October sees Black History Month return and with it the chance for businesses to celebrate Black culture and bring a fresh focus to their inclusivity of Black colleagues.

Black History Month has been celebrated in the UK for over 30 years. Yet, it is only relatively recently that we have seen it take a prominent position within some workplaces. For many it was, in fact, the Black Lives Matter campaign that jolted them in action. But whichever catalyst sparked discussion, action, tolerance and acceptance, awareness of Black culture and heritage is higher than ever. As we celebrate Black History Month, workplaces have another opportunity to reinforce diversity and inclusion initiatives and strive for equity which, inevitably, spills over into communities and wider society.  The end goal of BHM is that it is no longer needed as we have become a truly inclusive, welcoming society.

Change in the Workplace

Our workplaces are in a far, far better place with regards to countering racism and cutting it off before it takes root. But we cannot and must not fool ourselves into thinking this battle has been won.  These sobering statistics tell us there is more work to be done in the workplace:

  • Almost 60% of black professionals still experience racism in their workplace
  • Only 1 in 16 top management positions in the UK is held by a person from an ethnic minority
  • 33% of black employees feel their ethnicity will be a barrier to their next career move (set against 1% of white employees)

These are shameful statistics, but we hide behind the word statistics as it dehumanises a situation.  These are shameful lived experiences and they have to change!

BHM gives organisations a prime chance to recognise, celebrate, invite and appreciate the contributions of Black colleagues.  Here are some ideas of how your workplace can make the most of the focal point provided by Black History Month.

Springboard for lasting change

Doing something for BHM is of little or no use if the lived experience of your Black employees is only considered one month of the year.  Don’t fall into the tokenism trap by simply celebrating one month – use Black History Month to springboard change for good EVERY month of the year. The aim is to look beyond simply employing black people (diversity) to letting them contribute (inclusivity) to ensuring they have complete parity with all their colleagues (equity).

  1. Don’t confine interest and celebration to just BHM

Recognise key Black history dates within your calendar.  Constantly celebrating the achievements of the Black community will help everyone to embrace the same attitude.  It also means you won’t limit your focus to BHM in October.

  1. Start a Network – really listen to your employees

Networks are hugely important for people from protected characteristic groups.  Their power lies in them being open to everyone – they’re not a ‘club’ just for those who share a protected characteristic.  Listen and learn from the lived experiences of your Black colleagues.  Understand…and then act.

  1. Elevate voices from your Black colleagues

The network will do this.  But you can make further space to amplify the voices and contributions of your Black employees (if you have an internal newsletter or intranet they can be showcased there).  Share success stories of senior Black leaders across your organisation to inspire others.

  1. Be alert to intersectionality

Whilst our focus here is on your Black employees, beware some may have other protected characteristics: if they are women, neurodiverse or LGBTQ+ for example. Encourage those who belong to two, three or more protected characteristic groups to engage in the cross-fertilisation of discussion, ideas and experiences to bring even more positive outcomes.

‘Celebrating Our Sisters’

The theme for Black History Month this year is ‘Celebrating our Sisters’ with the history, journey and experience of Black women as its focal point.  Personally and professionally, I know some extraordinary and inspirational Black women who are breaking the glass ceiling. Their strength and belief in who they are is empowering for those following in their footsteps. Among them is Dr Yvonne Thompson, CBE DL, founder of Wintrade Global Women Intra & Entrepreneurs Network who told me in a recent webcast we recorded: “A great deal has changed in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements. Better representation can be seen in both community and the corporate world, but it still meets with resistance in some organisations.  Change must come from both sides – white and black people must pull together, have a similar focus and work ethic.  By so doing we will meet in the middle and it will truly be a level playing field.”

  1. Bring in Guest Speakers

Hosting influential writers/speakers/activists to talk to all of your employees about race relations and black history/identity is a great way to educate and spark conversations and initiatives.  It will allow your organisation to better understand Black History and celebrate it more effectively.

  1. Invest in Black Businesses

Could your organisation look to help black businesses and projects in your community by investing time, money, counsel and support? This is where the internal network can be of great assistance to you in drawing attention to local organisations and group within your community.

  1. Conduct a DEI Survey within your organisation

Use BHM as a platform to encourage your employees to voice their ideas, opinions and concerns with respect to DEI in your organisation. Their views will show where you can and should be making progress on improving inclusivity.  You can also use such surveys to gain ideas on how Black History can be more readily integrated into your organisation. Asking people’s views is the essence of inclusion and acting on them is when ideas become the reality.

Cascading to your communities

Celebrating BHM month within your workplace and taking ideas forward for year-round inclusion will embed this great culture into best working practice. Draw from and give back to your communities outside of the workplace to really make a positive impact for current and future employees. Remember, your actions have the power to make a real difference – this month and all year round.

Paul Sesay
Founder and CEO at Inclusive Companies Limited | Website

Paul Sesay is the Founder and CEO of Inclusive Companies Limited, the National Diversity Awards, the Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers List, Inclusive Awards and D&I recruitment company Precedent Group.

With over eighteen years’ experience, Paul is a leading figure across the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion sector, having worked with some of the largest organisations in the world on their D&I profiles. Passionate about inclusion as a whole, Paul continues to work holistically with diverse communities across the UK, encouraging and supporting individuals and groups from various backgrounds to achieve, empowering disadvantaged groups across the nation.