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Making Way for Staff Diversity

November 1, 2005
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Getting to Know You is not just a song, but a basic truth in creating a harmonious work setting by Sandra Hoban, Managing Editor

All members can be accommodated and empowered-if you work at it

Diversity is everywhere. Just as it takes more than one instrument to make an orchestra and more than one ingredient to bake a cake, it takes more than one type of employee to create a dynamic work environment in today's long-term care marketplace. Personal "diversity" can encompass anything from race to ethnicity to culture to religion. No matter who you meet, he or she is different in some way from you and from everyone else. What might not be so obvious are other, less recognizable diversities that crop up, such as sexual orientation, political affiliation, and even personal habits.

Because its staff (members are identified as "associates") is a blend of many races and cultures, John Knox Village (JKV), a CCRC in Lee's Summit, Missouri, has been helping its associates learn what makes their coworkers tick and how to thrive with that.

Nearly 2,000 residents and 975 associates live or work on the JKV campus. In addition, three off-site offices provide home health and hospice services to almost as many people in the Greater Kansas City community. Countless others (including volunteers, service people, delivery drivers, etc.) can be on campus at any time, too. Although JKV addresses diversity in traditional ways, such as in its marketing and recruiting, and by offering the convenience of on-site day care, the organization felt more was needed to meet the needs of its vibrant, ever-changing community.

Figure. A Harmony At Work tip sheet offers suggestions on how to work with the elderly.

"We have a very large staff here with a growing population of the three major group ethnicities: African-American, Hispanic, and Cambodian," says Betty Freeman-Boots, vice-president of Human Resources. "A few years ago, we noted an increase in the number of associate issues relating to diversity. Many of these were complaints arising simply from miscommunication among races or situations that resulted because of cultural misunderstanding." Management thought it would be beneficial for the organization to help its associates understand the unique characteristics of their coworkers and strive to increase positive and effective communication. And, fortunately, help was close at hand.

"In Kansas City," says Freeman-Boots, "there is an organization called Kansas City Harmony, Inc., that provides consulting and training services to help facilitate the organizational needs related to diversity. We partnered with them early on to develop some relevant training programs." With its guidance, JKV established Harmony At Work, a committee of up to 20 associates representing a variety of roles and departments. Part of the committee's mission is to celebrate the uniqueness of its associates, connect them with the individual(s) and/or resource(s) that will help them meet the needs of a diverse workplace, and foster the community value of embracing diversity. The Harmony committee also reviews in-service training topics aimed at achieving these goals.

Although JKV's internal training department provides trimester training programs throughout the year called Leadership University including issues of diversity, JKV initiated a mandatory annual Harmony At Work training session for all associates. This year's topic, "How to Work With Older Customers," addressed generational diversity. "Surprisingly," comments Freeman-Boots, "many staff members don't clearly understand generational and age differences that are exhibited by residents in mannerisms, conversations, attitudes, and so on, despite their daily contact with the elderly."

This year, associates were presented with information on aging and had to complete a short questionnaire asking them to list seven things that add to their current quality of life. Common responses included family, pets, work, home, and hobbies. The purpose of the activity was to have associates recognize that as you age, you lose many of the people, places, and abilities that bring you the most joy. They were also asked to write a brief essay on how they imagine themselves to be at age 85. "Other learning materials presented common perceptions of aging and whether they are true or false," says Randy Moreno, painter and a Harmony committee member. "For example, the following is a true statement: After arthritis and heart disease, hearing loss is the most chronic disorder reported in the elderly population." A video supporting and illustrating the material was shown, and the participants were given a handout that listed suggestions on how to deal with the elderly more effectively (see figure).