The Workplace Whisperer tackles corporate ‘diversity’ efforts for MLK Day and BHM

The Workplace Whisperer answers anonymous work-related questions submitted by readers. If you have a question for the Workplace Whisperer, email, and no worries, we will keep your name and any identifying details anonymous.

Dear Workplace Whisperer,

I work for a consulting agency. One of the big ones. For MLK Day and Black History Month celebrations, my bosses want us to sit through an MLK film for our lunch break at the end of the week and then talk about social justice issues while they cater us a meal of cornbread, greens, and fried chicken. For BHM, it might be a once a week lunch. They are trying but I don’t want to attend. Am I being cynical? Is it racism if they are trying? — Consultant in Houston, Texas

Dear Consultant in Houston,

Sigh. I mean…. Gurl, no, you don’t have to attend. And not wanting to attend doesn’t make you cynical. It means that you have some sense. But I question the leadership at your organization. Why host this film session and serve “ethnic food” in lieu of actually observing the federal holiday in some way? I’m assuming and hoping there are other Black employees who work in the organization and in this office. Senior leaders should consider the message they send by requiring people to observe the holiday the way the company sees fit and all while you’re on your lunch break.

Now, you may feel uncomfortable raising that question with your boss. I’m not suggesting that you do, but it’s clear no one involved in the planning of this event thought about that. In fact, did anyone planning the event actually speak to any Black people? What would it have cost them, aside from an hour or two, to explore what employees would be interested in learning about and more importantly, to check in with Black people to make sure their program execution wouldn’t come off half-assed or offensive? I don’t even want to think about what they do (or do not) for Black History Month. SMH.

Did anyone planning the event actually speak to any Black people?

Assuming your consultancy is a private company, technically, they aren’t required to include Martin Luther King Day among other holiday closures. However, if they do observe President’s Day by closing the office, I might have questions.

Despite being first established in 1986, it would be another seven years before all 50 states observed Martin Luther King Day, according to Office Holidays’ most recent report. In 2019, they estimated that roughly 45% of nongovernment employers offered paid time off for some or all employees, which is not the same as a paid holiday with office closure. While these numbers outpace those for Columbus Day and Presidents Day, the spectre of not observing Martin Luther King Day, or half-observing it (some companies hold events for employees because they are required to work), just hits different. Especially for Black people employed in overwhelmingly White companies and industries.

So what can you do to change things? Before we get into that, I need to say this: the company leaders should be asking for input and feedback about how and which cultures are recognized and respected. Periodt. But the truth is, some companies only find out they’re wrong when a member of the offended party tells them. Regardless of who initiates the discussion, I have to warn you: giving this kind of feedback, even when solicited, can be a touchy subject. And any time people of color hold leaders to account with respect to how we are treated and how our cultures are examined in the workplace, we are taking a risk that could lead to job loss. It takes a certain amount of political and social capital, which some of us may never acquire, to broach these subjects and remain employed. Asking tough questions during the pet-phase of your employment is probably your best bet. But beware, asking just one “wrong” question may quickly catapult you into the threat phase. For more on this phenomenon, please read “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat” penned by my lovely colleague Erika Stallings.

Find out who determines which holidays your employer chooses to observe and ask why only some are included. Depending on the size of the company, someone may be sitting in an office 3,000 miles away from you making the decision to serve collard greens, with no understanding of the impact of doing so. Or, they may sit a few offices or cubes down from you. In either case, when it comes to celebrating any marginalized community, organizations need to understand that by fully recognizing some, while not others, they could alienate employees. If you have a good rapport with the decision-makers, ask them to consider how the situation made you feel. Now, the answer isn’t to celebrate every single holiday, real or imagined (I’m looking at you, Festivus) but it is important to be thoughtful about which holidays are observed or commemorated, and to have a rationale for those that may have been overlooked.

Asking tough questions during the pet-phase of your employment is probably your best bet but beware, asking just one “wrong” question may quickly catapult you into the threat-phase.

Propose other ways to commemorate cultural holidays and gatherings in dignified and respectful ways. Also, consider taking the lead in the planning and execution. Let me reiterate; it is not your job to tell your leaders why their MLK week plans were not the best. But, if you want to make a difference, take the conversation beyond pointing out everything that went wrong and participate in the planning and execution of an event you and your colleagues would want to attend. For example, if they would like to cater MLK day with “ethnic food” identify Black chefs and historians who could serve appropriately banging soul food cuisine and educate on why these foods matter to our culture and the function food and cooking serves in the African American community.

If Martin Luther King Day is not a paid holiday, and you have paid time off available this week, consider participating in a day of service or other activities that allow you to commemorate the day as you see fit. I acknowledge that paid time off is a privilege not extended to every worker. Some organizations, however, allow employees a day per quarter or year where an employee may choose to engage in charitable work important to them. This is different than community service days that might include the whole department or company. Again, this benefit is a privilege but using it is another way to honor Dr. King as you see fit.

The sad irony of all this is that at my office, (where I work my full-time gig) MLK day is a paid holiday and the office is closed and yet, I spent part of the day working for reasons I’ll have to explore in another column. I share this with you to illustrate that we are constantly having to negotiate how much of our Blackness we can bring with us to work, whether our companies consider MLK a paid holiday with office closure, or not. I also share this with you to let you know that sometimes, the answers aren’t cut and dry, even for the Workplace Whisperer.

Furthermore, acknowledging (and I use that term loosely) Dr. King on his birthday, during the month of January or even during the month of February, does nothing to improve diversity at any company nor make Black employees feel comfortable, able to be their authentic selves, and still be fully accepted. Nay, this half-assed attempt to commemorate the day says the opposite. Also, while celebrating holidays and/or what I refer to as “Heritage Months” is the right thing to do and a good gesture, what’s most important is how your company treats you the week of MLK’s birthday and the other 360 or so days of the year.

Originally published on Zora