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  • Writer's pictureKarina Karbo-Wright

What to Do When Your 'Belonging' Has a Time Frame

The racial reckoning of 2020 inspired many workplaces across America to take a look at how they treat Black employees. As we see widespread challenges to DEI efforts in many companies and institutions, such as the rising termination rates of DEI-related roles and the increase in reports on detrimental impacts of work environments on the mental health of Black employees, the efficacy and purpose of companies celebrating Black History Month raises some uncertainty.

According to the McKinsley Race in the Workplace Report from 2021, there is a substantial deficit of trust Black employees feel with their places of work. Only 55%, slightly more than half, of Black employees who participated in the survey felt that there was mutual trust and respect between them and their colleagues from all different backgrounds. This compared to the 82% of white survey takers’ responses is a staggering difference. In addition, only 50% of Black respondents felt that they had an equal opportunity to be successful.  

Of the many events and actions taken to increase Black employee belonging, arguably the most common is the celebration of Black History Month. The importance of February to Black people, especially in America, cuts across communal spaces, from classrooms to social media culture. Thus, it follows then that workplaces would uplift and celebrate Black History Month in order to help Black employees feel celebrated and uplifted. But is that enough?

Now in 2024, Black professionals have started to express their disillusionment with Black History Month celebrations; it seems that Black History Month celebrations are not enough to help Black employees feel safe to be authentic in the workplace. Many of those who are unsatisfied with the celebrations share that company communications around Black History Month come off as "performative.” A quick poll from my own Black professional community perceived many workplace celebrations as “fake,” “pandering,” as “the only time Black employees are given a platform,” and even non-existent. 

It would seem that the effort to create belonging through Black History Month celebrations for many feels out-dated and disappointing. Leaders, DEI professionals, members of Black Employee Resource Groups, and any other folks who champion and work toward Black inclusion at companies may also feel stuck. But if Black History Month is not enough, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Many employees have communicated that these events feel performative because they often lack the follow up. It seems the biggest barrier to making impactful strides toward equity in the workplace is the inability to follow these events with real, structural change. The above data speaks to the gap between celebrations and inclusion within the workplace that leads many employees of marginalized backgrounds to continue to feel othered. In order for Black History Month to have a positive impact on employees, here are some of our suggestions:

  1. Plan intentionally: Try to avoid waiting until the last minute to plan events to celebrate Black History Month. It is common for companies to wait until after the year-end holidays to start planning, and some may even wait until January. This may impact speaker availability, workforce capacity, and may even lead to the celebration being canceled. In addition to planning, prepare to dedicate some of the budget to this event. Speakers, refreshments, and other unique events will cost money and it is important to pay Black presenters and vendors equitably. By investing in these celebrations, companies can also begin to demonstrate to their employees that Black culture is important to the organization.

  1. Avoid Tokenism: When celebrating Black History Month, it can be impactful and validating to give a platform to Black employees within one’s organization. However, companies should not highlight or prop up Black employees without asking and without further opportunities for their voices to be respected and heard. Additionally, without intentional action to support Black employee belonging year-round, the act of propping folks up only during Black History Month becomes hollow.

  1. Must be a part of a larger action plan: The biggest barrier to having an impactful Black History Month celebration is making it a one off event. Companies that haven’t put time and resources into DEI and belonging strategies end up rendering their Black History Month events unimpactful. DEI audits and reports, DEI employees, company-wide goals and commitments, ERGs, and engagement surveys are all examples of ways that organizations can commit to advancing Black employee belonging beyond Black History Month. 

  1. Intertwine the past and present: From a content perspective, a trap that a lot of Black History Month celebrations fall into is separating the past from present. Something we see frequently is highlighting important figures throughout Black history without engaging with their realities and world. Similarly, current Black employees may feel pressure to be positive or disengage with the realities of our world when talking about Black history or celebrating Black History Month in the workplace. Companies should create avenues of discussion that provide space for the nuances of the Black experience throughout history to be discussed. This will create an environment where Black employees can show up as their full selves in our workplaces. 

  2. Provide opportunities for reflection: If you are unsure whether your Black History Month programming was impactful, be sure that your programming is coupled with avenues for feedback and education. Allow Black employees to be able to have a pathway to share any reactions, thoughts, or feelings to the Black History Month celebrations. Be open to all feedback from employees and create strategies to not only implement but recognize the feedback that’s been shared. This way your company’s programming can be impactful but will also increase Black employee belonging by respecting their insights.

What other practices would you recommend to maximize the impact of cultural and heritage recognitions? #DEI #BlackHistoryMonth #Consulting #OrganizationalGrowth

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