC staff or provide insufficient support and resources to implement DEI practices. If your team isn’t diverse enough to include several Black employees in your planning process, make sure there are at least a few members of your team who can review your plans and point out any issues you may have missed as a result of your lack of closeness.
5. Direct resources to black-owned businesses.
As is often the case, parties bring vendors and require businesses to spend money. If you’re spending money on your Black History Month celebrations, do the extra work to find and use black-owned small businesses, especially in February, but preferably year-round. From restaurants until fashion and home accessories until technology companiesmay the investments you make to celebrate Black History Month also reflect your values.
6. Celebrate the present, not just the past.
Black History Month can be about history, but it can also be about how the present stands on the shoulders of the past. Use this opportunity to celebrate your staff and their achievements, not just the achievements of historical figures. A central element of black culture is the dependence on our ancestors for strength and learning, so base your celebrations in the past, but don’t shy away from elevating current examples near and far. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History points out annual themes for Black History Month and Black History continues to take shape by today’s leaders, even if more progress and representation must be achieved.
Each year, Black History Month is a great opportunity to put celebration and positivity at the center of often weighty discussions about race and equality. Make the most of this opportunity by ensuring it advances your DEI strategy in the same way your DEI work does throughout the year.