On Jan. 23, 2018, Forbes released its inaugural list of “America’s Best Employers for Diversity.” Of the 250 employers featured, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee came in No. 33 – the highest in the state, and one spot above Google.
The publication’s methodology involved surveying 30,000 employees in a variety of industries nationwide, with no involvement from employers themselves.
Forbes’ hope in compiling this list is to promote discussion and raise awareness among employers. Here, Ron Harris, vice president of diversity and inclusion at BlueCross, shares 10 reasons why our strides have made an impact and contributed to our high ranking.
1. We have a strategic plan and measurable goals to promote diversity, inclusion and competency.
“Diversity and inclusion at BlueCross means very simply that everyone is valued,” Ron says. “Everyone is important and everyone is respected, trusted, communicated with and made to feel a part of the team.
“We are a mature diversity and inclusion employer, but that didn’t happen without a lot of intentional effort.”
“Strategically, our business, like every business, thrives and survives because of its customers. BlueCross has embedded diversity and inclusion in our strategic goals and we take deliberate action. We require diverse candidate pools for management-and-above job openings.
“Beyond recruitment, we set measurable annual goals for diverse supplier relationships each year. We’re supporting small and minority-owned businesses by promoting current vendors, as well as seeking new business development opportunities with vendors who demonstrate diversity within their companies.
“In 2016, we spent $66 million with businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans.”
“Finally, we’re working to improve personal health among Tennessee’s diverse population by supporting collaborative partnerships that increase access to care; promoting prevention and culturally inclusive health education; and exploring innovative ways to break cycles of health neglect and health care disparities.”
2. We think beyond race and gender.
“When we talk about diversity, we often think first of race, nationality or gender,” Ron says. “But age and generational differences also matter. Our physical and mental abilities matter. Our religious beliefs matter. And our socioeconomic circumstances matter.
“We have four generations represented in the workforce, with a roughly equal balance of Millennials and Baby Boomers. We offer LGBTQ benefits and work with universities to encourage their LGBTQ students to attend recruiting events. We also actively recruit veterans and people who self-identify as differently abled. We now have a program specifically designed to help people on the autism spectrum integrate into our information technology workforce.
“You’re either going to be intentionally inclusive or you’re going to be unintentionally exclusive.”
3. We reflect the diversity of the cities and state in which we operate.
“We are intentionally diverse and inclusive – because it’s the right way to do business for our members and customers,” Ron says. “And it gives us a competitive advantage by intentionally creating a workforce that’s a reflection of the individuals we serve.
“Our workforce is incredible – one that encompasses a spectrum of different backgrounds and experiences. As I said, each person has a background and a story – and our employees bring their work and life experiences to make BlueCross the best it can be for our members.
“A workforce is a great place to start when thinking about diversity because there’s a built-in incentive for inclusion: the ability to better understand and connect with your customers.
“To facilitate that connection, we want to make sure that we have diversity and inclusion from the beginning of our hiring process across the board. Like the saying goes, ‘If you fish in the same pond, you’re always going to catch the same fish.’ For management-and-above job openings, diverse candidate pools are a requirement.”
4. We encourage our employees to understand and honor their differences.
“An important question at BlueCross is, ‘What can you do today to honor the story of someone different than yourself?’” Ron says. “That simple idea – that you can make a difference through small, everyday choices – is an important one to remember. We all have stories that make us unique. People at BlueCross understand one another and value one another’s stories and unique contributions.
“But our employees are encouraged to embark on a journey that will take them further than diversity alone – the journey from diversity through inclusion to cultural competency.
“I often share that someone once defined diversity as ‘going to the dance’ and inclusion as ‘being asked to dance once you get there.’ Inclusion speaks to the idea of which voices are being heard. Who’s not at the table?
“Beyond inclusion is cultural competency – which is about truly understanding and valuing those voices. That’s when you’re no longer having to ask who’s not at the table because you’ve created an environment where everyone is going to automatically be at the table.”
5. We share our story outside the walls.
“We’re not just content to have a diverse workforce; we want that diversity to help define how we serve our members,” Ron says. “That’s why we created a video that showcases just a few of our team members, their unique backgrounds and their experiences at BlueCross.”
