CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield enhances its diversity, equity and inclusion strategies

The idea of improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has become a major priority at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst), the largest not-for-profit health plan in the mid-Atlantic region.

The company is working to implement and refine DEI strategies throughout its workforce, workplace and practices.

“Diversity is really about the mix of people that you have in an organization, whereas inclusion is about how each employee experiences that environment,” said Tonya Odom, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at CareFirst.

Odom leads the company’s continued commitment to recruiting, developing and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce that can design innovative healthcare solutions for the incredibly diverse people and communities CareFirst serves.

Read more: CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield reduces barriers to healthcare with untraditional investments, partners – WTOP News

“We have a dedicated staff, and they generate initiatives meant to increase employee engagement, drive inclusion and increase our diversity,” Odom said.

DEI from the top-down

Odom has nearly 30 years of experience in strategic diversity planning and leadership.

She grew up internationally with a father who served in the military, and she said her experience living overseas helped her “appreciate different cultures, perspectives and ways of thinking.”

Before joining CareFirst, Odom served as the first chief diversity officer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, leveraging data, statistics, collaboration and accountability to elevate diversity to a mission-critical core value.

In her 13-year tenure with the FBI, she helped to expand how diversity was defined, from thinking about ethnic and racial diversity to viewing diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation, ability and other dimensions.

Now, she’s focusing her talents on CareFirst. She says, one of the key pieces to ensuring DEI is embraced across any organization is ensuring leadership models this behavior.

“Everyone at CareFirst from our leaders down to our employees are very supportive of our diversity and inclusion efforts,” Odom said. “We all play a role in making sure that everyone is doing their part and that we’re giving employees and leaders the tools they need to exhibit inclusive behaviors.”

As a former civil rights attorney and chief administrative judge for the equal employment opportunity commission in Washington, D.C., Odom brings broad experience to her role because she has worked with and supported the people who make up the diverse communities that CareFirst serves.

“We really try to hold everyone accountable from our leaders down to our employees, Odom said. “We’re very fortunate at CareFirst, because we have a very supportive CEO, Brian Pieninck, as well as our executive leadership team. They are supportive of all of our efforts are really engaged in our diversity and inclusion efforts and encourage our employees to be engaged as well.”

Improving despite the pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges in reaching employees and communicating with them due to so many people working from home, CareFirst was able to “move the needle” on its DEI efforts, according to Odom.

One thing the company has done over the past few years is to host an annual “week of equity and action,” which serves as an opportunity for employees to cultivate empathy and understanding of each other in the workplace and in the community.

It is part of the organization’s overall mission, values and commitment to supporting an enriched culture and environment of inclusion, equity and belonging across a richly diverse group of people of different ages, races, religions, ethnicities, cultures, abilities, economic statuses, identities and sexual orientations.

“It helps our employees gain knowledge, celebrate differences and be more equitable across the board,” Odom said.

This year’s event in June drew an attendance of about 5,000 people and included seminars, workshops speakers and volunteer opportunities.

Employees were asked to, among other things, open themselves up to dialogue and practice empathy, actively hear and appreciate someone else’s worldview, authentically engage in difficult conversations, practice self-reflection and commit to intervene when they see injustice or inequality.

A ‘shared responsibility’

CareFirst also advances its DEI efforts by conducting an “employee engagement survey” every two years, asking employees a variety of questions to see whether they believe they are working in an inclusive environment.

One example of a survey question is, “does my opinion matter?”

The company uses the results to determine whether it is truly listening to employees and allowing them to have their voices heard.

“We go back and see where we need to make improvements,” said Odom. “What we’ve found is that most of our employees feel that they are in an inclusive work environment and are being given equal opportunities to succeed.”

When employees feel like they’re a part of an organization and that they matter, morale goes up and they are more likely to be invested in the collective success of their company.

“We ask everyone to really be present when we look at these results and statistics,” Odom said. “To me, one of the most important things about being successful when you launch these diversity and inclusion efforts is that everyone understands that it is a shared responsibility.”

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