Juneteenth ice cream and salad. The Pride Whopper. As cringeworthy as these corporate cultural recognitions are, they are not the first time — by far — that companies have misstepped in trying to show up for diverse communities. The ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer during a protest, Burberry’s Lunar New Year tribute, or the countless shameful moments we’ve seen public figures wear sombreros and sip margaritas for Cinco De Mayo are a few other examples.
Most companies are not immune from making the same mistakes. I’ve seen this happen with large national companies and small local agencies alike, following a now familiar pattern: A well-meaning manager sees a cultural moment — days, weeks or months throughout the year that have been designated as observances of various historically excluded communities on the calendar — and asks: What should we do for [X holiday]? We need to put something together for employees for [X holiday]. We need a flashy campaign so that we can show up on [X holiday].
Starting from these questions is always a mistake, leading to blunders and gaffes that at best earn eye rolls and at worst, leave employees or customers feeling unseen or misunderstood. The focus of these questions almost always avoids the “who” or the “why” behind the effort. It is instead on the “what,” getting recognition or being on the right side of history.
A better approach to recognizing and celebrating cultural moments steps away from the calendar. It’s OK if your organization wants to acknowledge Juneteenth or celebrate Pride month, but you need to make sure you’ve done the work ahead of time to make your contribution is not just un-embarrassing, but more importantly, that it’s authentic. Companies must make three shifts to make to move in this direction:
A common message I’ve heard through conversations with folks from marginalized communities is this: Show up for us all year, or don’t show up at all.
If your organization put up a splashy campaign for Pride month but hasn’t considered equitable benefits or support for LGBTQ+ employees, customers, or community members all year long, then you’ll likely quickly be called out for performative allyship or rainbow washing. Instead, think about opportunities for holistic year-round engagement. Just a few examples: employee benefits that cover gender affirming health care, marketing campaigns that include same-sex couples, restrooms and other facilities that allow folks to feel safe in their gender identity at work, advocacy for legislation that protects LGBTQ+ communities. Integrate this support with company culture, and talk about it at other times of the year, too. Then, if you do put out a social post or product series for Pride, it the work behind it will show itself.
When I work with company leaders on various DEI efforts I frequently ask: “Who is this for?” In the context of cultural moments, many organizations rush to put together educational materials about the heritage month or day – something to educate those that don’t identify within the community on what this holiday is all about. Education is undoubtedly important, but on its own leaves out opportunities for community and connection with those that do identify as part of the marginalized group. An example: Company X realizes it’s AAPI Heritage Month and drops a link in Slack to the Wikipedia page about the month and its history in an effort to educate employees. A few interested employees may click to learn more, but what does this really mean for employees who are a part of the AAPI community?
At one company, I heard from members of an underrepresented community that they were frustrated that these holidays seemed to always focus on their grief, struggle, and challenges. While their resilience was important, they wanted more focus and conversation on their joy, their traditions, and the ways in which they had fun together. If this company had really critically asked “Who is this for” and shifted the focus of the programming accordingly, there would have been profound opportunity for employees to feel a sense of belonging.
If you’ve realized who the central audience should be, but aren’t sure what “good” looks like, consider hosting a focus group for your employees or consumers and pay them for their time and insights. Listen and learn about what is meaningful, and pivot as needed.
In my experience, it’s common for a company leader to remember that X month is coming up and feel some kind of external pressure related to that month. They then ask those close to DEI work what’s planned for the celebration, and the employees in Employee Resource Groups or others in voluntary roles are asked to put something together.
So, the heritage month or day, which is allegedly supposed to drive DEI efforts for a specific community, becomes additional (likely unpaid) work for those in that community. ERG members find themselves hurriedly putting on events, throwing together educational moments for the majority, or even being asked to be the face of the company for these moments, without compensation or say in the process. Forcing participation, even casually, makes underrepresented groups bear the burden of your efforts, instead of reaping the rewards as they should.
This is not to say that ERG members shouldn’t be asked to participate in these events. But instead, they will find them more authentic and meaningful, and the rest of the company will too, if the commitment is year-round and they have a say in what the recognition looks like. Perhaps even more important is ensuring their perspectives are thoughtfully considered and integrated into decision-making for various business initiatives, not solely relied upon when making haste choices about a campaign or holiday message.
Unfortunately, in many American workplaces, these holidays or observances are seen as a quick fix or win that demonstrates commitment to DEI. But will one day or one month of focus really move the needle on DEI efforts? Likely not. Celebrations can be important — an opportunity for programming or for furthering a critical conversation — but ultimately we cannot rely on a handful of dates throughout the year to move diversity, equity and inclusion forward. It’s what happens during the rest of the year that matters most.