How has your organization marked Black History Month this year? For decades, many companies have treated Black History Month as a checkmark on their diversity to-do list or glossed over the month altogether. This year, organizations are taking a more proactive and intentional approach, considering the best ways to integrate celebration with action. This reflects a bigger push to move beyond symbolic gestures and take meaningful action as corporate America faces a social justice reckoning.
Recently, I spoke with Heath Henson, Lucas Group’s Chief People Officer, about our company’s approach to Black History Month and how the last six months have impacted DE&I efforts at organizations, including our own. Our key takeaway? Three ways that SMBs can move beyond symbolic gestures for real change, starting with better inclusion in decision-making, employee-driven policies, and amplifying internal voices and experiences.
Aram: In the last six months, our HR placement division has received more requests for DE&I leaders than in the past five years combined. While some may say this hiring push is a knee-jerk reaction, I see this as a situation where HR is finally getting the executive buy-in they’ve needed to move DE&I forward. Why have DE&I efforts stalled in the past at companies?
Heath: HR is traditionally viewed as a cost center rather than a revenue generator, and as a result, HR leaders have not always been successful at driving the change they want to happen. Now, we’re seeing external sentiment match the internal want and drive within an organization. HR can finally have a very productive conversation with the organization and say, ‘It’s well overdue that we invest in this particular area.’ It’s no longer about justifying the cost for a DE&I hire or convincing a corporate team that diversity efforts matter.
Aram: A big theme of the last six months has been the importance of moving from talk to action. It’s something we’ve reflected on here at Lucas Group too, how it’s easy to focus on policies but much harder to drive real change. How can SMBs take the first steps forward?
Heath: Intellectually, a lot of people say they understand the importance of diversity within their organization. There are countless reports on how diversity drives productivity, how it encourages more innovative thinking, and how it elevates organizational performance. But agreeing that diversity is valuable is very different from making this value a core part of a company’s culture.
I’ll give you an example: early in my HR career, I wrote affirmative action plans for companies. Sometimes it felt like we were creating the plan simply to check an item off a compliance to-do list, rather than creating a plan that was a manifestation of the organization’s values.
This experience informed my belief that for organizations to move forward with meaningful DE&I efforts, there needs to be some internal self-reflection. This could be revisiting the Mission, Vision and Values statement, which we recently did at Lucas Group. It could be holding skip-level meetings so the executive team has an opportunity to interact directly with employees – and not just upper management – about why diversity, equity and inclusion efforts matter in their daily lives.
Aram: Skip-level meetings get to a key issue with diversity and inclusion: it’s possible to mandate diversity through hiring quotas, but you can’t mandate inclusion. Diversity is about getting people into a room; inclusion is about listening to everyone in the room. This listening piece can be tough for companies. What’s a good approach for SMBs?
Heath: You can’t improve what you don’t know. While many SMBs may have done baseline diversity training, actually having a conversation between leadership and employees is essential to understanding an employee’s daily experience. What is it like being a person of color at the company? What is it like being part of the LGBTQ community? What is it like to be a single parent or working mother?
These experiences are critical to identifying opportunities for improvement through action. It could be greater involvement in decision-making drivers, a key indicator of workplace inclusion. It could be more equitable parental leave policies. It could be starting an Employee Resource Group for people of color. There’s a range of actions that can be taken, but to ensure the actions are meaningful, they need to connect back to real employee needs, rather than what someone in leadership thinks is a good solution.
Aram: A key piece of DE&I is amplifying employee voices and experiences. How can SMBs do this during Black History Month and throughout the year?
Heath: When businesses are silent on an issue, there’s an assumption that the issue doesn’t matter to the business. But it’s also true that merely issuing a statement for the sake of adding your name to the conversation can be equally counterproductive. At Lucas Group, one part of our DE&I efforts is amplifying our employees’ voices and experiences. During Black History Month, for example, our Community Captains are spotlighting local efforts at our various branch offices, including volunteer work. We’re also spotlighting Black organizations like sororities, fraternities, and HBCUs, highlighting the community leaders moving us forward. Most importantly, Lucas Group – and all organizations – must remember that our efforts don’t end when the calendar turns to March 1.