Spring 2020 will be remembered in corporate circles as a whirlwind of change, with exhausting and exciting pivots by big business. Difficult conversations connected to brand identity and race were being held in the boardrooms of many corporations as weeks of Black Lives Matter protests unfolded.
One of the most intriguing outcomes from those conversations is the embracing of Juneteenth, which commemorates a unique moment in American history that many citizens may not have heard about before.
Many people are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln decreed that enslaved persons would now be free. Juneteenth specifically commemorates a day two and a half years later, June 19, 1865, when Gordon Granger, a U.S. Army general, relayed the emancipation orders in Texas, the last state where slaves were liberated.
Landing by ship in the city of Galveston, Granger read the order: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
The order, which affected the lives of about 250,000 people, is based on a document that was re-discovered just this week, according to the Washington Post. The National Archives on Thursday located what appears to be the original “Juneteenth” military order, written “in the ornate handwriting of a general’s aide,” the Post reported. Given current interest in the subject, the Archives staff went looking for the original order, which had not previously surfaced, and found it. David Ferriero, head of the Archives, said of the find: “I think it’s terrific. I think the timing is just amazing.”
Over the years, emancipation day has been celebrated across the U.S., initially according to the date each state was liberated, but many historians track the modern, national version to a celebration at the conclusion of the Poor People’s Campaign, held in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Since then, recognition has steadily grown, with Texas in 1980 becoming the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Since then, 45 other states and the District of Columbia have officially recognized the day.
With that in mind, it’s fascinating to observe how a small but growing number of corporations have responded by adding Juneteenth to the list of holidays and cultural observations that their organizations will observe. The timing of the uprising in favor of racial justice was fortuitous in presenting companies with an opportunity to give employees something symbolic yet tangible: a paid day off. Among the organizations who’ve said “yes” to observing Juneteenth: the National Football League, Nike, Lyft, Target, Twitter and Square.
There are a number of reasons why companies have decided to embrace Juneteenth:
- Companies do not want to be perceived as tone deaf during tumultuous times.
- It’s highly likely that these organizations already had employees focused on facilitating diversity and inclusion initiatives within the company and that Juneteenth was already a part of the conversation. Staff members may have discussed ways to show Black Americans and other employees of color that the company is interested in learning more about their cultures.
- Corporate commemorations of Juneteenth may be a part of rebranding culturally insensitive language, visuals, or charactersassociated with the products that the company sells.
The corporate response to Black Lives Matter is probably influenced by the lessons learned only a few weeks earlier during the onset of the pandemic, when companies were challenged in their responses to put people first. When asked about how companies would be affected if they failed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in an empathetic way, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, made the following observation:
“Their brand is going to get destroyed. I mean, how you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do. Because, again, we're all suffering from this. Every single person is looking to see how their company is treating them, how their employers are treating family members and friends.”
One could make the same argument that companies will be forever branded by how they did (or did not) respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, brands are already dealing with swift positive and negative reactions related to the stance that they take specific to the Black Lives Matter movement and any ancillary conversations associated with the movement. Those conversations need to go beyond the recognition of one day to encompass the daily lives of Black Americans on the other 364. Statistically, blacks earn significantly less than other cohorts. After organizations recognize Juneteenth, will that spur further dialog connected to employee well-being?
While Juneteenth is important, ultimately many organizations may find that most employees care just as much about the following issues:
- Earning more and wage transparency.
- Employee mobility within the organization.
- Being treated in a respectful manner at work.
- Microaggressions and how they affect employee morale.
- Creating safe spaces to work in and having the ability to speak up without fear of retaliation.
In hastily rolling out Juneteenth holidays, corporations may be unintentionally making the mistake of focusing on creating a cultural fix within the company that might not be needed or wanted. As the flurry of companies observing Juneteenth continues, one is left to wonder who was in the room when making the decision to include Juneteenth in the company’s corporate culture.
Regardless of the intention, companies need to find ways to facilitate difficult conversations related to race and their corporate culture. Many organizations may find themselves ill-equipped to handle revelations they weren’t expecting related to how their employees experience their workplaces.
Ultimately by making Juneteenth a holiday, companies must also embrace the responsibility and reality that their employees will expect more from them and will want the organization to do better moving forward.
While it’s wonderful watching people discover what Juneteenth is, the reality of Juneteenth is that it’s a bittersweet moment to commemorate. Don’t forget that for an additional two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Texas remained enslaved.
That’s something to consider when you’re thinking about having your company observe Juneteenth. There’s a bigger conversation that has to be had about race and equality in the workplace. Will you be willing to have it?
Finally, there is this point to consider. In a note to colleagues, a senior global payroll manager of color had this to say about her company rolling out a Juneteenth observation:
"This is an incredibly generous display of thoughtful leadership. I know that as a start-up there is an immense cost associated with this and I am keenly aware that we are in a cost-saving environment. It is also incredibly difficult to navigate the environment in which we now find ourselves. I just wanted to lend my voice to say that with or without observing this particular day, this company has been incredibly gracious and effective in its acknowledgement of the struggles and issues that employees of color may be facing. I have had many discussions with my peers and what things boil down to for many of us is how history will record and remember our actions. Even more, how will we remember our actions when our grandchildren ask us about it. I know that you will be able to look back at your leadership in a positive light.”
Your employees are watching and paying attention to the actions that you take. What will you decide to do?
Michelle Jackson is mission-driven to help her readers and listeners empower themselves financially, whether it’s by improving their personal finances or learning how to sell what they already know. Michelle runs the website and podcast Michelle Is Money Hungry and is the founder of the Money on the Mountain retreat focused on empowering financially single women, one conversation at a time. When she's not geeking out about personal finance, you can find her hiking in the mountains of Colorado.