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Thoughts for Employers Celebrating Juneteenth for the First Time

As the national conscience has elevated after the death of George Floyd regarding social justice and racial equality, many employers have begun to self-reflect on their own standing with communities of color and the Black community specifically.  For many companies, the diversity and inclusion function has taken center stage to process concerns, facilitate trainings and determine metrics for progress.  The recognition that more needs to be done on racial equity inside and outside the workplace has led to a record number of companies providing recognition of Juneteenth – a historic day for many African-Americans celebrating the reading of federal orders in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, which proclaimed slaves to be free.

Whether it is a company recognizing this event by initiating a new diversity action plan, facilitating a day of self-education and reflection on racial progress, or giving staff some form of PTO, here are some of my thoughts related to Juneteenth.

  • Avoid burdening Black employees with employee education – Depending on the industry, there may be under-representation of Black employees at certain levels of the company and particularly on senior staff.  It is important to avoid burdening those individuals with providing historical background and resource materials to help all employees understand concerns of race.  Consider providing resources communicated through the employee training function or even better, from a senior management representative.
  • Remember Juneteenth is an annual event – While Juneteenth may be new to some, particularly for those not residing in the South where celebrations have been prevalent, the historical event occurred 155 years ago.  If employees are provided a day off this year, consider whether this will be an ongoing commitment.  Nothing will bring more cynicism to a corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion than conducting actions solely when there is a highly publicized national concern.  It is a good idea to encourage employees to use the day in the spirit of its importance – such as supporting social justice activities or engaging in education and self-awareness on issues of racial injustice.
  • Dispel myths for communicating with persons of color – One of the most popular corporate myths is that telling a person of color that you are “color-blind” will automatically raise goodwill and understanding.  For many minorities and Black people specifically, there is a great deal of pride in bringing their full self to work, which includes their status as a Black person.  Instead of providing a bridge to open communications and understanding, perpetuating this myth can create an unintended micro-aggression.  Similarly, discussions regarding George Floyd and similar interactions with police may not appear genuine for many affected employees without recognizing this is a concern for all, but has been particularly acute for Black people.
  • Avoid “diversity fatigue” – While the current attention to racial equity has been broad, there is concern that its intensity cannot be maintained.  Companies will be well-served to use this day of self-reflection to consider developing diversity action plans targeted to (i) identify formal and informal practices that have been ineffective in diversifying applicant, hiring and promotion pools; (ii) adopt a diversity and inclusion policy that includes senior management oversight, has periodic reviews on progress, and is designed to facilitate input for diverse stakeholders; and (iii) emphasize that the policy is to increase both diversity and inclusion.  Having a formal diversity strategy or action plan will help not only with accountability, but framing perspective on the inevitable bumps on the road for progress.

In my conversations providing advice to employers across industries in this area, there is palpable anxiety on how to be responsive on concerns surrounding racial equity.  It is important to consult with legal counsel for advice in order to properly put in place diversity policies, form responsive inclusion oversight committees, identify areas for risk mitigation and develop effective action plans which increase diversity.

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