From Critical Conversations to Celebrations: Black History Month in the Workplace

From our schools and our workplaces to our everyday lives, Black History Month is a time to learn, celebrate, and ignite years-long discussions and actions for Black Americans.

February is Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, a time to celebrate the rich, diverse history of Black Americans and their achievements. A month dedicated to the ways Black Americans enrich the country, and the world, with their voices and contributions, is just the beginning. From our schools and our workplaces to our everyday lives, Black History Month is a time to learn, celebrate, and ignite years-long discussions and actions for Black Americans.

What is Black History Month?

The story of Black History Month starts in 1915, where Harvard-educated Carter G. Woodson and prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). The organization was dedicated to research and promotion of Black Americans and their achievements, beginning with a week-long celebration in February of 1926.

This week of celebration inspired schools and communities around the country to organize local celebrations that, over the years, developed into a month of celebration. In 1976, President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans is a fact that is unfortunately still true to this day. Compounding it is the ever-pressing issue of racism in the U.S. that is both blatant and subtle. The tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 formed a rallying cry for the U.S. to grapple with its uncomfortable reality of racism in our personal and professional lives. Before celebration comes the necessary conversations around these issues.

DE&I: The Importance of Critical Conversations and Knowledge Building

A primary arena to hold these conversations is in the workplace, where the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), especially for Black Americans, has jumped to the front of the line in workplace strategy. They’re more than just industry buzzwords, they’re valuable and tangible action items that work together to allow people to be their whole selves in the workplace. Consider these statistics:

  • 65% of black professionals say that black employees must work harder to advance in their careers, while only 16% of white professionals agree with that statement.
  • 58% of black professionals have experienced racial prejudice in the workplace.
  • Black adults represent 12% of the population and 10% of degree holders, but only 8% of professional jobs and 3.2% of executive or senior-level management positions.
  • Of the 279 top executives listed at the 50 biggest companies in the S&P 100, just 5 are black.

These are just some of the realities that Black workers face, which makes the importance of critical conversations around race even more pressing. Leaders can confront these realities with Black history lessons that offer insight to how we got here. At the same time, critical conversations around DE&I in the workplace can shed additional light. Leaders can bring in a neutral party to facilitate conversations on unconscious bias and privilege, or conduct DE&I trainings to educate and equip the workplace with tools to combat racism in a respectful yet comprehensive way. Often, the toughest conversations bring the biggest breakthroughs.

Practice Makes Perfect: Walking the Talk

Learning about racism in the workplace is just one step. It’s even more important to practice what we preach to match education with sustained strategy. Businesses have made great strides in turning their resources to racial justice, such as Nike, which announced a $40 million commitment to the Black community, or Netflix, which made a $100 million commitment. And while education is central to any DE&I strategy, consider these strategies from Harvard Business Review to further strengthen DE&I programs to boost Black employees, and make an even greater impact:

  • “Give D&I sustained C-suite support and recognize and reward the people who contribute to its initiatives — for example, by having your chief diversity officer report directly to the CEO and tracking inclusion initiative participation in performance reviews and promotion and pay raise discussions.
  • Shift from preventative measures, such as antibias training, to proactive ones, such as upping the number of black candidates considered for open positions and stretch roles.
  • Abandon one-size-fits-all and color-blind leadership-development practices in favor of courses and coaching tailored to specific groups — or adopt personalized plans that recognize the multifaceted nature of each individual.
  • Help black employees and rising leaders throughout their careers, including teaching managers the skills they need to support D&I efforts.”

These are just a few ways to sharpen DE&I efforts and support Black employees. Above all, it’s important to just begin, and Black History Month is a great time to do just that. Whether it’s hosting a book club to celebrate Black authors, jumpstarting a charity donation contest, conducting a workshop, or highlighting an important person in Black history each day, Black History month can not only educate, but inspire. Such inspiration can lead to opportunities for employers and leaders to have critical conversations and create well-rounded DE&I strategies that boost Black employees not just during Black history month, but every month of the year.

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