8 Meaningful Ways to Celebrate Black History Month in the Workplace

Written by
Connie Du
Connie Du

How many of you had a dedicated African-American history unit in February—Black History Month—as part of your curriculum?

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For those of us in the United States, it’s fairly common for schools to recognize Black History Month. But as we get older, mandated education and celebration of African-American history gets less common. Which is a total bummer, and a lost opportunity! It also doesn’t help that February is a short month.

But let’s not dwell on the negative. There’s so much positive that can be celebrated in that short period of time!

As President Gerald Ford said in 1976 when he officially recognized Black History Month, we need to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Including in the workplace. 🤗

Why do we celebrate Black History Month?

Black History Month actually started as Negro History Week in 1917. Author, journalist, and historian Carter G. Woodson—now appropriately recognized as the “father of black history”—lobbied vigorously for the national recognition of black stories and perspectives. Woodson believed deeply that equality was only possible with the acknowledgement and understanding of a race’s history, and dedicated his life to the study of African-American historical research.

“Since its inception, Black History Month has never been just a celebration of black America’s achievements and stories—it’s part of a deliberate political strategy to be recognized as equal citizens.”
Dr. Theodore R. Johnson

Woodson also hoped that the time would come when Black History Month would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

So, how does this relate to the workplace? There’s a plethora of research that covers the racism, discrimination, and unfair treatment that African-American employees face. This attitude persists despite the efforts of diversity initiatives.black-employee-successes-01

As HR professionals, it’s up to us to set the standard of how to eradicate discrimination and bias—conscious and unconscious—and, in the process, encourage the inclusion of all employees. Recognizing and celebrating employees’ racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds can be effective in building psychological safety and employee engagement. Thus, celebrating Black History Month in the workplace is an excellent way to achieve that goal.

“Let truth destroy the dividing prejudice of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank.”
–Carter G. Woodson

(P.S. If you need help selling the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace to your higher-ups, check out this blog post.)

Celebrating Black History Month in the workplace best practices

Race in the workplace can be a touchy subject, and many organizations try to be “colorblind” in a misguided attempt at establishing equality.

In fact, when companies downplay demographic differences, this actually just increases underrepresented employees’ perception of bias from their white colleagues and reduces engagement in their work. 😬

So, best practice #1: Don’t be colorblind. Your employees should be able to openly discuss, embrace, and be proud of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Embrace your differences!

With this in mind, let’s cover some other Black History Month—and any cultural or ethnic celebration—best practices!

Make it a company-wide effort

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In the spirit of inclusivity, everyone in your organization should be encouraged to participate with enthusiasm. It shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of African-American employees to organize their own recognition, and you’ll find that it’s transformative to have employees of every background participating and learning during Black History Month.

Don’t single anyone out

Along the same lines, you shouldn’t assume that someone wants to be involved in your Black History Month planning simply because of their ethnic background. That places the burden of responsibility on them, and if they’re a visible minority at your workplace, they might feel tokenized about their role at your workplace—especially if this initiative is a new thing at your company. Remember, for best results, you should be recognizing all your employees, all year round.

Consider areas of growth

“But wait!” you say, “What if my workplace doesn’t have African-American employees, or isn’t very diverse at all?”

This is definitely a good consideration! It’s important to understand your organization’s areas of growth, and Black History Month is a great opportunity to do that. If you find your company lacking in its diversity and inclusion practices, why not take the time to examine your current recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding processes?

Chances are, your fellow team members will appreciate and welcome your efforts. In a survey done by Glassdoor, 57% of respondents believe their employers could be doing more to increase diversity and inclusion. And if you’re a company that intends to grow, two-thirds (67%) of active and passive job seekers consider a diverse workforce to be an important factor in evaluating companies to work for.

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Trust us—and decades of research—a diverse and inclusive workplace is worth the effort.

Okay, now that we have those principles down, let’s dive into some actual ideas!

Black History Month in the workplace ideas

There’s always an opportunity to learn something insightful when you listen to a new perspective. From unconscious bias training to volunteering to an old-fashioned lecture from an expert, there are lots of ways to recognize Black History Month. Here are a few:

Education 🧠

Bring in speakers

Prepare to be starstruck! 🤩

Bring in influential authors, historians, or activists to speak to your employees about race relations, civil rights, and other critical topics surrounding black identity.

