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Why Employers Must Embrace a Bold Approach to DE&I

Published almost 2 years ago • 7 min read

For this week's Workplace Intelligence newsletter, I interviewed Karthik Ganesh, the CEO and Board Director at EmpiRx Health, a category creator and the industry’s only value-based pharmacy benefits manager. Karthik has built EmpiRx Health into a high-growth, high-innovation company, and also the most clinically-advanced PBM in the industry. Under his leadership, EmpiRx Health has earned recognition as a multi-year Inc. 5000 company, Certified Great Place to Work, and Deloitte Technology Fast 500 company.

Karthik’s background also includes leadership roles at Aetna, Express Scripts, Deloitte, and EY. Author of
The Happiness Model: A Roadmap to Inner Peace, Karthik is a prolific writer and speaker on healthcare issues, leadership, and resilience, and has been featured in leading industry journals and podcasts.

In our conversation, we discussed how EmpiRx Health is challenging the status quo with its approach to DE&I, and how this has helped the company earn its Great Place to Work certification three years in a row. Read on for Karthik’s insights on this important topic.

1. EmpiRx Health has cultivated extremely deliberate recruitment and retention practices, at the forefront of which is experiential diversity. Can you tell us more about your company’s achievements in this area, and explain what you mean by “experiential diversity”?

We have absolutely embraced deliberate recruitment and retention practices with DE&I squarely at the center, and we have exceptional numbers to show for that ― a leadership team that is 67% women, and a workforce that is also 67% women, 40% people of color, and spans four generations.

While our numbers are impressive, our focus transcends meeting or exceeding quotas. Looking deeper into the numbers, we recognize the power of curating a workforce that brings diverse ideas to the table. And when we speak about experiential diversity, it’s a much broader concept than race and gender. It’s the richness of life experiences a diverse workforce brings that holds the greatest promise.

As a thriving company leading the transformation of healthcare, what benefit is it to us to continually hire individuals in our same space with the same backgrounds and credentials? Not much, because a cookie-cutter workforce won’t help us innovate.

We know our company can think differently, challenge the status quo, and grow more effectively with different worldviews. Expanding our talent pool in several ways — including geographically and across industry, background, and national origin — has brought us fresh perspectives, new ideas, and innovative solutions. Our growth numbers directly reflect this.

We believe that everyone has life experiences that are strengths they can bring to the table. Strengths-based development has become a staple at EmpiRx Health for this reason. We invested in CliftonStrengths as an enterprise-wide initiative to ensure we tap into people’s strengths and lead by them.

2. There is a very real mental health component to DE&I that is perhaps less straightforward but just as impactful. Can you tell us more about this, and describe the steps EmpiRx Health has taken to address mental health within your DE&I strategy?

Mental health challenges and experiences shape our mindset. In the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, we were and remain concerted in our efforts to hire black people. But we also recognize that people of color and those with diverse backgrounds can experience unique stressors in the workplace.

With this in mind, we adopted strong mental health support within our DE&I strategy because a diverse workplace requires it. Did we invest heavily in mental health support tools? Of course. But on a deeply personal front, we had multiple employees speak candidly to the entire company about their individual mental health struggles, personal DE&I journeys, and how they’ve coped with these challenges in their lives. A diverse workforce demands we embrace unique perspectives with the utmost respect and support of their personal journeys.

This means that companies must be unafraid to encourage these conversations. The fact that our employees felt comfortable enough to have these conversations is a testament to the inclusive culture of our workplace. Normalizing these mental health conversations nurtures a deep sense of belonging, which is critical to creating an environment that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

3. Part of a successful DE&I strategy is encouraging authenticity and individuality. Why is this so important, and how does EmpiRx Health accomplish this? What advice do you have for leaders who are struggling to foster authenticity, especially among their remote or hybrid teams?

Without question, authenticity and individuality are necessary constructs for a successful DE&I strategy and employee engagement. Authenticity is showing up as your true self, while individuality is bringing your unique qualities. To foster both we must create a psychologically safe environment. How we do it starts with leadership.

