HR leaders' plans to tear the 'paper ceiling'

In 2023, when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling striking down affirmative action in university admissions, some industry leaders expressed concern that the decision could hinder efforts to create a more diverse healthcare workforce. 

Chief diversity, equity and inclusion positions, the fastest-growing C-suite roles in 2022, also appeared to be dwindling last year in many industries, although the role and its evolution in healthcare are more complex.

Additionally, a report from research and advisory company Forrester found that companies investing in DEI decreased to 27% in 2023, down from 33% the year prior, according to Fortune.

But human resources leaders are as committed as ever to increasing diversity among their workforces, according to a Conference Board survey that found that no chief human resource officers plan on scaling back diversity efforts, and 63% plan to increase them. 

HR leaders at hospitals and health systems echoed those results, telling Becker's they remain staunchly focused on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in 2024. Particularly, they noted how they are working to broaden talent tools by promoting skills-based hiring and tearing the "paper ceiling," a term popularized by nonprofit Opportunity@Work referring to a barrier for those without a bachelor's degree.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ian Lee Brown. Vice President and Chief Employee Experience Officer at Duke University Health System (Durham, N.C.): We are using data to strengthen our talent acquisition approaches, since data-informed decisions ultimately make us better. Over the past year, our talent acquisition team continued to work with close to 243 minority-serving institutions by using one of our many platforms for talent sourcing called Handshake. We've developed partnerships with five Historically Black Colleges and Universities. There are more than 120 diversity career sites that our organization is actively partnering with that have enabled us to grow our diverse sources. We've done a number of diverse career fairs and community events to ensure that we are targeting the demographics represented in our markets and with heightened focus on underrepresented populations. 

Now, one of the other things that we're doing is training our leaders on inclusive leadership, developing skills to create an environment where all team members feel psychologically safe and put people first. We aspire to a workplace where leaders leverage the power of diversity by asking questions and seeking new perspectives; where they empower team members to make their own decisions, and make space for new ideas; and where they see continuous growth and change and cultivate the expertise and contributions of others. Our organization believes that when we put our people first, empowering them, and seeking to improve ourselves — as humans and professionals — we actually become better together as teams.

We're also in the midst of reviewing and updating some of our key HR policies that we believe can stand in the way of recruitment and retention efforts. Some of these policies include those on eligibility for rehire, preplacement substance abuse screening, reference and background checks, and workplace attire. These efforts will continue to ensure our health system continues to be an inclusive organization for all the demographics served.

Additionally, we are continually evaluating our job descriptions, recognizing that not everybody has nor needs a bachelor's degree to be exceptional job candidates. This is often true in IT fields. Similarly, our patient attendant safety aides and some pharmacy techs don't need degrees, and sterile processing techs have options to work with us while being trained on the job. And so, we have to think differently and be even more creative in our approaches to acquiring talent with skills through alternative routes. On the idea of strengthening this skills-based approach, we have partnered with Durham Technical Community College, a local technical college, to support Duke Health's efforts in apprenticeship. This program is the first of its kind in North Carolina and will give students the opportunity to complete two years of college while, at the same time, allowing them to gain on-the-job training inside operating rooms. 

These are among many of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and talent efforts we believe are important to ensuring that we build the strongest culture and retrain our people as we go forward. Our organization has a strong commitment to DEIB, and we'll continue to ensure that it becomes embedded even more deeply within the framework of our culture. Moreover, our community's health and well-being also improve for generations to come as a result of these investments in it.

Maxine Carrington. Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer for Northwell Health (New Hyde Park, N.Y.): We hire for thousands of positions every year, and we aim to differentiate ourselves with new innovative strategies and expedited approaches to hiring and attracting diverse talent, as well as an opportunity to help inform individuals by providing career guidance along their journey. 

College degrees have long been considered essential to qualifying for higher-paying roles. We recognize the value of a secondary education, but also know that this is not the only avenue to train for desirable roles. Technology and virtual learning have allowed for a proliferation of skill development that previously only existed in brick-and-mortar universities. This expanded lower cost access allows for the obtaining of standardized certifications, badges, and competency demonstrations that allow an individual to grow their potential for success and we are starting to consider these alternative approaches to education.  

