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Why Embracing a DEIB Culture in Senior Living Organizations Starts with Leadership


The murder of George Floyd in 2020 led to widespread protests and an intense new reckoning for the United States amid fresh pressure to confront the country’s shortcomings related to race and equity. For employers, including those in the senior living field, Floyd’s death and its aftermath shone a spotlight on equity in their organizations with a focus never seen before.

“The tragic death of George Floyd coalesced our society, expediting demand for equity in all aspects of life, including the workplace,” said Gary Smith, president of senior living operator Vi.

Organizations began to recognize with new clarity that “the same people who are facing some of these societal challenges are the same people who are also employed with us,” said Netta Jenkins, a diversity and inclusion executive consultant and the author of the upcoming book, “The Inclusive Organization: Real Solutions, Impactful Change, and Meaningful Diversity.”

“That was a major wake-up call for so many organizations and their leaders,” Jenkins said. “It had leaders asking themselves, ‘How has this happened? In my organization, we’re not talking about race, we’re not talking about gender – we’re not talking about these topics. These people that are employed at my organization are experiencing these challenges. If we’re not talking about it, then do we really care about these people?’”

As a result, the field of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) has taken a more prominent place in workplaces and prompted organizations to adopt and embrace a DEIB culture that is more than window dressing.

Kristine Martel, chief human resources officer, Benchmark Senior Living, said the increased emphasis on DEIB arrives as the U.S. deals more directly with the societal issues at the heart of it.

“Our nation has been shaken to its core in recent years by racial injustice and political and social divisions,” Martel said. “You have this happening at a time when the country – through legislation or court rulings – has helped millions of people find their voices on topics ranging from same sex marriage to transgender benefits. So, more than ever, it’s a company’s responsibility to protect their employees’ rights and ensure that our workforce reflects all members of society.”

Martel said embedding the principles of DEIB into the workforce should be important to all responsible employers. For leaders in senior living, that means making it a priority is not merely an option – it’s mandatory.

“These principles seem like a given to any American workplace, school, community, but we know that hasn’t been the case,” Martel said. “All employees want to know they can bring their authentic selves to work and that their point of view will be valued. Senior living is particularly unique in that the core of our business is creating a sense of community – places where residents and employees help each other be their best and be themselves.”

Building a More Equitable and Productive Workforce

Organizations and their leaders routinely are asked today to provide evidence of their DEIB efforts to external audiences, and their answers are affecting the quality of the job candidates they see, their success securing contracts and partnerships, and the interest of investors.

In addition to that pressure and the moral and ethical drivers of DEIB, Jenkins said studies have demonstrated that a diverse and inclusive culture increases the performance and productivity of workers.

“If people are frustrated, there’s lower morale, and there is a lot more conflict because now people don’t have true opportunity,” Jenkins said. “There’s a gap in folks really being able to participate, communicate, contribute, and grow. Looking at DEIB through that lens, it shows its importance within the workplace.”

In that vein, Smith cited Korn-Ferry research showing that employees who work for an inclusive leader are two-and-a-half times more likely to feel a sense of belonging, and a sense of belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance.

“We know that in setting strategies, addressing challenges and pursuing opportunities, multiple perspectives are best,” Smith said. “It benefits us and our residents to have team members with different backgrounds and life experiences. Creating and maintaining a culture where all team members feel welcome and included in an environment that allows them to bring their full selves to their work each day contributes to our brand promise of providing exceptional service and quality care.”

Employers understand that workers are paying attention to DEIB and looking for companies that value it. For senior living as a whole to attract quality workers, the industry needs to demonstrate a commitment to DEIB, especially during a period of historically low unemployment and a highly competitive labor market.

“It’s our people who make senior living communities special,” Martel said. “Our success depends on continuously attracting the right talent every single day, so making DEIB initiatives part of our recruitment strategies is essential. We are looking for more and more ways to engage with four-year colleges, community colleges and local high schools – populations with tremendous diversity. We need to be able to show them that we are an industry/employer of choice and one that is inclusive to all.”

Smith said DEIB plays a particularly notable role in the senior living space because of the nature of the field.

