This October, workplaces across the country will be celebrating key figures and events in Black history, as part of Black History Month.
Fittingly, and amidst the widely publicised social movements of recent years, this year’s Black History Month theme “Time for Change: Action Not Words” signifies a shift in the way in which Black History Month is traditionally or conventionally celebrated. Rather than focusing on the past, and a tendency to only celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black history, this year’s theme encourages employers, workplaces, and all those celebrating to look beyond that, acknowledge and learn from the past and take action to tackle racism, the systemic issues which permeate society, and effect positive change to try to ensure Black history is actively celebrated all year round.
What is Black History Month, why is it important for employers to celebrate Black history and what can employers do in the workplace, in the spirit of this year’s Black History Month theme, to try to implement positive action or change for the future?
What is Black History Month?
Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987, 12 years after it was first recognised in the US. The month-long event is intended to recognise and celebrate the achievements of key Black figures in history as well as Black heritage. In recent years, it has been seen as an opportunity for people to recognise the struggles faced by Black people in society including negative stereotyping, unconscious bias, and racism.
What does this year’s Black History Month theme mean?
This year’s Black History Month theme promotes a key shift in the acknowledgement, understanding and promotion of Black History moving forward. The theme, “Time for Change: Action not Words”, pushes for individuals and workplaces to take some form of positive action to acknowledge the experiences faced by Black people (both positive and negative) and improve their own understanding and promotion of Black history moving forward, to work towards a societal shift in the way Black history is considered.
The “action” could be anything which looks to improve the experience/understanding of the experience faced by the Black community, more than simply “token” and results in a form of permanent, meaningful, positive change.
Why should employers celebrate Black History Month?
Recent social and political movements have lifted the lid on racism in the UK, and in particular, institutional racism. Racism has also become a topic of discussion within the workplace, with an increasing number of employees speaking out and speaking on their own experiences.
All employers have a duty to be proactive to prevent, and reactive to any acts of racial discrimination in the workplace. It has often been said that employers can do more, and this year’s theme calls for them to do so.
It is important for all workplaces, not just those with Black employees, to celebrate Black History Month. Employers have a large influence on their workforce and can often form the beacon for positive change. Employees will expect employers to not only celebrate Black History Month, but to show that they are making changes (in line with this year’s theme), advocate for any Black employees, and promote equal opportunities and inclusion in the workplace genuinely. Ignoring Black History Month can lead to Black employees feeling marginalised.
Employers should also be proactive in recognising the need for Black History Month and their duties to all employees to prevent unlawful discrimination.
What “action” can employers encourage when celebrating Black History Month?
Much in this respect will depend on the workforce (size and diversity), though it is strongly advisable to review any current working practices which could potentially pose an obstacle to Black employees and/or could result in unlawful discrimination (even if indirect). We have suggested various meaningful “actions” below which employers could look to take to celebrate Black History Month this year and try to effect positive institutional change moving forward. These are only suggestions and if in doubt as to what your workplace can do to celebrate Black History Month, or to improve equality and diversity, do not hesitate to contact our specialist employment team.
- Recognise and actively consider its recruitment processes – i.e. are recruiters putting forward a diverse range of candidates? Are graduate recruiters looking at candidates from universities with a diverse pool? Are there any ways the processes can be adapted to address and avoid unconscious biases (i.e. ‘blind’ CV sifting).
- Review its senior leadership team and consider whether any thought is needed to be given to making it more diverse. Again, “action” here would be any positive steps to address potential unconscious bias here and permeating the senior leadership team (such as external recruiters conducting the recruitment process for senior roles).
- Encourage Black employees to dictate what they feel comfortable discussing and how they feel comfortable celebrating Black History Month. Employers can have a tendency to push for Black employees to take an active role in spearheading any Black History Month incentives, however thought should be given to those employees’ own personal journeys and levels of comfort in doing this, and in engaging in race-related office discussions. Are those Black employees being given the same opportunity to speak in meetings, as they may be being given by employers during Black History Month? It is important for employers to consider whether unconscious bias does exist in the workplace during Black History Month too and enforcing active means to redress, where it does.
- Set up support groups and networks – this is a less direct way of encouraging employees to speak out on their experiences in the spirit of allyship but also in a way that they feel comfortable, connect with one another and share experiences. This could be done in a way where any underlying issues are also escalated to senior management, so that they can be meaningfully addressed. This could also foster an open culture, where employees do not fear speaking out for a lack of safe space to do so.
- Make ethnicity pay gap reporting mandatory.
- Support Black owned/focused enterprises – be it social or be it general.
- Promote internal training, education and understanding – meaningful change involves us thinking and acting differently. Courses could be introduced to raise awareness of unconscious bias and the ways in which to tackle it in the workplace, as well as behaviour in the workplace which could be considered offensive to Black people in particular.
- Publishing an action plan for the year ahead, setting out incentives or ways in which the company will commit to educating itself on Black history and/or celebrating Black history for the next 12 months.
- Encourage employees to make a ‘pledge’, i.e. each employee will pledge to do something meaningful (such as shop exclusively/more frequently at a Black owned business) in the year ahead.
- Incorporate Black History Month into ice breaker challenges, in a way that feels in line with allyship, rather than ‘token’.
- Encourage employees to speak out about their experiences and/or arrange for an external speaker to come in and share their own – a useful, educational, and informative way of raising awareness. Employers should also tread carefully and encourage Black employees to engage of their own volition rather than just dictate.
- Share resources throughout the year, encourage employees to attend Black seminars, and commit to change – frequent engagement with Black history and culture, through events and talks, is important.
As we say, the above are only suggestions and for more wonderful suggestions on how you can try to celebrate Black history, this month, we would encourage you to explore and download the helpful resources at Black History Month 2022 – Black History Month 2022.
For any further advice, do not hesitate to contact our specialist employment team: firstname.lastname@example.org.