Workplace

Why acknowledging Juneteenth is an essential part of the DEI puzzle

Upworks’ head of Diversity and Inclusion says Juneteenth is a 'really good interruption of the tropes we see in the media.'

US Vice President Kamala Harris and Opal Lee (2nd L), the activist known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, watch as US President Joe Biden holds the signed Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, in the East Room of the White House, June 17, 2021, in Washington. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden holds the signed Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021. But some companies, including Facebook parent company Meta, still do not designate the holiday as an official day off.

Juneteenth, the event commemorating emancipation that African Americans have been celebrating since the 1800s, only recently earned a spot on corporate holiday calendars. It became a critical touchpoint in companies’ promises to fight racism and embrace DEI after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Hundreds of tech companies committed to offering the day off after advocacy from groups like HellaCreative. “Both Twitter and Square are making #Juneteenth (June 19th) a company holiday in the US, forevermore,” Jack Dorsey tweeted in 2020.

Rather than make the day a company holiday, Meta told employees to use one of two “choice days” to take the time off. Meta added the choice days to its PTO policy in May 2021. The days can be used for “volunteering, celebrating a faith-based, community or cultural event, your birthday, or just a free day to spend doing something they enjoy,” a Meta spokesperson told Protocol.

In a Twitter thread crowdsourcing which tech companies give Juneteenth off, a Meta software engineer referenced a series of events the company is holding throughout the week to honor the day. “My team (I’m the only Black person) has cancelled meetings during the events and encouraged people to tune in,” the engineer wrote.

Making Juneteenth an official company holiday shouldn't serve as the backbone of any company DEI strategy. But it’s an easy gesture that shows respect for and understanding of Black employees.

“It represents our employees, and it represents an understanding of where your employees are coming from,” said Christen Steele, a DEI consultant and a customer success manager with recruitment platform Yello. “I see my employer cares enough to take the time to show our contributions to society.”

Centering Black workers

Upwork didn’t offer Juneteenth off last year. Biden’s announcement came on June 18, well after the company had planned its holidays for the year. Instead, Upwork urged employees to use their unlimited PTO. Erin Thomas, its head of Diversity and Inclusion, said the company hosted engagement events for allies and festivities for Black employees.

This year, Upwork is taking the day off after polling Black employees on their preference. “Truly stamping the day with significance was really important to our Black employees,” Thomas said. “It really didn’t cost us anything to acknowledge this celebratory day.”

Juneteenth is a day of celebration, making it a refreshing change from the stories of struggle typically associated with the Black experience, Thomas said. Recognizing a day of Black joy, in the midst of conversations about the perils of racism and slow-growing diversity numbers, can make all the difference in the workplace.

“Flipping that narrative and bringing in a tonality that’s positive is a really good interruption of the tropes we see in the media,” Thomas said.

However, some have expressed concerns that white corporate workers get the day off with little understanding of Juneteenth’s meaning. A Medium post last year from The Only Black Guy in the Office argued that white people should have to work on Juneteenth. “If White people had to work on Juneteenth while Black folks got the day off, there’d be a better understanding of the dynamics that got us here,” he wrote. “Even if for just one day, they’d feel the unfairness and inequity that’s embedded in this country’s DNA.”

Of course, the idea of singling out demographic groups for corporate holidays is controversial. The argument above may even be why some companies are wary of marking Juneteenth officially and instead offer flexible time off. Steele said she can smile at the Medium post’s take. “I get where people are coming from, waking up as a Black female every day, going into spaces where you may be the only one,” Steele said. Still, she thinks elevating Juneteenth to company holiday status creates a beneficial, educational experience for everybody. In order to educate, she recommends HR professionals share resources about the history of Juneteenth and slavery, taking five minutes in an all-hands or sending out a quick list of recommended reading or viewing material.

“If you give this day off, make sure you educate everyone,” Steele said. “Because you never know, right? How you define Black in your organization, there might be Africans in that group. You have to be able to explain this cultural tradition and legacy in the U.S.”

Thomas said she isn’t as concerned with how white employees spend the day, and instead prioritizes the wants and requests of Black employees as related to Juneteenth.

“I just don't think it's worth the calories to worry about what folks who are not Black are doing on that day,” Thomas said.

A punctuation mark, not the whole story

Mainstreaming Juneteenth does unfortunately open the doors to commercialization and sanitization, similar to the corporate spectacle that has come to characterize Pride Month. Giving Juneteenth off is only a start; it means little without a year-round, rigorous DEI strategy.

“In the scheme of things, Juneteenth is sort of a punctuation mark,” Thomas said. “But it’s really not the foundation.”

It can’t be a standalone effort, Steele said. Releasing diversity numbers, posting public updates on DEI promises you might have made in 2020, implementing mentorship programs, committing to pay equity, acknowledging the toll of hate crimes on employees’ mental health — all of this shows a genuine commitment to Black and other underrepresented employees at your company. Potential candidates with marginalized identities will be looking at all of these efforts when deciding whether to work for you, Steele said.

But whether or not an employer gives Juneteenth off can be a quick signal to applicants as well. “It’s not just a signal to Black talent,” said Iesha Berry, chief diversity and engagement officer with DocuSign, which also offers Juneteenth off. “It’s a signal to multigenerational, multiethnic talent that we’re looking to bring into an organization.”

Steele reiterated that making Juneteenth a holiday is a small piece of the puzzle. But it’s an important one nonetheless.

“There’s a part of us that’s going to be looking at this as a measure of your company,” Steele said.

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