Making Way for Staff Diversity

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).

Following this presentation, associates met in breakout groups to discuss their feelings about what they had learned. Lee Anne Botts, social worker and a committee member, remarks, “This part of the program is very enlightening. We get to see fellow associates discuss issues that might otherwise never be broached. Conversations about the aging process and what it means to age with dignity are examples of this. Aging is a process we will all face-regardless of race, gender, background, or culture-should we live long enough. Comments are widely varied, but this is what the program is about-to get people to open up…to dialogue.” Moreno adds, “Our purpose is not to change anyone’s opinion or philosophy, but rather to encourage them to understand and respect the opinions and philosophies of others.” Freeman-Botts adds that aging with dignity is something very personal and different for everyone and that if JKV is to deliver on its promise of quality care to its residents, aging should be understood and respected.

Education is an ongoing commitment. A number of experiential events are being held on the JKV campus in November. “One of our events is ‘cultural conversations,'” says Freeman-Boots. “Each week during the month, guided conversations focus on a specific type of diversity. The first week’s dialogue focused on the subject of sexual orientation. Subsequent weeks will feature dialogues on disabilities, religion, and even the challenges involved in living and working in a smoking/nonsmoking culture.”

“One of the great results of the program is the chatter that it creates,” says Moreno. He has witnessed associates become aware of and responsive to the differences among their coworkers. “Although you can’t visibly ‘see’ the change, people are talking about topics they normally would avoid,” he observes. The Village’s values include demonstrating respect for others, so in the event that associate differences become “emotional,” the organization has the associate focus on respecting the other person’s opinions, which is different than “liking” or “agreeing.”

Diversity challenges don’t always involve personal characteristics. “Finances is another area that qualifies as a diversity issue,” says Freeman-Boots. In cases of financial needs, Harmony offers a food pantry that both associates and residents can access when necessary. Stocked through private donations, it is open on non-payday Fridays to assist employees (and even some residents) who might find themselves strapped for funds. This service is handled discreetly. “We have no eligibility criteria,” says Moreno. “We don’t ask for any personal information, such as income, marital status, or family size. It’s entirely a good-faith operation.” Arrangements are made to accommodate night shift associates, too. Moreno and a resident volunteer run the pantry. JKV warehouse personnel place and collect distribution tubs throughout the campus in common areas, such as near the Village’s restaurants, for contributions. The pantry is advertised in the Village newsletter and on JKVision (the campus television station) to remind residents and staff to be aware of the needs of others.

The Resident Connection
Do residents reap any benefits from diversity training? “They sure do,” claims Freeman-Boots. “When I joined JKV, associate and resident activities were kept separate. Today’s JKV is all about community,” she says.

“One of our most popular and interactive diversity events is the annual resident/associate picnic,” says Botts, acknowledging the sad but commonplace fact that long-term care residents usually only relate to staff in the context of their jobs. Moreno adds that the picnic is an opportunity for everyone to “let their hair down” and have a wonderful afternoon of fun, food, and community. “This year,” he continues, “participants ranged from ages 4 to 95 because the youngsters in our on-site Children’s Village day care joined in for the first time.” Because associates and residents do become attached to each other, JKV continues to look for more opportunities for them to intermingle socially.

Priscilla Rhoades serves hot dogs at the Spirit of Unity Day picnic, which was organized as a thank-you celebration for residents’ and associates’ support of the food pantry.

Early Results
Since JKV has met the diversity issue head-on, it has seen steady growth in its minority associate population. “The increase has been not just in entry-level jobs, but in technical, professional, and even managerial positions,” says Freeman-Boots. She adds that it was top-management commitment that helped the committee achieve successes such as these. Everyone at JKV agrees that having a local resource like Kansas City Harmony helped them to springboard the plan into action. “They brought objectivity to the table, helping us see things from a wider perspective,” says Botts. When the Harmony committee is faced with a challenge, Kansas City Harmony has been available to talk it through because the organization had seen/experienced it occur in other situations.

All of this illustrates the underlying philosophy of diversity training: Wherever people gather, whether it’s a family, a community, a country or, ultimately, the world, the identity, success, and character of the whole relies on the optimal functioning of the unique parts that create it. Accepting diversity, and giving each unique component a chance to be the best that it can be, has been the story of America. Recognizing this at JKV, they are working on not only harmony at work, but unity of purpose.

For more information, call Betty Freeman-Boots at (816) 524-8400 or visit To send your comments to the author and editors, please e-mail To order reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454.
Harmony At Work
Committee Members

Mike Fisher, Chair
Cathy Stone, Secretary
Lee Anne Botts
Kelli Quinn
Katie Nelson
Paul Budd
Priscilla Rhoades
Randy Moreno
Brandy Lindsey
Pam Ismert
Vivian Ekeme
Gary Nigh
Jim Franklin, Committee Director
Betty Freeman-Boots, Ex Officio Member

Topics: Articles , Facility management , Staffing