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The Way to Diversity

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Promoting a multicultural environment is increasingly important as hospital staffs and patient populations alike grow more diverse. But such initiatives can be easier said than done.

All senior leaders say they support a multicultural workplace and recognize the importance of addressing the needs of patients from diverse cultures. But cultural diversity is often just a do-good initiative that starts and ends buried in the human resources department.

As staffing shortages and diverse patient populations increasingly require organizations to engage a culturally diverse work force, healthcare leaders can no longer afford to let that happen. At Beth Israel Medical Center in Lower Manhattan, for example, almost 40% of the 5,000 babies born annually are of Chinese descent, so having a culturally diverse work force is essential to the hospital's ability to provide patient care. Beth Israel's parent system, Continuum Health Partners, has made cultural diversity an organizational imperative led not by HR but by Gail Donovan, executive vice president and chief operating officer, who co-chairs the organization's Cultural Diversity Initiative. Donovan points to several key steps to increasing diversity in healthcare:

Ask the people. Before Continuum implemented any changes, it spent a lot of time surveying different groups of staff, asking them, "What are your concerns? What would you like to see happen?" You can't make changes without truly understanding the needs of your work force, Donovan says. Sometimes these discussions reveal very basic areas that need improvement. At Continuum, for example, employees expressed concerns about the quality of everyday verbal exchanges. Employees felt that staff, especially managers, were often just conducting business with each other without taking time for pleasantries or human interaction. "We heard a lot of very tough messages frankly—some that we expected to hear and some that we didn't," Donovan says.

Define diversity. As Donovan learned firsthand, everyone has a different definition of diversity. Before establishing an organizationwide definition, leaders must talk to various groups of people and learn how they define diversity. You can't set goals without defining what you're working toward.

Define specific areas for improvement. A key part of Continuum's Cultural Diversity Initiative was defining specific areas that needed improvement, such as succession planning and mentoring. Previously at Continuum, mentoring at a management level was episodic and inconsistent, but the facility is working to make the process much more formal. Rather than hoping that mentoring relationships occur naturally, Continuum leadership now pairs senior-level managers with junior employees and then monitors the mentoring process.

Communicate. Cultural diversity programs don't always get a good rap. As Donovan says, there's a "healthy degree of skepticism that this not be the flavor of the month." Employees may not be able to see immediately the changes you've made to recruitment, retention, and mentoring efforts. That's why leaders need to continually talk about and promote the organization's process for recruitment and retention, as well developing employees from within. Organizations must track the results of their diversity programs and share those results with staff on a consistent basis.

Diversity for all. Continuum's efforts to beef up the diversity of its leadership don't stop with the hospital staff. "Our board needs to be representative of the communities that we serve," Donovan says. To this end, Continuum has made diversity a board initiative as well, and it has appointed several new members to increase the board's diversity.

Molly Rowe

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