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By Jacqueline Lisk
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Tufts Health Plan employees gathered for a companywide town hall. They shared their outrage and fear, and their experiences with systemic racism.
“The town hall honestly felt like a much-needed healing balm and allowed our employees across all racial and ethnic groups to express how they were feeling,” says Charisse Howse, a director and HR business partner at Tufts Health Plan.
“As a company, we’ve always stressed the value of diversity, equity and inclusion. But this town hall gave us an opportunity to come to terms with the issues our employees were facing inside our very own walls,” she explains. “In true Tufts Health Plan fashion, we told our employees, ‘We hear you, we stand with you, and we support you.’”
It wasn’t the first-time employees were hearing this message. Five years ago, CEO Tom Croswell began a comprehensive diversity and inclusion (D&I) program that considers D&I through the lens of the workplace, plan members, suppliers, and the community. With hard work and true commitment, Croswell and his team have advanced diversity goals and emerged as a leader in D&I best practices.
The D&I business imperative
It is not enough to say you are going to support diversity, Croswell explains. “You need to have intentionality. You need to set objectives and give them visibility within the organization, up to and including the Board.”
At Tufts Health Plan, D&I metrics are widely shared, and every department is held accountable to clear diversity goals. For this reason, Bob Rivers, CEO of Eastern Bank, the largest community bank in Massachusetts, sees Tufts Health Plan as a “go-to-partner” for idea sharing and community advocacy as the bank works to advance its own diversity goals.
“Recognizing the business case and linking it to business activities—that’s what makes it sustainable,” Rivers explains, “and that’s the philosophy Tom and others at Tufts Health Plan embrace.”
The business case for diversity was on Croswell’s mind five years ago, when he created the business diversity officer role, held by Juan Lopera. “We specifically chose that title because we wanted to emphasize the business imperative for the focus on diversity, and to make it clear that this was not going to be simply celebrating the diversity of our employee population, but was intended to be a broader focus across multiple dimensions,” Croswell says.
As a health insurance provider serving 1.2 million customers members across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, the “business imperative” was to attract and better serve diverse customers. Lopera explains how demographics have shifted nationally and regionally. “We looked at our customer base and how that compared to the shift in demographics, and we saw a significant opportunity to increase our footprint within diverse consumer segments.”
Since 2015, Tufts Health Plan has increased membership diversity by 42%, primarily driven by growth within its highly-diverse government-sponsored and subsidized products. But growing its footprint was not the sole objective. In 2018, to improve service for non-English speaking members, Tufts Health Plan launched its Multicultural Service Program (MSP) to train Spanish-speaking call center reps on health insurance interpretation and preferred communication, partnering with Bunker Hill Community College to offer MSP training as part of the school’s Medical Interpreting Certificate Program. The MSP program has also resulted in high retention of multicultural talent.
Tufts Health Plan is also committed to understanding health inequities in its community by collecting and analyzing member race, ethnicity and language data and rolling out programs to improve outcomes for everyone. For example, its Doula-By-My-Side program provides its Medicaid members access to a doula free of charge throughout their pregnancy and delivery to improve health outcomes for mothers and their babies.To advance its commitment to economic inclusion, Tufts Health Plan serves on local organizations, such as the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Pacesetters, a group committed to using procurement purchasing power to close the racial wealth gap. Croswell says that over the past five years, the company has done about $80 million in contracts with diverse suppliers and increased its yearly spend from about $4 million to almost $20 million a year by mandating the company include one certified diverse supplier in every bid.
Building an inclusive workplace
The company tries to create a workforce that mirrors its customer base and reflects its values. About 36% of Tuft Health Plan’s 3,000-plus employees are ethnically diverse, which is greater than the average in Massachusetts (27%). About a quarter of the organization belongs to one of five Business Resource Groups, employee-run organizations aimed at celebrating diversity, driving career advancement, impacting diverse communities and supporting commerce initiatives across the plan’s various lines of business.
Howse recalls her impressions interviewing for her position three years ago. She could tell Tufts Health Plan was sincere in its mission to improve health and wellness for diverse communities, and in its commitment to internal diversity.
“It was refreshing to come into a company and actually see other people of color,” she says.
Lydia Greene, senior VP and chief HR officer at Tufts Health Plan, is proud of their progress, but committed to improving diversity at the leadership level, too. The plan’s Diverse Slate policy states employees must include at least two diverse candidates when recruiting externally for manager-and-above positions. Currently, about 18% of leadership is ethnically diverse, and Greene would like to see that figure improve.
She believes championing inclusion is a never-ending initiative and urges companies to dig deeper “to understand the real issues your diverse employees face in the workplace, and in the broader community.”
Greene led Tuft Health Plans’ first Unconscious Bias day in 2019—an event that laid the groundwork for company listening sessions after Floyd’s murder.
“We literally put up huge sheets of paper and asked people to share their experiences with unconscious bias,” she says. “I feel very proud we were brave enough to open that Pandora’s Box because a lot of issues came flooding out, and we’re continuing to address them.”
Recent efforts include launching a multiethnic anti-racism task force and doubling down on efforts to advance Black leaders within the organization, for example, by updating the Diverse Slate policy to stipulate at least one of the two diverse candidates should be Black.
It also helps that for Croswell, it is personal. He recalls in the seventies, when a Black woman on his team quit because she didn’t feel comfortable in the company. Experiences like this heightened his interest in diversity, and his commitment to getting it right.
Rivers notes that it is this self-improvement mindset that makes Tufts Health Plan a D&I leader. The Tufts Health Plan team will be the first to say more work is needed, but their progress gives him hope that, in the wake of Floyd’s gruesome death, “this moment might actually become a movement,” as more Boston-area companies work to enact meaningful change.
“While we can’t single-handedly address long-standing inequalities, we can start by changing ourselves,” Croswell explains, “not simply by acknowledging that racism exists but proactively establishing policies to eliminate it.”