Effective diversity, equity and inclusion in programs must do more than talk about workplace fairness or train employees about bias; they also must actively counter discrimination and promote representation.

That’s according to a panel of senior living and skilled nursing leaders who spoke this week during a session titled “Finding success in increasing diversity and inclusion,” one of three webinars in the 2021 McKnight’s Women of Distinction Forum.

“You just want to make sure this doesn’t become a ‘check-the-box’ program,” said Kai Hsiao, CEO of Eclipse Senior Living. “You really want to put some meat on the bone.”

Eclipse last year launched its IDEA program to emphasize inclusion, diversity, equality and acceptance. It incorporates bias training and cultural competency education for staff, leadership engagement on challenging DEI issues; opportunities to spotlight staff with diverse backgrounds; and executives serving as thought leaders outside the senior living industry. The program sets goals and tracks metrics to ensure that the work is more than lip service. Hsiao said that within a year, staff diversity has gone from 50% white to 59% minority and 41% white.

At Brookdale Senior Living, which like many long-term care companies already has a national staff that leans heavily female, much of the focus has been on bringing women and other minorities into leadership roles.

President and CEO Lucinda “Cindy” Baier noted that women make 80% of healthcare decisions for their families. When she started at Brookdale, however, the board had just one woman and no minorities. Today, she said, the board is 40% female, and 14% of members consider themselves racial minorities. The organization is working to be more inclusive throughout its ranks, she said.

“I believe it’s a business imperative … because diverse teams have higher creativity, they have higher profitability, they’ve got better employee engagement, and they have better company reputations,” said Baier, a 2020 McKnight’s Women of Distinction honoree. “If you think about what that does, it gives you a more collaborative working environment. It speaks volumes to your employees and your customers, so they can see themselves reflected in your leadership team and your associates.”

The ‘key’ to workforce issues

In an industry that has long spoken out against ageism, Deke Cateau said it is important to bring the same focus to diminishing sexism, racism and bigotry even in less obvious forms.

Cateau, CEO at A.G. Rhodes, a nonprofit organization operating three nursing homes in metropolitan Atlanta, noted half the industry’s certified nursing assistants are minorities, and about 25% are immigrants.

“They are absolutely key to some of our workforce issues,” noted Cateau, an immigrant from Trinidad. He said that his company recently sponsored an immigrant willing to fill a critical nursing position. “We already have more than a quarter of our labor force being immigrant populations, and that’s only going to grow. We have to make a commonplace pathway to make sure that happens.”

A.G. Rhodes ramped up its DEI efforts in August 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Cateau said. Employees who wanted to join protests but were hesitant to do so because of COVID-19 found support and a way to voice their racial frustrations through dialogue at work, he added.

The organization has since launched a leadership training program for minority candidates. And when leaders wanted to add diversity to the board without increasing its size, former LeadingAge President and CEO Larry Minnix stepped down to make way.

“It’s a true story of good governance … that will filter down,” Cateau said. “The idea of intentionality, even from a broad perspective, is very important.”

All of the session’s speakers emphasized the need for employees to have an opportunity to inform and respond to DEI initiatives. They also said that career pipelines that allow diverse voices to advance through senior living and care organizations are critical.

“This is hard work: You’re not going to change things by having a training or writing a statement,” said Jill Vitale-Aussem, president and CEO of Christian Living Communities, a Colorado-based not-for-profit organization with 22 communities. 

The challenges may be magnified in faith-based organizations that are trying to be accepting of LGBTQ residents and staff, she said. To help staff commit to her organization’s efforts, Vitale-Aussem has underscored a mission of serving all with Christian love and acceptance, a message she said has been received well.

To watch the full session, which was hosted by McKnight’sSenior Living Editor Lois A. Bowers, register for free here.