In senior living, unlike in some other industries, our customers live in our communities and have close, long-standing relationships with our employees,” Smith said. “This elevates the benefit and importance of sharing our DEIB philosophy with our residents as well as our employees. In addition, just as it is important for our team members to feel welcome and a sense of belonging, it is also important for our residents to feel welcome and to be treated as a valued member of the community.”

Creating a Culture – and Starting at the Top

Embracing a DEIB culture is about “promoting a culture of acceptance and understanding,” Martel said. That begins with leadership.

“Is it easy? No,” Martel said. “There are many difficult conversations and topics that I think many companies tried sidestepping in the past. Avoidance is no longer an option. We all need to face these topics head on and do so with the knowledge and tools necessary to make consistent progress.”

In order for there to be progress, Jenkins said it’s “incredibly important” for the C-suite to take charge and emphasize DEIB issues at an organization. She recommends that the head of DEIB in a company report to either the CEO or COO to ensure chief leaders are involved and informed and are providing direct support to DEIB efforts. Key decisions need “to come from the top,” she said.

Smith agreed that attracting, engaging, and retaining talent is a business imperative that should be a primary focus of an organization’s leadership.

“This starts with an organization’s executive management team actively providing support through intentional communications, accountability, and transparency,” Smith said. “With executive leadership involved, DEIB becomes a priority, and the message is consistent throughout the organization.”

Martel said the C-suite simply has “to embrace and own the work.”

“The ideas can come from all levels of the organization, but it’s the corporate leaders who set the strategic tone and prioritize the work that will get [it] done,” Martel said. “In terms of priorities, education and communication are vital to truly embracing DEIB. We all need to speak a common language to understand our biases, and we all need to open our minds to what others face each day.”

Jenkins said she sees a variety of leaders who show the drive to create a DEIB culture in their organizations. Some are honest about previously overlooking the challenges some people face in the workplace and how the existing climate might create or elevate those challenges. Others have experienced those challenges themselves and want to prevent them from being obstacles to others.

When leaders are truly engaged and committed, the impact is obvious, Jenkins said.

“If we can break some of these systemic barriers and remove some of those gaps, and identify them and be honest about them, then we can start to see people progress within their careers,” Jenkins said. “We can start to see that organic transformation takes place.”

Following through on your commitment

Jenkins said a common mistake she sees organizations make is rushing to make an internal hire of someone who is interested in DEIB but does not have a background befitting the role – something that would never happen with a CFO or CMO [chief marketing officer] hire, she noted.

“It shows inequity, and it shows organizations not putting the right level of importance in that decision-making,” she said.

In addition, Jenkins said, the people hired in senior DEIB positions too often are not set up for success. In particular, they frequently do not have an adequate team “to drive the culture and be impactful in increasing representation and improving retention,” Jenkins said.

Smith said successfully adopting a DEIB culture also requires an objective evaluation of how an organization is doing. That means measuring how you are doing rather than leaning on a simply qualitative evaluation of your culture. Leaders must monitor clear, relevant metrics and act on them as necessary.

Accurate data is a strategic priority,” Smith said. “Having accurate data is critical to tracking progress towards DEIB goals, measuring success and ensuring accountability. Blind spots in data can lead to challenges in creating DEIB initiatives and determining the success of those initiatives.”

Even as many organizations have made progress in recent years, Jenkins said they must be wary of losing momentum with their DEIB efforts and lapsing into “their old ways.” Among the challenges that organizations face with successfully incorporating DEIB into their culture is dispelling the potential perception that DEIB is just a passing trend, Smith said.

“Additionally, after nearly three years of managing through the exhausting challenges of COVID, we are asking our team members to invest their time and energy into our DEIB commitments,” Smith said. “Therefore, it continues to be crucial that we communicate why DEIB is an important priority for the company throughout all levels of the organization.”

As of now, Jenkins said, too many leaders and organizations are focused on the “performative aspect” of DEIB rather than the substantive foundation of it. However, the best leaders are taking “bold, actionable steps” to create a better working environment for everyone, including those in marginalized groups, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the work to make meaningful change is difficult but well worth it. Those leaders that step forward can make an impact that reverberates far beyond the borders of their organizations.

“Leaders within organizations don’t understand the power they have to shift society,” Jenkins said. “They have so much power based on what they support and how they support it. I think there’s a lot of beauty in that.”