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Not sure where to start on your DE&I strategy? Begin with employee benefits.

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the global pandemic laid bare institutional racism and disparities of healthcare access, treatment and outcomes across race and gender. As a result, half of the firms surveyed in Aon's 2020 Health Survey stated they were interested in accelerating their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategies policies in adding this to improve/support the employee experience.

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the global pandemic laid bare institutional racism and disparities in healthcare access, treatment and outcomes across race and gender. These events have pushed many companies to accelerate their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategies.

While firms have made strides in recent years, spurred by research that makes the compelling case that diversity improves a company’s financial performance and leads to more creativity and innovation in the workplace, there’s still a disconnect between establishing a DE&I plan and ensuring its impact spans different parts of a business. Simply put, many executives realize having a chief diversity officer is essential, but it may not be enough to take their DE&I initiatives to the next level.

This is all the more reason organizations can start to support an enhanced DE&I strategy by taking a closer look at employee benefits. When employees feel supported personally and professionally by their benefits, their company becomes more productive, competitive and resilient.

To be sure, with many companies embarking on the DE&I journey, creating inclusive benefits is much easier said than done. Below, we’ve outlined four areas HR leaders can focus on when implementing their DE&I strategy within benefits.

Language Matters

A strong DE&I mission statement is a foundation for a company’s strategy, but it can backfire internally if employees encounter language in their benefits packages that contradicts that mission and makes them feel alienated. Thus, a critical first step for HR leaders is to look at all benefits materials and communications and analyze whether they are written in a way that feels inclusive and provides flexibility to all employees.

For instance, when looking at traditional tiered health benefits, employees are often offered the option to enroll as either an individual or family, with “family” exclusively meaning the employee, spouse and children. This can lead employees without a family that fits into that definition feeling unseen and unsupported by their benefits. Instead, it’s better to use terms such as employee, partner and children.

Similarly, benefits language needs to be tweaked or changed completely if the implicit default terms assume an employee is heterosexual. For example, companies may offer coverage for “infertility treatments.” This term, however, can exclude same-sex couples looking to start families, but who are not necessarily infertile. Changing the benefit language to “conception support” provides a more encompassing benefit that supports family and parenting for all employees. Similar unintended exclusionary language can exist based on gender, place of origin and race.

Given the great diversity of ever-evolving perspectives, a complete checklist of language pitfalls may not be possible. But creating a culture in which diverse employees feel empowered to help evolve the language of benefits communication can be a powerful path forward.

 

Access Is Everything

The pandemic has highlighted disparities and inequities in healthcare access, providing an opportunity for HR leaders to look critically employee access. Often, the default metric for access is whether providers exist within a certain driving radius of a given location, which excludes employees who may rely solely on public transportation.

Similarly, employees may want information about a provider’s race, languages spoken and measure of cultural competence, which are not things the healthcare marketplace is currently set up for. That’s why it’s critical for HR leaders to consider more robust provider search functions; a Black female OB-GYN, for instance, may be more likely to have a deeper understanding of the unique needs of a Black patient who is more susceptible to endometriosis.

With the help of emerging vendors focused on specific DE&I needs, companies can provide better access to this information and optimal providers. Already, there are some healthcare vendors that are trying to help members of certain communities find health and wellness providers in their in-network directory who are culturally competent in dealing with community-specific sensitivities. This approach can dramatically affect outcomes, which is why it’s so important. 

 

Messaging From the C-Suite Goes a Long Way

Because DE&I touches everything that you do as an organization, the CEO and company leaders need to embrace and clearly communicate the fact that DE&I is an organizational priority. If leadership is not committed to embedding DE&I throughout the company, it quickly can become a “token” program that’s recognized in one-off events but not via a consistent and thoughtful lens through which all company initiatives are evaluated.

Furthermore, the DE&I message from the top needs to be consistent and flexible so it can be adjusted based on employee feedback — which should come from a diverse group of individuals. Everyone has blind spots, and it may be more difficult, for instance, for a white employee to evaluate the language of a benefit that has been adapted for a Black employee. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask company affinity groups for authentic feedback on the needs of diverse employees. Leaders cannot formulate a plan to improve their DE&I actions within their organization until they first listen to their diverse colleagues.

 

When in Doubt, Just Start

It can be daunting to launch an all-encompassing DE&I strategy within benefits because HR leaders can’t focus on the needs of every employee subgroup at the same time — particularly when compensation is often top of mind for these initiatives, making it hard to move the needle on benefits.

With that in mind, the most important step is to pick an issue and go after it, with the assurance that there’s never a wrong place to start. Some companies, for example, have started with the transgender community and are providing nontraditional benefits, such as paying for facial hair removal through employee medical plans. This may require providing employees with flexibility in selecting multiple providers, because most carriers don’t have a network of individuals who offer this service. But once one community sees it’s being heard, it sets a precedent that your company is willing to listen to new needs and evolve its DE&I mission.

That ability to listen is paramount to enacting change. Trust may not exist within your organization, so in the beginning feedback may not be honest or helpful, requiring leaders to listen and — just as important — respond to the concerns of employees to set a precedent.

Most important, employees need to feel that leaders are not using diversity to try to make people fit in or score superficial points without any intention of pursing change. Instead, the best DE&I strategies support all employees, create real change and allow people to be themselves at work.