Two weeks ago, on June 19th, 2020 significantly more American citizens and companies became acquainted with ‘Juneteenth’, a holiday whose popularity had become marginal over the past century.
Once widely recognized as a day commemorating the ending of American slavery, the origins of Juneteenth date back to June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas when General Gordon Granger arrived in the city to read federal orders freeing the last remaining slaves in the state.
The historic holiday has taken on renewed significance this year after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery died as a result of police officer brutality and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has grown globally and gained international press. These incidents have forced the world to recognize structural and systemic racism that still exists globally and people to question—and demand changes to—a status quo which has continued to support ongoing discrimination toward minority communities.
Google: a company standing in support of change
Just in advance of Juneteenth, on June 17th, Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai put out a public blog announcing the company’s response to these recent events and immediate actions to which the global tech giant has committed. The intention is to support meaningful and lasting change both internally at Google for their Black+ community and externally for Black+ consumers and citizens.
Jenny Jamie, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for Google UK & Ireland told us about the company’s unprecedented decision for staff on June 19th,
‘Juneteenth is an important day of remembrance and learning and teams within the company determined the right way to acknowledge Juneteenth, such as cancelling meetings to instead come together and reflect’.
Other leading companies such as Nike, Twitter and Square also recognized Juneteenth, giving staff a paid holiday.
Why strong—and representative—leadership matters
We often advocate in our Make a Difference News stories (such as in this recent interview with Dr. Kamal Hothi), that leaders should not only take time to directly listen to their employees—about their experiences and what matters to them most—but leaders should also represent diversity both at Board and senior leadership level.
Such is the case with Google and Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai, an American immigrant born in India. Pichai represents the diverse voice that the company wishes to represent amongst its workforce and amongst global consumers of the company’s products.
Sundar Pichai’s started off his June 17th blog post saying,
‘My own search for answers started within our own walls. Listening to the personal accounts of members of our Black Leadership Advisory Group and our Black+ Googlers has only reinforced for me the reality our Black communities face: one where systemic racism permeates every aspect of life, from interactions with law enforcement, to access to housing and capital, to health care, education, and the workplace.’
Based on the insights Pichai gathered direct from Google’s Black Leadership Advisory Group and the company’s Black+ Googlers, he set forth a set of concrete commitments the organization has launched ‘…to build sustainable equity for Google’s Black+ community, and externally, to make our products and programs helpful in the moments that matter most to Black users.’
Imparting a sense of empathy; a sense that people’s voices are really being heard, and taken into account, holds an incredible amount of value. This helps earn trust, credibility and hope with such sensitive issues as race and discrimination. It helps gain the collective buy-in and support which are imperative for such major change to take hold in any organization, or customer base.
Google’s set of concrete commitments to supporting systemic change:
- First, we’re working to improve Black+ representation at senior levels and committing to a goal to improve leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30 percent by 2025.
- Second, we’ll do more to address representation challenges and focus on hiring, retention, and promotion at all levels.
- Third, we’re working to create a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging for Googlers in general and our Black+ community in particular.
- Fourth, we’ll establish a range of anti-racism educational programs that are global in view and able to scale to all Googlers.
- Fifth, we’re focused on better supporting the mental and physical health and well-being of our Black+ community.
Whilst there are concrete plans set forth on how to carry out each of the above commitments included in Sundar Pichai’s blog, many are longer term projects. The ones most pertinent to Black+ Google employees right now are the third and fifth commitments: to create a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging and better support the mental and physical health and well-being of Google’s Black+ community.
Mental health support for Google’s Black+ community
According to the Washington Post, following the video of George Floyd’s killing, the percent of Black Americans experiencing depression or anxiety rose from 36% to 41%. This represents about 1.4 million Black people.
In recognition of Minority Mental Health Awareness Month this July 2020, Google’s plans to respond to the unique and pressing mental health needs of their staff are an example of what all employers could be looking to do for their minority employees, but particularly for their Black+ workers right now.
Google’s specific actions include:
- Asking their global EAP providers to work to further diversify their network of counselors.
- Over the next 90 days, the company’s Benefits team will work with the Equity Project Management Office and Black Leadership Advisory Group to identify areas where they could expand their benefits or provide additional support to Googlers and their families.
- Creating a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging which will improve the sense of psychological safety Black+ staff feel amongst their teams, and improve the support of managers and leaders, equitable people processes, and opportunities to grow and develop careers.
Other external commitments Pichai’s blog announced included: building products for change, helping create economic opportunity, improving education, and supporting racial justice organizations.
Walking the talk
Another theme that often comes up in our in our Make a Difference News stories, is for employers not to just give lip service to staff, shareholders or stakeholders about commitments to supporting staff workplace mental health. Culture change cannot happen overnight; systemic change can definitely not happen overnight.
It takes serious and ongoing commitment from the top down to enact sustainable change when it comes to any type of social change—whether that’s combating systemic racism or stigma around mental health. There cannot be contradictions in corporate messaging versus actions. Staff see right through this and it can result in losing trust and loyalty toward leadership; towards employers.
In terms of walking the talk to work toward ending systemic racism, Google is so far one of major global employers putting the scaffolding in place to create positive change. It is a baseline other employers can learn from—can strive to even exceed. My hope is to see even more companies standing to the occasion, and taking even bolder steps to challenge and change systemic racism both internally and externally.
And as an American, I expect to see more US employers officially recognizing Juneteenth in the years to come—giving staff a day off to reflect on this piece of our history arguably as important (if not more important ) as other public holidays we celebrate annually and teach our youth about, such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving. These should be the employers of choice for the future.
Read Sundar Pichai’s full blog post here.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.