As companies across the country responded to protests about systemic racism and injustice after the police killing of George Floyd, many issued statements of support, donated to social justice causes, and gave their employees a new work holiday: Juneteenth.
From the NFL to Allstate, corporations made Juneteenth a paid holiday as they looked for ways to support their Black employees. The holiday on June 19 honors the day when enslaved people in Texas learned that the Civil War was over, and they were free.
The recognition of Juneteenth is an important gesture, but diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) experts say it’s critical for employers to be thoughtful as they contemplate offering other diversity holidays. And they counsel that giving workers a new day off should only be a small part of a larger effort to build workplaces where all employees can flourish.
“It’s a significant signal,” said Kevin L. James, dean of the Willie A. Deese College of Business and Economics at North Carolina A&T State University. “I don’t know if it tells me that you really understand my culture, but it does tell me that you’re making an effort to recognize my culture and my identity, and that makes me more likely to feel like you’re the company that I can join and begin to thrive.”
As you contemplate the diversity holidays to include in your company’s calendar for 2020 and beyond, here are four questions to ask that will guide you as you strive to make your workplace more inclusive.
As protests grew across the country in the weeks leading up to June 19, Juneteenth was an obvious place to start. But workplaces and communities are composed of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and there are dozens of other holidays or observances that celebrate diversity.
Beyond Juneteenth, celebrations of importance to Black people could include Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, and Kwanzaa. Some Hispanic and Latinx people might celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and Día de los Muertos.
Non-Christian holidays include Ramadan for Muslims, Yom Kippur for Jews, and Diwali for Hindus. Chinese New Year, LGBTQ Pride Month, and Native American Day are others to consider, too.
Exactly what holidays you select, said James, will depend on your goals and who your employees and customers are. If a company relies on the Latinx community, for example, he’d advise choosing diversity holidays that mean something to them.
“It is true that, on the whole, corporate America has failed the Black community, whether we’re talking about employees or fully recognizing consumers. But I think we all have to be practical and realistic about the fact that businesses are businesses, and they’ve got to be driven by their individual company’s strategic mission,” James said. “I can’t have a blanket expectation that every company should adopt Juneteenth as a company holiday. That’s not practical or realistic.”
There’s no one right way to do it, according to Bill Hertan, Managing Director of Training Resources International, which helps companies with diversity solutions. Just don’t do it in a vacuum, he said.
Reach out to your employees by forming a task force or launching a survey to find out what diversity holidays would mean the most to them, advised Hertan. Include your board of directors in the discussion. And don’t make assumptions about what holidays are important to particular employees.
A white employee with biracial children or Black family members, or anybody who wants to support the Black community, could celebrate Juneteenth. “That’s where your legal and HR teams really have to do their due diligence and be incredibly clear about the intent and the implementation,” he said.
From the beginning, Hertan said, you’ll want to explain your goal, which should be to make your company the most productive and welcoming organization possible.
To do that, give your managers the right language to explain what’s happening. Ensure they avoid remarks like, “I can’t believe we have to add another holiday,” where they share their own conscious or unconscious bias.
To help managers explain what’s happening and why, provide one-on-one or group coaching and a script, Hertan recommended. And make sure they stick to it: “Hold those leaders accountable if they don’t follow the script,” he said.
Most companies can’t add a dozen new paid holidays to their work calendar. Products and services still need to be sold; metrics need to be met. But there are other ways to recognize holidays and make your workplace more inclusive.
Let employees decide what diversity holidays they’ll celebrate by giving them a specific number of days off to do it, Hertan said. You would likely still offer some fixed US holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s Day, but your workers would have some flexibility in how they celebrate others.
You can also regularly bring attention to the diversity in your workforce. As part of its DE&I strategy, Parker Poe, a law firm in the Southeast, sends out monthly cultural awareness alerts that highlight diversity holidays, how employees celebrate them, and holiday events in locations where the firm operates.
The law firm also offers an annual working holiday — a firm-wide community service day — where employees can sign up to volunteer with local groups. “That gives you the opportunity to learn about the diversity in your community in a different way,” said Chara O’Neale, the firm’s Director of Talent Management and Diversity and Inclusion.
As you look for ways to build a more inclusive workforce, O’Neale reminds employers that it’s not one-and-done after adding Juneteenth or Diwali to your calendar. DE&I best practices go much deeper and cover recruiting diverse talent and building programs that prepare all workers for success.
“The company’s leaders have to step up,” said Shalanna Pirtle, a partner at Parker Poe and chair of its DE&I committee. “It has to be top-down leadership, and they have to be willing to engage in these conversations.”