Healthcare leaders: Help your people get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

The jury rendered a guilty verdict this week on all counts in the murder of George Floyd, a killing that stirred international outrage and the most significant civil rights protests in America since the 1960s.

We understand the deep-seated frustration of many Americans and I share in their pain because of the horrific murder of Mr. Floyd. Hopefully, the verdict can help start the healing process for the Floyd family, the community and the nation.

As the leader of New Jersey’s largest health network, I understand that our 36,000 team members need to know where we stand as an organization, what we are doing to help our teams get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations and what progress we are making to support diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the wake of the tragic killing of Mr. Floyd, I made it clear that Hackensack Meridian Health strongly condemns all forms of racism, hate and violence. Our executive leadership took a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and we supported White Coats for Black Lives. That was just the start.

The network launched the Listening to Understand campaign last summer. We arranged permanent, ongoing focus groups to address complex, and sometimes difficult conversations with team members and leaders about issues of race, social injustice and ethnicity in our workplace and community. A few hundred team members have participated so far and shared their concerns and their fears in a safe environment.

Earlier this year, I signed The CEO Action Pledge to support diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace and to reduce health disparities in the communities the 17-hospital network serves.

As part of this, on April 29th, Hackensack Meridian Health is holding the first annual Day of Understanding to empower our team members to discuss diversity, social justice, and similar concerns – whether they impact their work life or their personal life.

We are asking all leaders in their daily huddle on the 29th to ask team members to start the difficult conversation: some may ask how team members are doing in the aftermath of the verdict; how they feel about America’s racial reckoning; and how do they feel about Hackensack Meridian Health’s culture? Are we doing enough to create opportunity for all?

In a fireside chat with Avonia Richardson-Miller, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion – done virtually of course – I encouraged everyone to speak openly and directly about these vital issues so that we can get better. The video will be shared on April 29th with all team members.

I made it clear that this is not an African-American problem. This is not a problem for communities of color. This is an American problem and we all must do our part. I restated our conviction that innovation is in our DNA, and that we believe that creativity and innovation is enhanced by diversity.

Hackensack Meridian Health is making progress: we established a network-wide goal for 2021 tying executive compensation to increase representation in leadership positions – from middle management to the C-suite – for African-Americans, Latinx and Asians. We are deeply committed and have made significant progress in diversifying our boards as well. I am proud to say that nine of our hospitals have earned the Healthcare Equality Index Certification. This designation signals to LGBTQ patients and allies that the healthcare facility has met the foundational elements of LGBTQ patient-centered care.

There is so much more to do, and it starts with creating the space for challenging conversations.

As a country, we must commit to building a more compassionate and just society. As a healthcare organization, we must double down on our efforts to eliminate gaps in health outcomes based on race and ethnicity and create a more diverse organization. And as individuals, let’s be the change we want to see in the world.


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