Building employee trust key to creating more honest talk on tough issues

Healthcare organizations are increasingly taking a more active role in calling for action on social issues like racism, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, and climate change as a means of reducing their public health impact.

While some organizations have been more publicly outspoken than others in their advocacy, leaders have to contend with the impact certain controversial issues may have on employees, both with the organization and each other.

“When COVID hit and we saw the disproportionate impact (it was having), that said to us, ‘We have to accelerate these conversations,’ ” said Qiana Williams, vice president of culture and engagement and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Columbus-based OhioHealth. “We have to make sure that we’re talking about these issues on every sphere and every corner of our work.”

OhioHealth’s work on creating an environment where employees could feel more comfortable having more candid conversations on potentially contentious topics actually began three years ago, through a series of town hall discussions and small-group talks that allowed workers to express their views on how the organization was doing on its efforts to address diversity.

“While you’re giving people permission, you also want to create some boundaries around the conversation to help people with language and help people feel like they can ask difficult questions,” Williams said.

Talks have continued and were expanded to discuss broader topics around structural racism and health inequity following the deaths last year of Breonna Taylor in March, and George Floyd last May, both at the hands of police.

Williams said the feedback from the discussions prompted OhioHealth to launch several initiatives to address some employee concerns, including increasing mentorships and sponsorships aimed at cultivating more employees of color into leadership positions.

Northwell Health has had similar success leveraging the feedback it has received from employee discussions to help solidify support for laws that improve gun safety, a topic where it has become a national leader in recent years, said David Gill, assistant vice president of employee experience for the New York-based system.

Northwell began its work on creating an environment more conducive to having discussions on such topics in 2012, after results from an employee survey showed views on the organization’s culture were below expectations. That served as a “reality check for us,” Gill said.

Northwell relies on public research on issues like gun violence to provide evidence for employees to better understand why the organization has taken a particular stance.

Gill acknowledged the likelihood that gun owners who work for the organization may not agree with Northwell’s advocacy position. But he said it was the impact that gun violence has on the health system’s mission of improving health outcomes that created alignment.


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