Spectrum Health Consultant Shares Message Of Diversity

February 15, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Spectrum Health is embarking on a new emphasis on issues of diversity and inclusion in its hospital system, and introduced it with a recent presentation by a consultant.

The presentation about “micro-inequities” by Prof. Christopher J. Metzler, director of equal opportunity studies, diversity and inclusion for Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, brought about 500 Spectrum Health employees together earlier this month.

Metzler argues that small interactions can add up to a workplace or a patient care experience that is either open and welcoming or unsupportive and marginalizing. One 10-minute conversation provides opportunities for as many as 150 “micro-messages,” he said. And those messages add up, from failing to give people full attention to interrupting people or repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name, despite correction.

“The question is not the intent. The question is the impact,” Metzler said.

Calling negative interactions “death by 1,000 cuts,” Metzler offered some examples: “Negative facial expressions when talking to a minority employee; leaving certain people off group e-mails; mistaking a physician of color for a secretary or a member of the cleaning staff; mistaking one nurse of color for another repeatedly; ridiculing accents; dismissing the idea of one employee only to embrace it when paraphrased by another; using a formal handshake with one employee and a playful pretend punch for another employee who then is perceived (correctly or not) to be in management’s “inner circle”; going out to lunch with certain employees more frequently than others; not saying “good morning” or otherwise greeting employees; addressing some employees by chummy nicknames and others more formally; crossing one’s arms when listening to a comment from an employee; routinely being late or leaving early from meetings; ridiculing speech patterns of employees; continually interrupting employees or completing sentences for people.”

When a workplace is mired in a pattern of micro-inequities, “you’re not giving people in the organization an opportunity to perform at their highest level,” said Metzler, whose clients include the University of Texas Medical Branch, Abercrombie and Fitch, Federal Reserve Bank, Merrill Lynch, Home Depot and Coca Cola. In 2006, Metzler delivered the keynote speech at the World Diversity Summit in Prague.

“Let me be absolutely clear: When we talk about micro-inequities, we’re not talking about being politically correct,” Metzler added, noting that people’s perceptions are influenced by their cultures, backgrounds and experiences. “You can’t be expected to know everything about everybody. We’re really talking about what we believe in the workplace. Will that person want to be in a working relationship with me, if at all?”

Spectrum Health Hospitals President Matt VanVranken said that three years ago, he brought together about 15 executives and health professionals to create a Diversity Leadership Council.

“We want experiences for patients and their families that’s second to none,” Van Vranken said. “We want to drive our outcomes regardless of race — and there are disparities in terms of racial outcomes.

“We want to provide an environment where we’re the employer of choice, not just because we’re the largest, but we’ve got an environment where people can thrive.”

VanVranken said Metzler has been consulting with Spectrum Health for about 18 months.

“His role has really helped us, first, to better understand ourselves in the work environment, and then to look at it from an organizational perspective: What do we really want to do, how is it going to make a difference, and how are we going to prepare our staff so that they can develop the capacity to demonstrate culturally competent behaviors,” said Spectrum Diversity Officer Joyce Henry.

VanVranken said the Diversity Leadership Council has been working with Metzler for a year to develop a strategic plan that touches on patient experience, cultural competency of the staff and supplier diversity. He said Spectrum Health is currently recruiting for a new position — director of supplier diversity — to reach out to minority- and woman-owned businesses both in the health system’s current flurry of construction as well as for ongoing suppliers.

“We’re trying to reach out and make sure the economic benefit we are driving in this community is broadly enjoyed,” VanVranken said. “The intent is for that individual to seek opportunities in the community for minority business owners, to build relationships and work with organizations that are already in place … to provide a fair opportunity for minority contractors to play in the supply chain and in construction.”

He said that as of July, 15 percent of construction contracts had been awarded either directly to minority businesses or to minority businesses that are second-tier suppliers on building contracts.

He called the recent event, which was aimed at employees with supervisory or other key roles and featured Metzler and Josetha Campinha-Bacote of Transcultural Healthcare in Cincinnati, positive. “This is something that first and foremost was to bring them into kind of the fold and heighten their awareness of how cultural competency will be integrated into our strategies going forward.”

He added that around the turn of the year, some 10,000 Spectrum Health employees received in the mail a booklet that explained the planning process, the vision and how these values will be incorporated into the hospitals’ strategies.

Henry said the Diversity Leadership Council meets for a half-day quarterly. “It’s that critical to our mission,” she said. “It evolved based on our commitment to this initiative and the desire to mesh with other strategies of the organization, so that diversity, inclusion and cultural competence are not stand-alone initiatives. They really are woven into absolutely everything we do.”

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