Octavia Goredema, a Los Angeles-based author and career coach, provides tips to employers each year during Black History Month to equip them with the necessary tools to better support Black workers’ careers.
But these organizations don’t always implement her suggestions.
“It’s really frustrating when you see companies who just want to tick a box for Black History Month but are not prepared to invest in the advancement of their Black employees throughout the rest of the year,” she said. “Often, those employees reach out to me directly because they are prepared to pay for leadership development coaching at their own expense.”
Each February, employers nationwide release statements or post inspirational quotes from Black civil rights icons on social media. However, many organizations fail to help Black workers develop their careers once the month is over.
Black Employees Are Leaving at High Rates
Black History Month gives employers the opportunity to examine barriers Black face in career advancement.
Federal data shows that Black workers have higher unemployment rates and fewer employment prospects compared with their white counterparts. And just six Black CEOs led Fortune 500 companies in 2022.
McKinsey & Co. released a report in 2021 indicating that Black workers:
- Experience less fairness and fewer chances to succeed.
- Earn less than $30,000 a year more often than their peers do.
- Are overrepresented in low-wage occupations, such as front-line jobs.
“We’re underpaid, underutilized and it’s underwhelming,” Goredema said. “If you’re Black, you don’t need to study to validate your lived experience, but the data speaks for itself.”
Black employees are more likely than white workers to actively search for a new job or plan to search in the next few months, according to a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
They also continue to experience racism at work, including hair discrimination—although states have begun enacting laws to prohibit hair-related bias in the workplace.
Lior Rachmany, founder and CEO of moving company Dumbo Moving in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that Black employees are leaving their jobs at high rates because they aren’t being treated fairly or given the opportunities and tools to thrive at work.
“All Black workers need to be given equal and fair pay and access to the tools and resources to make them successful at their respective jobs,” Rachmany explained. “That starts at the top of any organization.”
The Importance of Mentoring
Errol Pierre, a business executive and author of The Way Up: Climbing the Corporate Mountain as a Professional of Color (Wiley, 2022), said mentoring is a meaningful way to celebrate Black History Month because it helps Black workers learn and grow professionally.
Mentoring can increase a worker’s likelihood of being promoted, earning more and being happier in their career. It can also provide new networking opportunities that help Black employees advance professionally.
“Mentoring to your employees of color requires the nuance to realize that they will need different kinds of support,” Pierre noted.
He offered some suggestions for companies looking to mentor Black workers:
Establish trust. Mentors should get to know their mentee in an environment where the mentee feels safe enough speak about their background and experiences.
Engage in uncomfortable conversations. A Black mentee may want to navigate issues of race and bias and how these limit their professional growth. Employers who entertain these tough topics will learn valuable information that can increase retention.
Define success. Establish each mentee’s goals and define what success will look like before the first meeting. If a milestone isn’t met, ask the mentor and mentee to pause and reflect on the shortcoming. Milestones keep the relationship moving forward, which is key to ensuring the connection is beneficial.
Periodically assess the mentorship. Evaluating the mentorship every few months allows companies to have honest conversations about accomplishment during their time together and to assess whether it makes sense to continue—or if another mentor may be a better fit.
Goredema added that it’s essential for leaders to “not just be allies but to cultivate a culture of sponsorship for Black employees.”
When Planning Festivities, Involve Black Workers
It’s OK to celebrate Black History Month at work with fun, engaging activities. If done correctly, these events can provide an educational experience that includes employees of all backgrounds.
Goredema said that companies that hold Black History Month activities should:
- Ask Black employees for their ideas during the planning phase, listen to them and reflect on the responses.
- Solicit anonymous feedback on what has worked well or failed during past events.
- Publicly recognize the workers who want to help execute activities.
- Ensure organizers receive a significant cash bonus, not just a thank-you e-mail or shoutout.
She also implored organizations to make a sustained, ongoing commitment to Black talent year-round, instead of just one month.
“If you’re committed to closing the opportunity gap, actions speak louder than words,” Goredema said. “If Black History Month celebrations are perceived as being performative, what’s the point?”