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Creating culturally competent workforces and healthier communities

Originally published in The Tennessean, November 2017

I recently had the privilege of participating in the 2017 Workforce Diversity Summit bus tour here in Nashville, which focused on building environments where every person can feel valued and thrive.

At each stop and in each conversation, I remembered how much we as Tennesseans have in common – and how better understanding our differences can make our businesses and communities stronger.

When we talk about diversity, we may think first of race, nationality or gender. But age and generational differences also matter. Physical and mental abilities matter. Religious beliefs matter. And socioeconomic circumstances matter.

Those factors all shape our identities from an early age – affecting how we see ourselves and how others see us. Sometimes those perceptions limit the value and potential we see in one another.

We have to recognize the ways in which society has shaped us, unconsciously, to think about people of certain backgrounds, beliefs or characteristics. Then we can learn to appreciate them as they truly are.

I’ve seen BlueCross become a place where each individual is respected in that way – in part because I’m not the only one talking about diversity.

I like to recall one year when we were preparing for a Black History Month program. It’s one of the most well attended events the company hosts all year, and a whole host of people contribute to making it successful.

So I remember walking into a committee meeting and realizing that, for the first time, the majority of the employees there weren’t black. Of course, that was interesting, and as I thought about it, I saw something new.

I saw that our Black History Month event was no longer a black employee event. It had become a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee event – embraced by employees of all backgrounds.

So how did we get here? By embedding diversity and inclusion in our strategic goals and taking deliberate action.

Building an inclusive culture often starts with recruiting. Our employee population increasingly reflects the diversity of the people we serve, and we require diverse candidate pools for all management-and-above positions.

We cultivate employee engagement through employee-led resource groups, as well as company-sponsored communications, trainings and events – like our first-ever gender diversity awareness session earlier this year. And we help develop employee careers through minority mentoring, job shadowing and job rotation programs.

Another important step was recognizing that building a culture of inclusion requires more than looking at our employee base. So last year, the BlueCross office of diversity and inclusion began reporting directly to the CEO.

This allows us to fully own and embrace a commitment to inclusion that also extends outside the workplace – to initiatives and practices that enhance economic opportunities, improve personal health and benefit the communities we serve.

One of my favorite examples is the scholarship program sponsored by our health foundation, which awards $10,000 to three outstanding Tennessee-based minority health care students each year.

But perhaps the most important thing BlueCross has done to build a culture of inclusion is putting measures in place to build accountability – even tying senior executive compensation to measurable diversity and inclusion goals.

We still have work to do, of course, because a company and its people are always evolving. But I see progress all around and have a new hope for the future: to work myself out of a job.

About Ron Harris, Vice President, Corporate Workforce Diversity

A photo of the authorRon is responsible for cultivating a corporate culture where diversity and inclusion are aligned with the company's strategies and values. He provides strategic leadership and counsel for diversity initiatives within the organization, including diversity awareness training, recruitment, cultural competency training, employee development and community outreach.

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