As leaders, we must develop organizations whose hallmarks are authenticity and vision across the enterprise. Leaders must set the tone by listening and responding respectfully to feedback, owning mistakes, encouraging opinions, and valuing employees for who they are as individuals as well as their performance. We’ve rewarded and fired people on this principle alone. Companies that create an authentic environment will allow for more creative expression, productive discussion, and innovative thinking.

No two people are alike and embracing individuality in the workplace means recognizing and encouraging people to bring their unique qualities to the forefront. Doing so helps organically create a stronger company and culture. Our CliftonStrengths investment was the centerpiece of our “Get to Know Yourself” initiative in which every employee received a detailed assessment to identify their top strengths. Managers are empowered to create opportunities that maximize an individual’s strengths on their team, resulting in a highly engaged workforce that feels seen and heard in ways that are motivating and natural to each individual.

It's extremely possible to encourage authenticity and individuality across remote and hybrid teams. In fact, we’ve seen that our remote employees are more engaged than many of our in-office staff. Leading with inclusivity and a sense of belonging is critical to fostering authenticity and individuality across work teams.

At EmpiRx Health, this begins on day zero. Each new employee ― hybrid, remote, or in-office ― is assigned a buddy who reaches out a week before their start date and maintains regular and frequent touchpoints throughout their onboarding. Coming in the door, the new employee has a solid understanding of the lay of the land and a “friend” to serve as a guide in navigating their new workplace.

Some of our other initiatives this year include virtual meetups to give our remote people more opportunities to interact with each other and form bonds. Our Values In Action committee is focused on creating an even more inclusive environment with initiatives that embrace diversity and are valuable to all.

4. Women were much more likely than men to leave the workforce due to COVID-19, and the past few years have revealed other issues like pay disparities and a lack of employer support. Yet at EmpiRx Health, 67% of your leadership team are women – what sets your company apart as a “great place to work” for female employees and executives?

I’m extremely proud of our Great Place to Work certification, which we’ve received over three consecutive years, as well as our 80% retention rate. It’s because of our focus on being a best-in-class employer that we’ve felt no impact from the Great Resignation, and that’s also why representation of women in our company and within our health and welfare strategies is incredible.

As we know, many women felt forced to resign from full-time positions during the pandemic because of the challenges they faced across the home and work fronts. Unfortunately, the responsibility of child and elder care rests disproportionately on the shoulders of women. But this should not be a burden either for a woman or an organization. Our belief is that companies should view this disparity as an opportunity to reassess and humanize their benefit strategies and create better solutions to retain talent.

EmpiRx Health put in place more deliberate benefit and financial strategies to make our company a great place to work for women and working moms. We are in fact an aberration when it comes to pay equity, with a pay scale that is actually in favor of women. Additionally, extremely family-friendly benefits and flexible work arrangements have helped our women employees better balance their family and work responsibilities.

Uniquely, we have promoted women while they are on maternity leave and supplemented state benefits to make them whole on the income front. Although we are a small company that requires people to hit the ground running, we have served as a launch pad for workforce re-entry ― hiring women who have been out of the workforce for 10+ years. We firmly maintain that our results and growth are because we have committed to be a Great Place to Work for all women.

5. What do you think the future holds for organizational DE&I, and what are EmpiRx Health’s long-term ambitions and commitments in this area?

There has never been a more important time for leaders to take a stance in terms of what matters to them. Employees are looking for cues from their leaders and those cues directly impact the workplace culture. This means not being afraid to have difficult conversations, and instead encouraging them — on topics that include Black Lives Matter, South Asian hate, antisemitism, and DE&I, among other things.

Organizations have to be socially conscious, because they have the ability to significantly influence the communities where their people work and live. However, our viewpoint is less about specific goals and outcomes and more focused on the journey. We are not incremental in our thinking, and complacency is not an option. EmpiRx Health is keeping its foot on the gas, continuing to embrace core values that require big commitments.

If we had one goal, I would say that it’s to embrace the philosophy and value system that make EmpiRx Health who we are. DE&I is in our DNA and needs to be constantly nurtured for us to be effective. Our company takes an extremely strong stand against discrimination while embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. My hope is the culture of inclusivity we’ve achieved can help people take a firmer stance with a stronger voice when they observe racism and discrimination in their day-to-day lives.

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