Lessons On Building An Inclusive Workplace Culture

Ron Harris, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

We all want to be understood, respected and valued for who we are. When that happens at work, everyone wins – from our colleagues to our customers.

Earlier this year, Forbes released its inaugural list of “America’s Best Employers for Diversity.” Of the 250 employers featured, BlueCross came in No. 33 – the highest in the state, and above companies like Starbucks, The Walt Disney Co. and Johnson & Johnson. The publication surveyed 30,000 employees in a variety of industries nationwide, with no involvement from employers themselves.

Our culture and this recognition didn’t happen without intentional effort. And we are still very much on a journey.

Here are several practical steps we took to ensure everyone has a voice and to make an impact on our employees and our members. Consider these solutions as you embark on your own journey.

Create a strategic plan and measurable goals to promote diversity, inclusion and cultural competency.

Diversity and inclusion mean everyone is valued. Everyone is respected, trusted, communicated with and made to feel a part of the team.

We embedded these values in our strategic goals and we take deliberate action. One example is requiring diverse candidate pools for all management-and-above job openings.

Beyond recruitment, we set measurable annual goals for diverse supplier relationships each year. We’re supporting small and minority-owned businesses by promoting current vendors, as well as seeking new business development opportunities with vendors who demonstrate diversity within their companies.

In 2016, we spent $66 million with businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans.

We’re working to improve personal health among Tennessee’s diverse population by supporting collaborative partnerships that increase access to care; promoting prevention and culturally inclusive health education; and exploring innovative ways to break cycles of health neglect and health care disparities.

Think beyond the obvious.

When people talk about diversity, they often think first of race, nationality or gender. But age and generational differences also matter. Our physical and mental abilities matter. Our religious beliefs matter. And our socioeconomic circumstances matter.

We have four generations represented in the workforce, with a roughly equal balance of millennials and baby boomers. We offer LGBTQ benefits and work with universities to encourage LGBTQ students to attend recruiting events. We also actively recruit veterans and people who self-identify as differently-abled. We now have a program specifically designed to help people on the autism spectrum integrate into our information technology workforce.

Remember: You’re either going to be intentionally inclusive or you’re going to be unintentionally exclusive.

Reflect the diversity of our city and state.

Being inclusive is, first and foremost, the right thing to do. Creating a workforce that’s a reflection of the 3.4 million members we serve also gives us a competitive advantage.

Here’s why representation matters: our diverse workforce allows us to see problems from different angles, which is important in a complicated business like health care. We have to ensure that no matter a member’s circumstances or education, we’re meeting them where they are. We can do that by understanding their background and pulling from similar experiences.

Each person has a background and a story – and our employees bring their work and life experiences to make BlueCross the best it can be for our members. Embracing differences is the only way an organization can truly innovate.

Help your employees teach each other in formal and informal ways.

Continuing education is key to building a culture of respect. We hosted five cultural awareness sessions in 2017 – focused on black history, Hispanic heritage, international employees and working with colleagues who are differently abled. We also hosted our first-ever LGBTQ awareness session last year.

We produce regular communications and training opportunities to continue educating our workforce. One of our training modules is ‘Moving Beyond Race and Gender.’ We develop employee careers through minority mentoring and other career path opportunities.

We cultivate employee engagement through employee-led Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which help our people listen to, learn from and support one another. Our women’s leadership network is our largest ERG, with more than 600 members.

Our veterans employee resource group – VERG, as they call themselves – shows how we support our veterans and active military, and gives us an opportunity internally to pause and be thankful for the sacrifices that our veterans have made and continue to make.

Encourage your employees to understand and honor their differences.

An important question is, ‘What can you do today to honor the story of someone different than yourself?’ That simple idea – that you can make a difference through small, everyday choices – is an important one to remember. We all have stories that make us unique. People at BlueCross understand one another and value one another’s stories and unique contributions.

And our employees are encouraged to embark on a journey that will take them further than diversity alone – the journey from diversity through inclusion to cultural competency.

I often share that someone once defined diversity as ‘going to the dance’ and inclusion as ‘being asked to dance once you get there.’ Inclusion speaks to the idea of which voices are being heard. Who’s not at the table?

Beyond inclusion is cultural competency – which is about truly understanding and valuing voices. That’s when you’re no longer having to ask who’s not at the table because you’ve created an environment where everyone is going to automatically be at the table.

As I’ve said, cultural competency does not happen overnight. Despite the strides we’ve made at BlueCross, it’s still something we are actively cultivating. But we have embarked on our journey, one step at a time. No matter where you are in your organization’s journey, I hope you feel inspired and empowered to take the next step.


“As someone who has left the company three times for Army duty, I’ve always been welcomed back by BlueCross – and that goes beyond federal law requirements. My career has grown because of exposure to numerous areas of the company through my membership in the Veterans Employee Resource Group. Whether it’s the annual Veterans Day ceremony, our participation in outside events, or encouraging us to be representatives at veteran-focused job fairs, BlueCross supports its employee veterans.” – Jason Fleming, Compliance Manager


“When I joined the BlueCross family, I was immediately able to include my domestic partner on my benefits. That gave me the same peace of mind that all of my coworkers are afforded. I followed the process that BlueCross writes for all employees, no questions asked. Even though my family picture doesn’t look like everyone else’s, I’m treated the same when I come into work every day.”  – Rachel Pescatore, Enterprise Architect


“Chairing the Women’s Leadership Network at BlueCross has provided me the opportunity to connect with employees across the enterprise, including the regional offices. I have cultivated supportive working relationships that motivate me to advocate for myself and for other women.” – Margaret Edwards, Organizational Learning Consultant

“BlueCross’ commitment to diversity means that as an employee I don’t have to worry about being different. I am treated fairly and have access to the same opportunities everyone else has, regardless of origin, race or gender. It also means our company strives to always do the right thing for our members, no matter who they are. And this makes me really proud.” – Larissa Huskey, Director, Brand Management

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