“We also share the lessons we’ve learned to help other organizations build inclusive cultures. We achieve this through speaking directly to the communities we serve – for example, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Lipscomb University to address its student population as part of its Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration – or through media outlets.
“We sponsor events such as the Diversity Memphis Bus Tour, which launched last year as part of the 2017 Workforce Diversity Summit. A similar bus tour is planned for May 21 in Chattanooga. These events help us equip leaders with the tools and tactics to recruit, engage and retain a diverse workforce.”
6. The Diversity and Inclusion department reports directly to the CEO.
“The relationship between this office and the CEO is the key to our success,” Ron says. “It demonstrates that the senior leadership team believes in our goals. In many companies, the diversity office reports to human resources. But HR and diversity should really be business partners.
“At BlueCross, HR is about employee engagement, and an inclusive, culturally competent workforce is part of that. Cultural competency also includes the way we do business and give back to our communities, so our structure allows us to support the entire company in a new way.
“Keep in mind, diversity recognition is voluntary. So for BlueCross to have declared it a priority 20 years ago, and for our CEO, JD Hickey, to recognize its importance in all lines of our business, that speaks to our efforts to be thoughtful and progressive.”
7. Our employees teach each other in formal and informal ways.
“Earlier I mentioned what we tend to think of when we say ‘diversity,’” Ron says. “At BlueCross, there are so many dimensions to it, and we educate our workforce. We hosted five cultural awareness sessions in 2017 – focused on black history, Hispanic heritage, international employees and working with colleagues who are differently abled. We also hosted our first-ever LGBTQ awareness session last year.
“We produce regular communications and training opportunities to continue educating our workforce. One of our training modules is ‘Moving Beyond Race and Gender.’ We develop employee careers through minority mentoring and other career path opportunities.
“We cultivate employee engagement through employee-led Employee Resource Groups [ERGs], which help our people listen to, learn from and support one another. Our women’s leadership network is our largest ERG, with more than 600 members.
“Our veterans employee resource group – VERG, as they call themselves – shows how we support our veterans and active military, and gives us an opportunity internally to pause and be thankful for the sacrifices that our veterans have made and continue to make.”
8. We’re investing financially in growing a diverse workforce.
“Our Power of We scholarship supports minority students who are majoring in any field of health,” Ron says. “It’s more than just a $10,000 check presentation; the scholarship has evolved into a forum on health care. At last year’s scholarship presentation in Memphis, we hosted medical experts to speak about health care, the lack of it in certain communities, what we need to do from a minority standpoint and the impact these scholarship recipients can make.
“The students spoke very eloquently their goals and their aspirations. One of our three recipients, CheKenna Fletcher, plans to be an agricultural food scientist. She started off by informing us, “There are 27 varieties of tomatoes.” We were listening to a young lady, probably 20 years old at best, and she has this vision of how she can contribute to the closing of the health disparity gaps. That’s what our efforts are all about.”
9. We talk with our employees about what’s happening in the world.
“It’s more important than ever to remind our employees that there’s more that unites us than divides us,” Ron says. “Part of cultural competency is saying, ‘We have all of this going on, and it impacts our workforce either directly or indirectly. How can we foster a civil discourse and work through it together to better serve our members?’
“After last year’s Charlottesville tragedy, JD Hickey issued a letter to the entire company expressing how we feel about community and who we are within it. The gist of the message was that bigotry, hatred and acts of violence should have no place in our world. This statement wasn’t issued for political reasons; it was for humanitarian reasons.
“We bring our whole selves to work. We can’t leave things out at the guard gate. When you have encouragement to look for the good in one another, it makes the day go better. If not, you’ll keep any negativity bottled up.”
10. We hope to one day no longer need a diversity and inclusion department.
“I get up every morning and want to come to work because I know our diversity efforts aren’t just some program with a beginning and an ending,” Ron says. “They are part of our strategic plan, and they are part of delivering on our mission to provide peace of mind through better health.
“But here’s my dream: I hope to work myself out of a job.
“The things we all desire as human beings – respect, trust and communication – are firmly entrenched at BlueCross.”
“But I want the values of diversity, inclusion and cultural competency to become so deeply embedded in the everyday rhythms of how we operate that we no longer need a formal diversity program.”