Monday, June 19, marks the 158th anniversary of Juneteenth — the day when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
However, June 19, 2023, is only the third anniversary of Juneteenth’s official recognition as a federal holiday in the United States. The long delay in national recognition is perhaps unsurprising, given the history of this complex and meaningful day. After all, Juneteenth itself was born from a delay. Though President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it wasn't until June 19, 1865, that the last enslaved people in Texas were notified of their freedom.
Today, the Juneteenth holiday serves as a poignant reminder of the struggles Black people faced then and still face in the pursuit of equity and justice. In its commemoration, we have an opportunity to strive toward a world where freedom and justice are instant, not delayed.
Unfortunately, in many workplaces, the observation of Juneteenth still faces some challenges and delays, as some organizations need help with how to properly acknowledge this day. According to Mercer’s latest research, 39% of US companies will provide Juneteenth as a paid holiday this year.
Juneteenth is an excellent time to take a closer look at your policies and programs, examine your data, and check in with workers. According to our 2021 study, Stepping up for Equity, many companies are still missing important opportunities to get feedback from Black employees. While 87% of organizations survey employees, and 82% do ask specifically about inclusion and belonging — 64% of organizations are looking at the data through the lens of race/ethnicity.
Why acknowledge Juneteenth in the workplace?
Organizations can play a crucial role in promoting understanding and observance of Juneteenth — and doing so can cultivate a more inclusive work culture. Acknowledging Black employees' history sends an important message to all stakeholders about the importance of equity and justice in your company.
In this way, Juneteenth is relevant not only to Americans or to your Black employees. It is also a broader opportunity to reflect on larger issues of equity and justice that affect our global workplaces.
The holiday is distinct in this way, for example, from Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the life achievements and legacy of the extraordinary American civil rights leader. It is also different than Black History Month, which is an annual celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of Black people in US history.
Advice on planning and organizing Juneteenth activities
Traditionally celebrated with communal cookouts, parades, and educational events within the Black community, Juneteenth observances are now becoming more widespread across our broader community.
However, addressing Juneteenth in the workplace can feel complex for HR and people leaders who may not be sure how to observe the day in a culturally sensitive and respectful manner. As you shape your activities and dialogues around Juneteenth, it's critical to consider and articulate your organization’s goals in elevating this day. In our article on Juneteenth last year, Observing Juneteenth: Celebration, commemoration or call to action — we offered a roadmap for employers as they build strategies around observing the holiday.
This year, we are offering some practical ideas to help you plan meaningful Juneteenth activities in your organization.
Open company dialogues about racism and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)Consider sending out a focused leadership message about Juneteenth, sharing your DEIB strategy and progress metrics, or conducting Q&A sessions and listening sessions to better understand Black employee experiences at your company. You might also tap into expertise in your community by inviting internal or external guest speakers to talk about the history and significance of Juneteenth, social justice, or related DEIB topics.
Offer a paid day offWe recommend celebrating Juneteenth with a paid day off, as the federal government does — but if this isn't feasible, ensure you have a strategy for explaining why you cannot do so and show you are celebrating in other ways. A floating holiday that employees could use to acknowledge the day might also be appropriate.
Encourage individual storytelling, recognition, and reflection
Invite employees to share their stories and suggest personal activities to acknowledge the day — such as journaling or self-care and wellness activities. Invite workers to share their stories and reflections with videos or posts on your organization’s intranet and social media channels. Some prompts might include:
- What does Juneteenth mean to you?
- Who is a Black person that has greatly influenced your life or career? In what ways have they shaped your views or actions?
- How can we incorporate the lessons of Juneteenth in our daily work lives to foster a more equitable work environment?
- If you could have everyone in the company read one book, watch one movie, or listen to one podcast that you feel would significantly deepen our understanding of racial equity, what would it be and why?
Share and connect around media and reading materials about Juneteenth
This is an excellent reason to start a book club or showcase media that educates about the holiday, Black history, DEIB, or work by Black creators and authors. Diversebooks.org has an excellent curated list of resources for race, equity, anti-racism, and inclusion that you can use to guide your efforts; some recent books we have seen spark great discussions include:
- On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed
- Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by Barbara Krauthamer and Deborah Willis
- Four Hundred Souls by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain,
- Shoutin’ in the Fire by Danté Stewart,
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson,
- The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah Jones,
- I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
Engage Business and Employee Resource Groups (BRGs and ERGs) in planning activitiesProvide affinity groups with resources and a budget to help your organization celebrate the holiday. However, be sure you are not making them solely responsible for the observances, as this can put much stress and pressure on those volunteers.
Support Black businesses and organizationsAt its core, Juneteenth is a holiday about community. Why not encourage employees to share their favorite local Black businesses across your organization or, if budget allows, offer employees swag from Black creators?
Encourage participation in community eventsPublish a calendar of local celebrations or offer tickets or discounts to local events, sites, or museums that are focused on the holiday or Black culture and history. You might also organize a company presence in local Juneteenth parades or celebrations, make a company donation to local charities focused on equity and social justice, or even create a Juneteenth scholarship for a local student of color.
Recognizing Juneteenth will contribute to a more diverse, inclusive, and respectful work environment within your organization. The holiday can also spark reflections and conversations that help draw attention to DEIB throughout the year. A strong DEIB strategy should always underscore whatever efforts you make on June 19. It is critical that your everyday policies and practices “walk the talk” so that your Juneteenth observations do not appear hollow or insincere.
At Mercer, we uncover insights and help organizations like yours develop and execute their strategy for DEIB. Let’s connect to discuss how you can best recognize this day and expand your commitment to DEIB all year long.