Every February, Black History Month rolls around and companies scramble to get programming together to mark the occasion. With little advance planning and strategic thought, many issue statements that sound hollow and perform actions devoid of real meaning or impact. These companies may even have a stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and strategies in place with which they could align. What’s the impact on Black, Indigenous and people of color staff? In my experience, there’s often a sense of tokenism, erasure and marginalization. It’s a missed opportunity for connection, erodes trust, is a culture breach and can lead to attrition.
If you’re looking to avoid squandering the opportunity again this year, here are some tips to help you mark the occasion in ways that advance your DEI strategy.
Although it’s a “bonus” to have a month dedicated to the celebration of Black history, staff, culture and achievement, creating a work environment that is inclusive of Black (and other) people requires much more than that. The mark of true inclusion is if Black employees can feel just as seen and valued in, say, September, as they do in February.
To make inclusivity 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 we value great outcomes or outputs? Do we invite and celebrate people showing up as their full selves and steer clear of coded language like “unprofessional” or “not aligned” that create invisible barriers to success? A Bain & Company study asked thousands of employees what makes them feel included and identified “a common denominator that boosts inclusion for virtually everyone: opportunities for professional development and growth.”
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, proximity and connection with people. If you make the mistake of assuming all your Black History Month activities should be just for your Black employees, you miss out on an opportunity to have conversations across 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 along these lines can include facilitating virtual Black History Month programming that can be attended by colleagues from anywhere in the world or amplification opportunities focused on Black communities, appropriately promoting Black culture and entertainment in organization-wide events. The bottom line: You can hold all-Black spaces for your teams while also creating spaces to highlight Black staff, their contributions and their experiences for your other employees.
Planning for Black History Month should start with revisiting your DEI goals and ensuring your decisions advance your objectives. For example, if one of your goals for the year is to improve retention of Black staff, consider ways to center that topic during the month and to generate ideas for how to create change in this area. If another one 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 US private sector,” highlights trust-building measures that advance that objective. If you made lofty promises in 2020 and have since fallen short, this is an opportunity to revisit your goals and inject the resources into making them a priority.
Being inclusive in a diverse workplace requires taking the time to find people from the community and ensure they’re shaping and influencing the process and outcomes. For Black History Month, this means your planning process should start early and provide plenty of time to find and center the voices, experiences, needs and desires of Black staff. It should elevate Black voices, recognizing the complexity and diversity within the Black community.
At the same time, your process should also include non-Black staff to “carry the water” for Black staff and contribute to the work of implementing the vision and plans shaped by Black staff. We’ve all heard the stories of burnout and backfiring when organizations lean too heavily on BIPOC staff or fail to provide adequate support and resources to implement DEI practices. If your team is not diverse enough to include multiple Black staff in your planning process, be sure to at least have a couple of members of your team who can review your plans and flag any issues you may have missed as a result of your lack of proximity.
As is often the case, celebrations entail vendors and require companies to spend money. If you are 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 all year round. From restaurants to fashion and home decor to technology companies, the investments you make in celebrating Black History Month can reflect your values too.
Black History Month can be about history, and it can also be about how the present stands on the shoulders of the past. Use this opportunity to celebrate your staff and their accomplishments and not just the feats of historical figures. One central element of Black culture is the reliance on our ancestors for strength and learning, so ground 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 designates annual themes for Black History Month, and Black history continues to be shaped by today’s leaders, even as more progress and representation must be achieved.
Black History Month is a great opportunity every year to center celebration and positivity in often heavy discussions of race and equity. Make the most of this opportunity by ensuring it advances your DEI strategy in the same way your DEI work does year-round.
This story was originally shared on Forbes.