How corporate America is approaching Juneteenth, the newest national holiday

President Joe Biden signed a law decreeing Juneteenth a national holiday on Thursday, adding the first new holiday to the federal calendar since President Ronald Reagan added Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

Black activists have advocated for this outcome for years, but the visibility and resonance of Juneteenth acquired a new sense of urgency last year following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Although Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, June 19, 1865 marks the day the Union Army reached the outer limits of the former Confederacy and told Black citizens that they were no longer slaves.)

June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, so many companies elected to recognize it on Friday, the 18th. Due to the holiday being added to the federal calendar so close to the date, the stock market remained open on Friday, but the number of companies acknowledging Juneteenth is growing as corporate America seeks ways to deliver on diversity and inclusion pledges — although some question whether they’re truly fulfilling the spirit of those commitments.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean at the Yale School of Management and CEO of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, said a growing number of companies are embracing the holiday. “Many companies have been talking about this and already built this in as a paid day off or ‘holiday pay’ work day,” he told NBC News via email. “Many others are putting plans to be ready for next year,” he added.

A San Francisco Bay-area collective called HellaCreative developed a database of nearly 700 companies and nonprofits recognizing Juneteenth. The list includes industries ranging from tech to media to consumer goods, including Adobe, McKinsey & Company, Netflix, Ralph Lauren and Spotify.

Despite these initiatives, a lot of employees are still skeptical of their company’s commitment to expanding diversity and combating racism. A survey of employees at big and medium-sized companies by software company Benevity found that while workers noticed companies making statements or pledges in support of racial diversity, the impression is that relatively few have followed through: Only about one in four noticed their employer dedicating company resources to address issues around diversity and racism, and roughly the same number said their company had donated money in support of these goals. In total, about two-thirds of survey respondents who identified as a racial or ethnic minority said they couldn’t say that their employer had fulfilled the commitments it had made.

“So far, employees have only seen leadership talk the talk, without walking the walk.”

“So far, they have only seen leadership talk the talk, without walking the walk,” the company said in a report summarizing the findings. “The top ways employees have actually seen company leadership doing so is through lip-service, such as through company-wide messages or speaking more about these topics.”

The Society for Human Resource Management also found that companies are still grappling with racism and discrimination. A recent employee survey found that 19 percent had experienced racial or ethnic discrimination within the past five years, and 14 percent said they had experienced it within the past year.

According to an SHRM survey of more than 1,000 HR professionals conducted earlier this year, more than one in four said that the biggest challenge they faced in 2021 was meeting the goals they had set around diversity, equity and inclusion. More than one in three, though, said getting greater traction towards their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals was the aspect about which they are most optimistic in 2021.

It makes good business sense for companies to prioritize racial equality: New research from SHRM found that it cost American employers $172 billion in turnover costs over the past five years due to employees leaving because of discrimination or unfair treatment based on their race. Benevity’s survey found that 37 percent of employees said they would be likely to quit if their company failed to prioritize addressing social and racial injustice.

Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, said making the day a national holiday could give companies more motivation to observe the holiday. “I think this might be easier because it is now a national holiday,” he said. “Should be a no brainer.

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