Panel discussions allow for multiple speakers to bounce ideas around for a thorough conversation, while presentations can really highlight a speaker’s area of expertise. Whichever style your company goes with, It’s sure to be an engaging and thought-provoking experience.

Plan a workshopteam-building-puzzle-01

While there’s usually still a main speaker or facilitator involved, workshops are unique in that participants are usually encouraged to be hands-on and think critically about what they’re learning. You’ll be working, not just listening!

At Bonusly, we’re really looking forward to Paradigm’s Managing Unconscious Bias Workshop at our annual company retreat. While not directly related to Black History Month, this workshop will shed light on and address the issues many African-American employees face in the workplace today.

Organize a book club

Reading nonfiction or fiction books by black authors can be a poignant and meaningful way to recognize Black History Month. Bonus points if you bring in a facilitator to guide and make the most of your discussions (or even the author themself!). There are so, so many excellent books by black authors out there, but here’s a quick list of recent hits:

Nonfiction

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, an anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Fiction

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Service 💡

Volunteer

Volunteering with local nonprofits and charities is an excellent way to help the community, bond with your team members, and even inspire engagement and motivation in the workplace!

Lending your support as an organization is uniquely powerful because you can bring a lot of helping hands to a project, but you can also form corporate partnerships and create lasting relationships by establishing internship, apprenticeship, or recruiting programs.

You know your own community better than we do, but Black Girls CODE, National Society of Black Engineers, and My Brother’s Keeper Alliance are good places to start if you’re looking for national African-American-led organizations!

Donate

Pool your resources together or arrange a fundraiser to support racial justice. Sometimes, the gift of money is the most impactful thing you can give to a charity, especially when it comes to education or legal funds. We recommend checking out The Sentencing Project, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the NAACP Defense and Educational Fund.

It’s also worth it to look into Historically-Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs). Consider establishing a scholarship fund or even mentorship opportunities!

Inclusion 💚

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As we mentioned, Black History Month is a great time to think about your company’s current diversity and inclusion efforts, and make changes as needed. Teams with inclusive cultures outperform their peers by a staggering 80%, but only about 11% of organizations can say that they have truly inclusive environments. There is always room to improve.

Don’t know where to start? We love this quote from our friends at OfficeVibe:

“Remember that your organization and its people do not exist separately from the world, meaning that you need to pay attention to how world events might affect your employees.”

Be thoughtful; do you create safe spaces to discuss current events affecting your team members’ communities? Or do you stay silent? Every organization and individual team member has different support needs, but showing you care and bringing these employees into the fold can hugely affect their sense of belonging and inclusion.

One of the best ways to foster inclusion is by seeking out and listening to the perspectives and opinions of those you’re trying to include. Reach out to African-American leaders in your organization and get their input on how they would like to be recognized during Black History Month and beyond.

Collaborate

Take it a step further by establishing a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee at your organization. This act shows that your company is dedicated to making your team environment a better place, and encourages a free-flowing of ideas and feedback between employees and leadership.

Recognizerecognize-black-employees-01

We firmly believe that employee recognition is crucial to building inclusive workplaces.

Culture Amp and Paradigm surveyed over 7,000 individuals from 35 organizations and found that a sense of belonging was the single metric that was consistently and universally tied to workplace commitment, motivation, pride and recommendation.

Furthermore, the correlation between belonging and engagement was stronger for underrepresented groups.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? One way to ensure more people are recognized is to diversify the parties responsible for giving recognition. Considering that executive boards and leadership positions tend to be less diverse, the simple act of implementing 360-degree and peer recognition at your workplace can make a big difference in your inclusion metrics.

Next steps

Even with the 2020 leap year’s extra day, February is still a short month, so if you want to implement Black History Month activities meaningfully and thoughtfully, you best get crackin’! 👏

Has this post sparked inspiration? Tell us in the comments below, or check out these additional resources: 10 Diversity & Inclusion Statistics That Will Change How You Do Business, Seven Team Building Activities That Actually Build Stronger Teams, Why Employee Recognition is Crucial to Inclusion.

Originally published on January 31, 2020 → Last updated September 30, 2020

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Connie Du

Connie is on the marketing team at Bonusly and is dedicated to making workdays a little brighter for everyone. ☀️She loves writing, her cats, and a well-placed emoji.

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