The last few years have laid bare the institutional racism in healthcare that leads to disparities in access, treatment and outcomes across race and gender. As a result, more than half of the firms surveyed in Aon's Health Survey 2021 and Beyond listed “adapting benefits to more effectively advance and support diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I)” as a top priority.
Many firms have made strides in recent years, spurred by research that suggests that a good DE&I strategy improves a company’s financial performance and leads to more creativity and innovation in the workplace. There is, however, 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 why 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. A benefits consultant from Aon Local Advantage can help with this process through strategy and plan design.
With many companies starting on the DE&I journey, creating inclusive benefits on their own 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. Focusing on these key areas can help companies make better decisions.
About three-quarters of HR leaders noted in the recent Aon Health Survey that creating a culture of inclusion and attracting diverse talent are top priorities. But that is more difficult if employees encounter language in their benefits packages that make them feel alienated. 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, traditional tiered health benefits are often offered with the option to enroll as either an individual or family, with family exclusively meaning the employee, spouse and children. This can lead employees whose family doesn’t fit into that definition to feel 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 adjusted if the default terms assume an employee is heterosexual. Companies may offer coverage for infertility treatments, a term that excludes same-sex couples looking to start families but who are not necessarily infertile. Changing the benefits language to conception support provides a more inclusive 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 diversity of perspectives, a complete checklist of language pitfalls may not be possible. But creating a culture in which employees feel empowered to help evolve the language of benefits communication can be a powerful path forward. Consultants can also help with employee communications to ensure they are inclusive.
Access Is Everything
The pandemic highlighted disparities and inequities in healthcare access, providing an opportunity for HR leaders to look critically at employee access. Often, the default metric for access is whether providers exist within a certain driving radius of a given location. This excludes employees who may rely solely on public transportation and also leaves out other relevant factors.
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 makes it 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 vendors focused on DE&I needs, companies can provide better access to this information and optimal providers. Some healthcare vendors help members of certain communities find health and wellness providers who are culturally competent in dealing with community-specific sensitivities. An Aon Local Advantage consultant can help connect employers to these types of vendors. Increasingly inclusive access can dramatically affect outcomes, making it an important step
Messaging From the C-Suite Goes a Long Way
Because DE&I touches everything you do as an organization, the CEO and company leaders need to embrace and communicate 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.
The DE&I message from the top also 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. For example, it may be more difficult for a white employee to evaluate the language of a benefit that has been adapted for a Black employee. 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. Consultants who have a track record with DE&I concerns can make HR leaders better informed and better advised.
When in Doubt, Just Start
Making better decisions about health benefits doesn’t have to be stressful. 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 group of employees at the same time.
With that in mind, the most important step – whether on your own or with a consultant – is to pick an issue and go after it, knowing 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 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. An Aon Local Advantage consultant can help with things like plan design and vendor management.
The ability to listen is the key to enacting change. Trust may not exist within your organization, so in the beginning, feedback may not be honest or helpful. Leaders must listen and then actually respond to the concerns of employees to set a precedent.
Most important, employees need to feel that leaders are not using diversity to score superficial points without any intention of pursuing change. Instead, the best DE&I strategies support all employees, create real change and allow people to be themselves at work.