Unsure about what steps to take to show your commitment to fight racism? Start by talking.
“A lot of companies are concerned with ‘What action can I take?’ [Talking] is a good starting point. Just talking can spark change,” says Alyssa Hagan, associate director of internal communications & engagement at Encompass Health, the nation’s largest post-acute provider of inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, home health and hospice agencies.
“Encouraging dialogue is the easiest action a leader can take right now,” she said. “Lead by example.”Encompass Health’s President and CEO Mark Tarr interviewed the chief compliance officer and national director of employee relations and inclusion, both African American, about their experience with racism personally and professionally, and asked what the Company can do to help. It’s the first in a series of videos on the topic.
“You don’t have to come up with the answer for every employee on how they can change something,” Hagan says. “If you feel your company cannot commit to a mass action, then at least encourage conversation because that’s what going to spark change.”
Encourage open dialogue
Following the death of George Floyd, an email was sent to the health provider’s 42,000 employees on June 2 from the CEO via email and the employee app. It read, in part:
As a company of a diverse workforce, serving a diverse patient population, I encourage us all to listen to each other and our patients, showing empathy and compassion to create a more inclusive environment where people of all backgrounds can learn, grow and, in the case of our patients, regain their independence.
A key component to addressing racial injustices of our country is open dialogue that seeks appreciation and understanding of unique perspectives.
Tarr also expressed how much progress is needed in the fight against racial inequities and injustices and supported employees in those efforts.
“We wanted to acknowledge that not only are their communities each suffering in a different way right now, but also that we acknowledge their first amendment rights and encourage peaceful protesting,” Hagan says.
A second email was sent on June 3 to hospital and home office leaders from the president of inpatient hospitals to “give them tools for communicating as well as how to have these tough conversations with your staff.”
That included listening to employees, having an open-door policy, and leading with empathy—one of the Company’s core values.
The comms team also gave hospital leaders a template to post to their local news feeds on the internal app to remind employees of the social media policy and how to share opinions responsibly.
Video series launch
Once the emails were sent, the communications team immediately began to brainstorm. They knew they had to do more than just sent an email or two. “We asked, what is the next step after acknowledging and encouraging dialogue?“
Video was a familiar channel. Earlier this year, the comms team launched EHC Today, a news segment where Hagan sat down with leaders to have discussions about key strategic topics.
It was clear that showing the CEO having a dialogue about race, which he referred to in his email, was crucial.
“The priority needed to come from the top,” Hagan says. “To show that this is such an important topic, he would lead the discussion.”
The video is around 15 minutes—“longer than our best practice, but for this topic, it’s needed,” Hagan says. “There’s real, raw emotion.”
The interviewees shared how they and their families have been affected by racism and what Encompass Health can do to fight racism, such as blind spot analysis and internal diversity councils.
“We encourage those [councils] in all our locations, so if a hospital or branch doesn’t have one, this is the time for employees to jump in to lead the charge,” Hagan says. “We’re giving employees empowerment to move forward, not just the leaders.”
Tarr’s video was first shared internally via email and the employee app, then distributed on social channels. It is the first in a series.
In the email that accompanied the video, he told employees “[He] decided to be the interviewer for this segment because [he] felt the need to further prioritize inclusion and diversity, which reflects the foundation of our Company – our workforce.”
In the second video, the president of inpatient hospitals will interview a diverse clinical leader at the hospital level. She will dig into their thoughts about the impact of race on patient care and directly ask, “Has a patient refused care based on the color of your skin?” “What did you do about it?”
That will help guide employees on how to handle a situation like that when it happens to them, Hagan says.
“The goal of these is hard, candid conversation that open opportunities for additional discussion,” she says. “Or, if you’re an employee watching this, maybe you’re uncomfortable having a discussion about it, but it’s making you think differently going forward.”
Tips for a successful video series launch
For communicators interested in launching a similar video series, Hagan recommends the following;
1. Be the connector. When you first approach your CEO or senior leader with the idea, let them know you will reach out and secure participation from interviewees, and drive the process.
“That’s your role as the communicator—you are the liaison,” Hagan says. “You see the underlying goals and need for this type of conversation. We know the CEO will be the interviewer and who’s most appropriate for him to interview, then we connect them together.”
2. Securing employees to interview. Asking employees to talk about race on camera requires careful thought and sensitivity. Those active in your D&I councils or other related initiatives are a good place to start.
“You or someone on your team or in HR knows who could provide insightful, helpful dialogue around a topic like this,” Hagan says. “That’s how you choose who to have a conversation with.”
Next, put them at ease. Hagan tells participants: “This is a safe space. We want you to have a candid conversation. Don’t worry about the cameras. If you need to stop, take a breath and start your answer over, that’s fine. That’s the beauty of video.”
That, she says, “helps people take a step back from the heavy topic that this is and think, ‘We’re just sitting here having a conversation.’”
3. Prep all involved. Approach the video interview like you would prepare someone for a press interview—help them gather their thoughts. Hagan had an advance conversation with the interviewees so they could think through the questions they’d be asked.
She told them: “We want this to be a candid, casual conversation, but what are the main points you want employees to walk away with?”
Her team took the same approach with the CEO to make sure he was comfortable with the introduction, talking points, questions asked, etc., “so he knew what he was walking into when he sat down with us and the video team.”