Since it became a federal holiday in 2021, scores of companies have joined the likes of Target, Best Buy, Capital One and others who already gave employees paid time off to observe Juneteenth as a holiday.
Now, more than 800 companies around the country observe Juneteenth as a paid day off. In addition to the time off, many companies celebrate Juneteenth in a variety of ways. Some of those ways, however, can be seen as performative or even insulting if not done in an appropriate manner.
There have been numerous examples of this in the last few years. IKEA, for example, had to roll back and apologize for a Juneteenth themed lunch menu at its Atlanta location that included fried chicken, watermelon, mac ‘n’ cheese, potato salad, collard greens, candied yams as a “tribute to the perseverance of African Americans.”
This year, Walmart had to scrap its plans for a Juneteenth flavored ice cream that read on the carton “share and celebrate African American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.” Critics jumped on the company for what was seen as an attempt to merely profit off of Black people.
Food seems to be a common source of error. Even a children’s museum in Indianapolis stepped a foul of appropriate Juneteenth observation this year when it advertised its Juneteenth inspired menu that included watermelon salad.
The inclusion of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the first new addition to the federal holiday calendar since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday in 1983, is meant to celebrate the ending of slavery following the Civil War. It’s meant to be a celebration of hope and an opportunity to reflect on the country’s troubled relationship with race. Creating new products and services that invoke old stereotypes is not exactly the best way to create trust between your brand and diverse communities.
So how do companies observe Juneteenth in a responsible and respectable way that reflects their values to both the internal and external world?
Tasteful Juneteenth Celebrations
In truth, it’s not as hard as some organizations have made it seem to celebrate Juneteenth in a way that honors its intention and the communities that it has meant so much to throughout the years.
What people want is not for your products to reflect a respect for Black Americans and their culture, but rather, for your organization to show it. There are a variety of ways to do that, whether your organization decides to grant employees a paid holiday for Juneteenth or not.
At a lot of major companies, such as AT&T, the day off employees are being granted is also encouraged to be used as an opportunity to learn about the holiday and its place in American history. That emphasis on education isn’t unusual around the corporate world as Juneteenth is still new to some people.
For example, Microsoft has foregone the day off to focus on an educational approach so that workers could learn more about issues of race, social justice and inequity. In the week leading up to Juneteenth, the company has created a number of commemorative events that are designed to amplify Black voices and educate employees on how they can support Black and African tech companies.
Among the observances at Google, the company has canceled all meetings and will instead host an event that will feature live music, historical lessons and candid conversations. The company will also highlight Black creators and developers in its Google Play app and is providing Google Digital Coaches to support Black and Latinx businesses.
Other initiatives may include expanding relationships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), opening certain roles to applicants with two-year degrees and supporting or highlighting the work of your Black and African American ERGs. At Wells Fargo, the Black and African Connection Employee Resource Network is hosting a series of event throughout the week focused on Juneteenth education.
At Adobe, employees do have the day off, but the company also five task forces in the wake of the social justice movement that focus on community, growth and advancement, hiring and recruiting, responsibility and advocacy and transparency and governance.
For General Motors, Juneteenth is considered a day of service for its workers. According to a company statement, their Juneteenth programming focuses on allyship and storytelling through volunteering and community engagement, hosting internal conversations about the history of Juneteenth and sharing thoughtful employee reflections on what this day means to them.
Whether it’s showcasing the work of Black artists across company properties or doubling down on support for organizations that are driving social change, your organization’s Juneteenth observances should be rooted in action rather than creativity and marketing.
Ultimately, reflecting on Juneteenth is an opportunity for employees to think about the United States’ complicated relationship with race and inevitably that will create discomfort for some employees.
A good way to commemorate the holiday is to take the leg work out of reflecting, learning or acting for employees. Some suggestions for doing this include:
- Provide a list of social justice organizations employees can donate to that your organization will match their donation.
- Curate a list of learning resources, whether that’s the company’s DEI training courses, books, podcasts or documentaries that challenge people to think critically about race issues in America.
- Have sessions dedicated to examining the content of learning materials through conversation.
- Invite guest speakers to address your employees about these issues. This could be a local activist or politician, Black filmmakers and artists or industry thought leaders.
Reflection, action and learning don’t have to be limited to an outward view toward society. Providing employees with an opportunity to learn about and weigh in on company diversity initiatives also has tremendous value for how the organization is seen around issues of race.
Transparency is a key part of getting employee buy-in for such initiatives. Take the time to share plans for upcoming DEI initiatives and share a demographic breakdown of your workforce and the areas you hope to address through your recruiting and hiring efforts.
Whatever you decide to, treat Juneteenth with the appropriate respect of any other holiday and ensure that your efforts aren’t seen as patronizing or halfhearted.