Why Highmark sees rising internal bias complaints as a good thing
A growing number of Highmark Health employees is submitting complaints about workplace bias, which the head of the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs sees as good news.
Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew, chief clinical diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for the Pittsburgh-based integrated health system, launched its Enterprise Equitable Health Institute in 2021. Her team developed a bias training curriculum for nearly 40,000 employees, created interventions for occurrences such as microaggressions in the workplace and recruited a network of “diversity champions” to host peer-to-peer conversations about discrimination in healthcare.
Education and intervention are the cornerstones of Larkins-Pettigrew’s work, she said. Her goal is to create an environment that does not tolerate prejudice and helps colleagues communicate more effectively. They are measuring success, she said, by tallying the number of grievances workers file.
“An increase in the number of complaints is a positive thing because that means we have a speak-up culture,” Larkins-Pettigrew said.
Highmark Health has created several avenues for employees to report discriminatory behavior, Larkins-Pettigrew said. Workers can report directly to the human resources department or use an anonymous hotline, and the nonprofit company hosts monthly listening sessions, she said.
Highmark saw an increase in “anonymous, protected or voluntarily reported” complaints after launching the hotline two years ago. “Many resulted in communication, education or facilitated conversations,” Larkins-Pettigrew said.
Once an employee files a report, there are two paths forward. Human resources will get involved if the allegations include actions that break company rules. The diversity, equity and inclusion team will intervene for other infractions, particularly those involving communication and cultural competency. For example, Larkins-Pettigrew may talk to an employee about microaggressions or “terminology triggers” they use in conversation that could affect their colleagues and patients.
“It’s all about self-reflection and how it affects our workspace. Because if it affects our colleagues, it will affect our patients,” Larkins-Pettigrew said. “We want to make sure that people feel empowered to challenge any situation that they feel they are being discriminated against.”