Creating a Culture of Inclusion

By Maria Noel, Chamber Director Diversity & Inclusion

What is illegal discrimination in the workplace?  

Labor law is confusing and ambiguous under the best of circumstances, and especially so for small business owners. Few things create more angst than receiving an audit letter or notice of complaint from the Department of Labor. What are some things you can do to prevent running afoul of laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace?

“If you mistreat an applicant or employee based on a protected characteristic – race, color, sex, religion, national origin or age – you are denying that person an equal opportunity to apply for the job or to succeed or advance in that job. That’s against the law,” says Ken Jordan.

When it comes to investigating Civil Rights employment violations, Ken Jordan is neither a lawyer nor detective. He’s the best person for the job. As Equal Employment Opportunity Officer for Hamilton County Government, Jordan investigates allegations of discrimination, harassment or retaliation lodged by county employees. He also serves as Title VI Administrative Officer and as liaison for Disadvantaged Business Enterprises – minority, women and veteran owned firms – seeking to do business with the county. Beyond his government work, Jordan is the Diversity Director for Chattanooga’s Society for Human Resource Management – meaning, he’s a resource HR professionals call when they have questions about creating and cultivating an environment of diversity and inclusion.

“Much of it falls under The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some people know it as Title VI and Title VII,” Jordan says, sounding more like a history professor than an investigator.

“President John F. Kennedy, when calling for enactment of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in 1963, said, ‘Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination.’” President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law in 1964.

Title VI protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance. Assistance also can be in the form of funds, training, technical and other support. Nonprofits and corporations that receive federal financial assistance are also subject to nondiscrimination laws, as well and, if discrimination persists, funds can be withdrawn.

“For example, if the county receives federal funds for parks and recreation, it cannot deny individuals access to county parks based on their race, color or national origin. In another example the health department has taken steps to hire bilingual interpreters to ensure individuals with limited English speaking ability are provided meaningful access to healthcare services.”

“Under Title VII, also known as the EEO laws, there are federal, state and local non-discrimination laws and organizational policies that prohibit discrimination based on any number of protected traits: race, color, religion, national origin, sex and age. Beyond these laws, organizations can add other protected traits, like veteran status or political affiliation.”

The best way to prevent discrimination is through effective training, Jordan says.

“I have Mayor Coppinger to thank for appointing me to this position and his experience in leading more than 1,000 county employees. He knew the importance of and directed me to make sure county employees understood the definitions of discrimination and harassment, and how to respond if it occurred. It’s really about ensuring a respectful and productive work environment for our employees.”

What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

“People use these terms interchangeably but they’re very distinct things,” says Ronald Harris. “Diversity exists when two people are in a room. Inclusion has to be intentional. You’re either intentionally inclusive or unintentionally exclusive.”

Sitting in his office, overlooking a view of the city, there’s no doubt that Harris is at the top of his game. For more than 20 years, he has been a champion of inclusion – starting at a time when equal employment opportunity primarily focused on legal actions, rather than corporate policy. Today, as vice president of diversity and inclusion at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, he’s the region’s highest ranking advocate. He’s also a mentor for area diversity professionals, a sought-after public speaker, and nationally recognized as a leading expert in the field. He has appeared on television and radio, in magazines and newspapers, including a Jan. 2016 feature in “USA TODAY.”

“Communication, trust and respect,” Harris says. “That’s what my definition of diversity and inclusion has evolved to over the past 20 years. There’s no relationship without communication, trust and respect and no other reason people get along.”

BlueCross was recognized in 2014 as one of Modern Healthcare’s "Best Places to Work", a national honor that recognizes outstanding employers in the health care industry. The same year, the company was awarded the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Chattanooga "Unity within Diversity" award for its workplace diversity initiatives. As the recipient of numerous other local, statewide and national diversity awards, Harris says BlueCross became a leader by integrating diversity and inclusion into its corporate strategy and making it a competitive advantage for hiring and purchasing.

 “At BlueCross, diversity means representing our members through the people we hire. That’s why we’ve intentionally built a global workforce with all dimensions of diversity,” he says. “When we talk about inclusion, we look at what voices are at the table and include those who may not have been heard. Then, we focus on cultural competency – how we understand each individual or group based on who they are − their background, talents, skill set, experiences and exposure.

“We’re not perfect, but we don’t whisper diversity here. It’s part of the conversation. It resides in our 5,000-plus employees, who all have an equal share in whatever successes or failures we have here. It’s our mission for better health, our brand and who we say we are – The Power of We.”

Harris’s tips on inclusion and cultural competence

  • Recognize that diversity already exists, in general and in your company
  • Define what inclusion means to your company by asking:  What are our leadership or company needs? Who is absent from the table? Who is our customer base?
  • Make cultural competency a part of your company’s competitive advantage. Ask, which skill sets exist in our workplace? Which ones don’t, and who can bring them?
  • Know that diversity is not a program with a beginning and an end. However, offering multiple ways to participate, such as Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage programs, can be part of your strategy of inclusion and increase your cultural competency
  • Suspend your right to be offended in order to be effective. People have a right to feel the way they feel, though you may not agree
  • Strive to overcome unconscious bias. We all have biases. Diversity is not about being bias-free; it’s about recognizing it
  • Leaders should communicate their definitions of diversity, inclusion and cultural competency
  • At the same time, each employee should be free to take ownership of his or her own behavior and ideas