We are flexible today where possible and are further evaluating our educational requirements to determine those that can be eliminated or changed to preferred, while more greatly crediting work experience. We are also evaluating work experience requirements to assess those that can be reduced and replaced with post-employment training.

Additionally, we are incorporating even more apprenticeship, fellowship, returnship (e.g., creating a path back to work for people — most often women — who have been out of the workforce for at least two years due to caregiving responsibilities) as well as school and community partnership pipeline programs into our model.  In essence, we identify candidates who demonstrate our values and have potential. We wrap support around them including mentorship, organizational awareness education and on-the-job skills training. 

Arianne Dowdell. Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer at Houston Methodist: Houston Methodist is committed to diversifying our talent pool and inclusive hiring practices. One program we're focusing on in 2024 is our partnership with Best Buddies International, which offers integrated employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. By working with Best Buddies and other community partners, we're broadening job opportunities for people of varying skill levels, including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Another focus area for us are specialized hiring events, targeting groups such as veterans, women or people with disabilities. At Houston Methodist, we strive to treat everyone as a person of sacred worth and value, including the over 30,000 employees at our hospitals and future employees. So, it's important for us to look for new ways to welcome diverse people and perspectives into the organization and be open to the changing hiring landscape.

Deborah Grimes. Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Ochsner Health and Missy Hopson. Vice President of Talent Management at Ochsner Health (New Orleans): In partnership with our workforce development team, Ochsner Health is focusing intently on our Momentum Mentorship program. The first cohort of this leadership development program was selected in 2021 and included 70 employees belonging to population groups underrepresented in senior leadership. This yearlong initiative includes one-on-one mentoring with a senior leader, skills-building workshops and experiential learning opportunities to increase leadership capabilities. Participant numbers have continued to grow in subsequent cohorts, and we've seen enthusiastic responses from our colleagues and participants.

The Ochsner Health diversity and inclusion team has also teamed up with external partners at state-based historically Black colleges and universities for an annual summit. The first summit filled to capacity when we welcomed students from the New Orleans area, and the National Association of Health Services Executives sponsored a conference for it at the end of 2022.

We are continuing to expand these critical efforts. For example, through our Career Solutions Center and workforce development programs, we focus on internal talent mobility. Our process is based on transferable skills, experience and credentials, and we have removed degree requirements from approximately 20 roles to be more inclusive in expanding the talent pool eligible to fill these roles.

These pipeline programs are critical ways we embrace inclusivity, pursue high standards and hold ourselves accountable. The Momentum Mentorship program, our HBCU summit and our other initiatives are part of a strategy to codify inclusivity, which has become a formal core value adopted by Ochsner Health.

Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, MD. Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for Highmark Health and Allegheny Health Network (Pittsburgh): Allegheny Health Network Young Health Scholars is a new, two-part program designed to support professional development into the healthcare field for Pittsburgh area grade, middle and high school students. In part one of this program, students in kindergarten through 7th grade will participate in engagement opportunities throughout the school year learning about various healthcare careers, social emotional learning, and other topics linking health to their courses. The second part of the program is a five-year, continuous summer program for rising 8th graders who are interested in medical careers. AHN and its partner organizations will support aspiring students by building on social, emotional and executive functioning curriculum, social determinants of health and problem solving, writing and standardized test taking skills development. Health Scholars receive support for achieving success in middle and high school, guidance in applying to college, and eventual medical school enrollment assistance, with the ultimate goal of helping them become physicians and practice in the diverse Pittsburgh communities where they grew up.

Brion Lieberman. Chief Human Resources Officer at Geisinger (Danville, Pa.): One of our focus areas in 2024 will be expanding career pathways and partnerships with local high school districts. As our communities become more diverse and the health needs of our communities evolve, we recognize we must be more intentional on reaching students earlier in their high school career, especially those who represent underserved communities. The expanded career pathways include roles like RNs that require a college degree (and we offer scholarships to support the students), but we're also offering pathways, like certified medical assistants, that require certification where we offer on-the-job training.

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