Black History Month: Getting It Right

Despite good intentions, some firms still struggle to find the right events that improve allyship.

The executive team wanted to acknowledge Black History Month, which starts this week. But the group was mostly white, and so was the planning team. Some disagreed as to whether the activities should include events or films or commemorations or an education series. Were those all cheesy? And would it all feel obligatory and forced?

Black History Month is upon us, and experts worry that many companies may mishandle it. Despite mostly good intentions, experts say, some firms are struggling to read the room, in the process inadvertently emphasizing their lack of skill at meeting the needs of diverse groups. For some companies, Black History Month is a risky proposition. “If it’s a one-time, check-the-box activity, it can feel reactive,” says JT Saunders, chief diversity officer at Korn Ferry.

The month was first designated in 1915, by Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African American leaders, to celebrate the achievements and contributions Black Americans have made to history, society, and business. In more recent times, it has taken the form of reminding Americans of the dual triumphs and struggles of Black populations. Since the murder of George Floyd, the number of Black individuals on corporate boards has grown significantly, but only 4% of senior management is black. (11% of Congress is Black, as is 13% of the US population.) Black workers earn just 75 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts, and the median Black household income continues to lag behind, at  $30,000 below the white household median.

To be sure, many firms get Black History Month and other such months right, with a consistent calendar of heritage and cultural events that include many events honoring Latinx, Asian Pacific American, and other groups. But too often, companies limit the celebrations to a short period, even sometimes to just a press release.

Saunders says that feelings of mild awkwardness during Black History Month planning and events can arise — and that is both fine and normal. These are hard topics. “It’s okay for organizations to feel a bit of discomfort around this, as they’re new to it,” he says. Some of the discussions that take place during the month may well create some level of unease. “You might have conversations that you wouldn’t necessarily volunteer to have at work, and that may make you feel uncomfortable,” he says. “But you can do it in a truly productive way and generate a positive response rate.”

Alina Polonskaia, global leader of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consulting practice at Korn Ferry, suggests using corporate values as a guideline. Polonskaia also suggests taking cues from the way in which clients or suppliers recognize the month. Are they actively acknowledging it? Or focusing on any particular angle?

Saunders says it’s essential that planning teams consult with diversity groups within the company for recommendations and then invite members of those groups to participate in the planning. There are no hard and fast rules here, given regional and corporate differences. It’s all about trusting your judgement, Saunders says. “It’s about coming to a place that feels good and meaningful for the employees and also feels good for the organization.”

Launching the events is where many companies get shipwrecked, he says. “Organizations can get stuck on a celebratory moment,” focusing on an annual event rather than truly building an inclusive company. One solution is to partially use the monthlong focus to build up ongoing structural inclusion, such as the hiring, training, and supports that make underrepresented groups feel supported. For example, February is an excellent time to launch a recruiting program aimed at discovering diverse talent pools.

As for the events themselves, there are rules of thumb. “Make it relevant to all your stakeholders — clients, employees, community, suppliers, everyone,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategist. That way, local leaders will show up at the events. “No leaders will show up for an employee event that is just checking the box,” Tapia says. And not surprisingly some firms succeed at this much more than others: “The companies that do Black History Month well are also the companies that do diversity and inclusion well.”