LeadingAge Magazine · May-June 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 03

Joanne Smikle, a Baltimore-based organizational development consultant, has worked with a number of aging-services providers, and speaks of a “diversity imperative” that she believes applies to our field.

“One thing that’s become apparent to me in aging services, where I’ve been working 15 to 20 years now, is that when you go into a [community] there is a whole lot more diversity of clients than there used to be, and a tremendous amount of diversity among staff, particularly direct care staff,” she says. “So it’s essential that leaders in this sector get skilled in building bridges with a diverse client/resident population and with staff to build more than just communication skills. It’s really about human relations skills and the ability to address the needs of all the populations they serve.”

Smikle, a writer and speaker who works with organizations on organizational effectiveness, strategy and leadership development, addressed that topic in a presentation at the recent PEAK Leadership Summit in Washington, DC.

LeadingAge later spoke to Smikle about what makes an inclusive, diverse organization. What does good stewardship of the climate and culture inside a provider organization require?

Joanne Smikle
Joanne Smikle

LeadingAge: How do you define diversity?

Joanne Smikle: People get hung up on race and gender because they’re so obvious; generally you can see those things easily. But in order for us to create truly inclusive mindsets you have to understand it encompasses all kinds of things like sexual orientation, religion, in today’s climate your politics, and when and where you were born. The organizations that are most successful with creating inclusion and a climate where all people can flourish understand that and really can grasp the full totality of diversity.

LeadingAge: In our field there has been a lot of talk about cultural competence. How do you define that, and why is it so important?

Joanne Smikle: It’s important for staff and management to have a keen understanding and appreciation of who they’re serving, and what that person’s cultural norms are, and to have respect for that. What is respect to one person isn’t for another.

For instance, when my Mom had to go into rehab, I thought it was appalling when some of the young staff addressed her by her first name. To most old black people, young people don’t call you by your first name. I told the staff that it’s not acceptable, and they stopped, but it was a perfect example of not understanding the nuances of culture as it relates to how we address old people.

I work occasionally in south Florida and see that Latinos have different norms of how they treat elders, and what is considered respectful.

I also had the opportunity last year to work in a community in the Pacific NW that is Japanese. The leadership team is Japanese, and it was neat to see the high regard they hold for their elders and the high level of respect that they showed them.

LeadingAge: You contrast inclusion and representation. What is the difference?

Joanne Smikle: From a staffing standpoint, most organizations think if I can put one black person here, one Asian person here, one Latino here, I’ve got diversity. But all you have is representation. You have diversity when you have a mix of all kinds of people at all levels of the organization. And I’m not just talking about race and gender; I mean people with different thought patterns, different ages, different perspectives, etc. When we have been thoughtful and intentional about bringing together a mix of people that represent a whole gamut of possible diversity.

LeadingAge: What are occupational ghettos?

Joanne Smikle: Often when organizations hire me to deal with their diversity issues, they say they have tons of diversity, and then I see that all of the low-wage workers at the bottom of the organization chart are people of color but the higher you go, the whiter it gets. You’ve created an occupational ghetto occupied by these low-wage workers who happen to be people of color. You definitely don’t have inclusion.

I think we need to be very intentional about growing and grooming and developing people so the look of the organization really does change so it represents a more inclusive bench. If as we go up in the organization everyone starts looking the same there is a problem, and we have to be conscious of creating developmental opportunities so all kinds of folks can have the chance to lead in aging services. We’re serving a real mix of folks now.

LeadingAge: You’ve offered suggestions for positive change—making inclusion a strategic focus, doing climate studies and culture audits to help an organization understand where it’s starting from, and changing recruitment and retention policies. Can you elaborate?

Joanne Smikle: Let’s start with strategy. Building an inclusive organization is a very intentional process that needs to be linked to the strategic plan. Otherwise what happens is that we talk about inclusion or diversity only when a) a crisis comes up, such as a lawsuit or a bad event, or b) for some reason a family member or staff member brings up the issue. So until it becomes a strategic focus and intent, something we measure and has meaning for the organization, change doesn’t really occur and the level of inclusion we desire just doesn’t happen.

When working with clients I ask them to take very seriously [the need for] strategic goals around inclusion and diversity—and to put it at a level that executives will pay attention to.

LeadingAge: Does that have to be driven by management or by the board? Does it matter which takes the lead?

Joanne Smikle: I love it when they work together. I’m working with an provider now where both the board and executive team are working together on it. They’re looking for diversity on their board and also on the management team, and throughout the middle levels of management. That is the ideal, the way you want to see change happen.

LeadingAge: What is the value of climate studies and culture audits?

Joanne Smikle: I had to start developing my own because I didn’t find a lot of good models out there. Climate studies and culture audits get at very similar things; they ask employees at all levels about their experience of working at their employer, and ask them to describe and define the climate in terms of promotion opportunities, in terms of acceptance of who I am, in terms of respect for who I am. People are asked to give examples of what [constitutes] respect for them. The culture audit asks them to define the culture of the organization in their own words—to explain the subtle nuances of the culture, and the elements of the culture that are sources of pride and those that are sources of embarrassment or discomfort for them.

I do them both as qualitative and quantitative measures: surveys first and then focus groups.

LeadingAge: How do recruitment and retention need to change?

Joanne Smikle: I ask clients, where do you go to recruit talent? Do you go to historically black colleges, to an Asian business consortium, to LGBT organizations? Are you giving recruiting firms specific instructions about where they should be going to look for talent?

Also, are you being thoughtful about staffing? What about hiring some aged people? Do all positions have to be 40 hour weeks? If not, you might be able to draw some interesting retirees who have things to contribute.

In short, look [for talent] more broadly than you typically do, and think about building networks in places you’ve never built them before.

Here’s one example: I serve on the board on an organization working to end homelessness in our county. We were a group of congregations that got together and bought houses for transitional housing. For many years we stayed in the Christian congregation. About 7 years ago we invited a Jewish synagogue to participate, and now we have about 4 of them involved. So this year someone asked, what are we doing to reach out to [a nearby] mosque? We realized, yes, we need to reach out; they are our neighbors and are as concerned about homeless neighbors as we are.

LeadingAge: How can providers improve hiring and promotion practices to be more inclusive?

Joanne Smikle: A lot of times we say these practices are unbiased—all performance-related, and I think that’s not true. So much is about relationships and about comfort. There was an interesting series in the Harvard Business Review in 2016 about why we can’t get diversity right. In promotions and even hiring decisions we make concessions for people who are like us and make us feel comfortable, in any number of ways. It’s not really as unbiased as we tell ourselves.

What happens in interviews—and I’ve witnessed this myself and I’m sorry to say I have even done it myself—is we start diverting our own attention to our comfort (or discomfort) with the person and may ask a series of questions that might, in effect, boil down to an unfair advantage because you’re accepting them on a different set of criteria. We want to interview in a way that allows us to measure and compare apples to apples. Everyone has to get the same questions, and in the same order, and we have to pay attention to the actual responses.

I think language is a huge piece of the puzzle with diversity. I object to using the term “minority” because I grew up in a house where my parents made it clear that you have to understand word origins, and the first 5 letters of minority are m-i-n-o-r. Somewhere in there, you expect minor status in this larger society that already marginalizes people of color.

There are assumptions revealed in interviews. I was talking with a woman applying for a doctoral program who told me about another interview where the interviewer said to her, “Oh, your family must be so proud! I’m sure you’re the first person going this far.” This woman’s mother has a PhD.

Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.