This time feels different.

Yes, we’ve all said that before. After Michael Brown, after Trayvon Martin, after Charleston, after Charlottesville. After all the other stark and undeniable reminders of the racism that’s been baked into American culture and law for 400 years.

But this time, it needs to be different.

And I think it will be, for two reasons.

Alan K. Nevel, SVP, Chief Diversity and Human Resources Officer, The MetroHealth System.

One, a younger generation of Americans has shown us that they are not going to allow the spotlight to shift away from racism in America. They will not let us change the subject.

Two, a critical mass of institutions – companies, businesses, organizations – now realize that the traditional tactics of promoting inclusion and diversity haven’t worked, at least not quickly or effectively enough to reverse decades of exclusion and injustice and the suffering they’ve caused.

In other words, we failed – and will keep failing – by doing too little.

It’s clear now that if we have any chance of achieving our moral obligation and our nation’s promise of liberty, justice and equality, we are going to have to do more, much more. A bit of once-a-year training, an off-the-shelf program, a few minority internships – those kinds of things, on their own, are no longer going to cut it.

This is going to require no less than a permanent change to your organization’s culture and commitment.

It’s going to take time, and it’s going to test your organization’s resolve. But the opportunity, the payoff from success, is just as big as the challenge. We’ve seen real evidence that even modest achievements in inclusion and diversity have meant better performance and profitability. More-than-modest achievements will mean even more success, and that’s before we consider what’s most important: the improvement to the lives of the people – employees, customers, vendors, partners – who interact with our organizations.

For it to have any chance of happening, leadership is imperative, in both words and deeds.

Here are a couple lines from a letter that our CEO, Dr. Akram Boutros, sent to MetroHealth employees in the days following George Floyd’s murder:

“We will unite around [those who are hurting] and turn their sacrifices into a memorial – not of brick and glass and steel – of solidarity, kindness and understanding.

“This is a historic time. And history will judge us by our actions or our silence.”

He, along with our Board of Trustees, approved an ambitious set of goals for racial equality and inclusion, and the resources we needed to get going.

The overarching goals are to eliminate racism and bias in four areas, our “four pillars”: the experience of our patients, the culture of our organization, the systems/policies/processes of our HR department, and the experience of our employees.

Transparency means credibility, and we will involve staff at every step and communicate openly, even if there are setbacks.

We are being deliberate in creating a detailed plan of action, because we know this is a years-long initiative and commitment.

Our first step is engagement, because it is essential. Dr. King famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” At work, disengagement is the language of the mistreated, the excluded, the underestimated and the unfairly passed over. It is more damaging to a business than any broken windows.

We needed to let our staff know that things were different this time, so we created a series of short videos that served as an espresso shot of awareness. In each video, an employee shares a personal and emotional experience with racism. In one, a worker, after his shift, explains how he showed up to sit at a dying patient’s bedside as part of our remarkable No One Dies Alone program. He was volunteering, after a hard day of work, only to be turned away by the patient’s family because he is Black.

In a survey after the videos were released, 6 in 10 respondents said the stories raised their awareness of their own personal biases. More than half said the videos gave them a greater understanding of the personal impact of racism.

In addition to videos, we are engaging staff – and patients – in focus groups, listening tours, ethical-culture surveys and more. As we engage, we are assessing where we are and where we need to be.

This includes an uncompromising look at how we’ve hired, fired, promoted and paid our employees. We are digging deep into data to look for irregularities, trends, even micro-patterns that may produce inequities, even unintentional ones. We’ll also examine the diversity of our vendors and how they conduct business.

At the same time, we will survey our “customers” – our patients – to measure their experiences and examine whether they differ depending on their race, sex, age and more.

We plan to do an analysis on every one of our health system’s policies to see how they might impact equity for employees and patients.

While we’re doing that, we’ll work to build our capabilities. This includes establishing common language/definitions and educating and training our people about the history and effects of racism, about unconscious bias, health equity, cultural competency, and the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. We will help our employees become allies and champions and continue to facilitate the most powerful tool for understanding: storytelling.

We aren’t sure if this is the most correct path. We’ll be assessing everything we do to measure effectiveness. If something isn’t working, we’ll change course. But you can see that what we’re doing is so much more than talk, platitudes and yesterday’s check-the-box approach to diversity and inclusion.

This article is part of a series for the Ethisphere Equity and Social Justice Initiative, convened to share leading practices, resources, case studies, conversations, and shared experiences from global companies and leaders like Alan Nevel, who serves on the Initiative’s Advisory Board.

I try to help my white friends and colleagues understand the day-to-day experiences of being Black in America. I ask them to think of a time when they felt that universal human emotion of being excluded, even if it was back in gym class when they were picked last for kickball. No matter how long ago it was, we all can remember the feeling, the emptiness, deep in our gut, of being left out.

Now imagine that feeling every day. It’s likely how your minority employees feel, even if their colleagues have no hateful intentions.

We are all wearing literal masks at work these days. Many minority workers have long been wearing figurative ones, too, keeping aspects of our lives, our experiences and our culture hidden from colleagues in a less-than-welcoming-and-understanding workplace.

White colleagues can simply wake up, come into work and perform their jobs, without thinking about their race. Minority workers wake up, look in the mirror, put on their mask and step into what I call “proving mode” – proving to their colleagues, to their peers, to themselves, that they belong where they are. Only then can they move into “performing mode” and focus on their work. That’s a lot of pressure, and it takes a toll.

When we’re successful in our racial equity and inclusion efforts (I say when, not if), those empty feelings of exclusion will be replaced with feelings of acceptance and understanding. The mask will be gone, and all of us will be able to bring our whole selves to work. We’ll be able to focus solely on performing our jobs, not proving we belong.

It’ll be quite a difference.

It should be, because this time, it must be different.


About the Expert:

Alan K. Nevel was named Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity and Human Resources Officer for The MetroHealth System in June 2018. In this integrated leadership role, Nevel is responsible for driving the human resources strategy to attract, retain and motivate a highly engaged workforce to implement MetroHealth’s mission while leading diversity, inclusion, cultural competency and work-life strategies to empower employees.

Nevel most recently served as Vice President, Global Diversity and Inclusion for Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based global life sciences solutions, specialty diagnostics and laboratory equipment company, which he joined in 2012. Previous experience includes leading diversity and inclusion, HR strategy delivery, talent development and organizational change management during his eight years with fashion retailer L Brands. Additional experience includes working at Anderson Consulting/Accenture and the Sherwin Williams Company.