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The Diversity Challenge: Here’s Someone Taking it On!

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By Susan Saldibar

Ever notice how wonderfully diverse senior living communities are when it comes to the caregivers, food service folks, and others who serve the residents each day? Lots of different ethnicities and unique cultures. It’s pretty cool. What’s not so cool, however, is lack of diversity seen at the corporate level. Why is it still that way? And, perhaps a better question is, what can be done about it?

Steve Moran sat down for a podcast recently at Benchmark Senior Living home offices in Waltham, Massachusetts, with Tom Grape, Founder and CEO, and Veronica Barber, Senior VP of Human Capital. (Note that although the podcast has taken a different direction, we wanted to share this interview.)

Both Tom and Veronica are well aware of the ethnic and cultural divide between their corporate offices and the rest of their organization. And they want to do something more than talk about it.

Recognize staff diversity, create an environment of inclusiveness, and get to full participation.

A tremendous percentage of our associates come from different cultures and backgrounds,” Tom tells Steve. “Our purpose statement is to transform lives through human connection. That means finding ways for leadership to be more fully aware and sensitive to the cultural and language differences that surround us,” he says.

The goal of Benchmark, as Tom explained to Steve, is threefold: recognizing diversity, creating an environment of inclusiveness, and then, ultimately, getting to full participation.

And that’s a challenge in a community with a “rich potpourri” of cultures, as Valerie describes it. “Our company has so many different life experiences with many different backgrounds,” Valerie explains. “We typically think of building culture as a top-down thing. But when it’s top down, bottom up, left right, that’s when we get this great potpourri. Of course, we can do much more. We’re on a journey taking baby steps.”

Getting over “implicit bias” may be a key to greater inclusion.

Steve asked Tom what they were doing to help their executive teams gain greater insight and appreciation of the diverse staff around them. “It begins with education and sensitivity training,” Tom says. “Implicit bias is something we all carry with us. We need to first be aware of our biases.”

Implicit bias isn’t an easy habit to kick. Veronica feels that it’s at the heart of many of the problems facing today’s staffing for senior living, especially at higher levels. The problem as she sees it is the tendency to seek out and hire people who look like us, act like us, and have similar backgrounds to us. “When we look at people with different cultural backgrounds, they often have very different resumes. Our implicit bias takes those people off the list,” Veronica explains.

Why is that? “There are certain words that we don’t even see in the resume, or we see them but they don’t resonate with us,” Veronica says. “So, a lot of it is awareness, commitment, and then training to not allow ourselves to fall into those traps,” she adds.

What about seeking diversity in the resident population?

Steve asked Tom and Veronica what they thought about seeking more diversity within the resident population. As an example, partnering with local ethnic churches and reaching out to populations in their greater communities that might otherwise be passed over. Tom and Veronica are seeing some inroads being made in those areas. But they are big believers of starting by addressing diversity from within. “I think by practicing diversity and inclusivity with everybody at our level it will spill out into residents and families in the community at large,” Tom says. “And I think that will have an effect.”

Tom and Veronica are quick to note that working to embrace inclusion isn’t something they are doing simply to check a box. They are committed to turning this into something that becomes part of their own internal culture. Not easy to do, as they acknowledge. But they deserve a lot of credit for taking a leadership role.

“The bottom line is that we’re doing this because we think it will make us better,” Tom says. “We’ll be a better company, we’ll be a better provider, we’ll be part of better communities to live in.”

You can watch the full podcast below. It’s well worth checking out!

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