Pause for a moment and consider this truth: Black history is just as much the rich legacy and triumphs of the trailblazers who came before us as it is the talented yet overlooked and undervalued Black colleagues you work alongside.
So often during Black History Month, organizations and individuals are clamoring for speakers, books, campaigns and resources to promote during February. I am Black history, so I welcome and help with the concerted effort to spotlight the beauty, struggle and vast stories of the Black experience in all its facets.
But what happens after February? Organizations also need a long-term vision and plan for making the spirit of Black history more than a monthlong celebration. This isn’t an either-or situation but rather what my friends in the improv space refer to as “yes, and.”
Yes, Black History Month should be observed and honored. And if you say you honor Black History Month, there are practical and impactful things you can do year-round to align with what you say you believe.
I’ve outlined a few examples for you to skim now and really sit with. This isn’t about optics. This isn’t about simply hiring more Black employees or even launching a diversity, equity and inclusion council. It’s about having psychologically safe environments where Black employees have a voice and opportunities to put their talents into practice, thrive and learn. I challenge you to read this article, not just this month but regularly — and to have conversations with Black employees that result in fruitful outcomes.
What you’ll find below is that many of these suggestions are what emotionally intelligent and people-centered individuals and organizations have been doing and continue to do. The first step is awareness.
Acknowledge that your Black colleagues and direct reports are Black history. How are your actions and words uplifting and valuing them every day? Do you acknowledge them, with your words, interactions and active listening? When you value someone you want to invest in them. Start by evaluating your level of support for Black employees. For additional reading and self-reflection, here’s an article I wrote about support in the workplace.
Take the time to understand how Black employees are experiencing work — and you. This is especially true for people managers and senior leaders, who can either be a stumbling block or a great asset to employees’ career trajectories and overall experience at work. Leaders who are self-aware of how their behaviors directly impact others ask questions and challenge their motives and intentions. For example, are your support and allyship solely tied to the month of February? Have employees shared with you how your allyship has benefited them? Or has performative allyship caused more harm than good?
But before you dive headfirst into peppering employees with questions, consider whether you’ve created an environment of trust and psychological safety, one where employees can connect with you. If people don’t believe you have their best interest at heart, you won’t get the candor and vulnerability needed to transform workplaces for the better. When employees don’t feel heard or affirmed, this erodes any sense of belonging. Here’s a primer for having honest conversations about race in the workplace and racial equity.
Check your ego at the door and be vulnerable. Conversations with your colleagues and direct reports are not about checking a box or performing to meet a requirement set by human resources. Remember that your team, your organization is only as safe as the least psychologically safe person. Too often, Black employees carry this burden. So what are you willing to do to help change that narrative? As you think through what conversations with employees might look like as a manager, consider this framing that The Muse offers. Make it personal, and please do not quote this verbatim.
I’m always trying to improve as a professional and as a manager. Is there anything I could be doing better or differently?
Getting feedback is how I keep improving and I love using the SSC framework for it — is there anything I should stop, start, or continue doing?
Treat Black employees with respect. If you’ve created a culture where this is the standard for all employees, then keep it up. When I reflect on times that I’ve felt most disrespected in my career, many times the source was people who professed to be allies. And my story is not a unique story. If you consider yourself to be an ally, really get a sense of who your allyship has helped and how it has helped. Do Black employees consider you to be an ally? Are you treating your colleagues the way they want to be treated?
Being respectful does not negate the need for critical conversations about performance and giving constructive feedback. But ensure that all employees are held to the same standard and that you are, in fact, giving feedback with concrete actions tied to them and not simply opinions. That was a gem of wisdom that came from a January Twitter Space about why leadership is turning off their employees.
Know that your Black colleagues are not charity cases. What they want are the same opportunities and access that other employees receive. Who are the employees being promoted through leadership programs? Who gets to work on special projects? Who is giving updates during companywide and department meetings? And then think about who is not doing those things. Then ask why and why not.
Immerse yourself in places where you can learn and listen. The #BlackTechTwitter online community and Twitter Spaces are great ways to learn, and they are free. The same is true for LinkedIn live chats. There are various networks and associations that have opened their virtual doors to allow non-members to attend events. Blacks in Government and the African American Federal Executive Association are two examples.
Elevate Black voices and contributions. This is true year-round, not just this month. Be a coach, mentor or sponsor. A while back, I wrote an article about one question that changed my career trajectory. Nearly six years ago, my manager at the time asked me a simple yet profound question. During one of our weekly check-ins, she asked me if I had ever considered managing other people and if that was a career path I was interested in. She didn’t just see the potential in me, she called it out and nurtured it.
Maybe you don’t have the power to promote someone, but you can write a LinkedIn review. You can speak well of someone to their manager and give them public praise using platforms like Kazoo or Slack. Even in meetings, you can use the art of calling people in rather than calling them out by trying a technique my boss often uses to elevate others’ voices. Here are two simple yet effective questions he often asks during meetings: 1) Nicole, what you do think? 2) Tell me more.
Reread the material you think you already have or know. It’s a noble thing to want to read about Black history. But what I’m sharing with you isn’t about amassing knowledge but about doing a heart check and doing the work. In your role, that might be rewriting job descriptions to ensure that they are inclusive and speak to the unique needs of employees. That could mean ensuring that you have regular 1:1 check-ins with your Black employees and all direct reports. Ensure those conversations are substantive and provide space for listening and learning.
Black History Month can’t be about optics. It’s a time to educate and share while also uplifting. It’s time to recalibrate how we honor Black history this month and year-round, and you can help lead that charge in the workplace.
You can find additional resources here on GovLoop.com to help guide your journey.