Peter Anumu (who gifted the team clothes from his trips to Ghana) Nelly Sierra, Jessica Rivera, Oak Leavitt, Miriam Foster, Josh Brown, Justine Wallace.
Addressing Discrimination With Your Team
After receiving feedback from an employee survey, Community Clinics Environmental Services Director Jess Rivera pulled her team together to address workplace discrimination. She shares insights from her journey to break down barriers and create a safe, inclusive work environment for all.

desire to lead was created with the realization that leadership came with the awesome opportunity to create positive change in other people’s lives. While I didn’t start my leadership journey in environmental services, it was the heart of the people who kept me here. Today, I have the pleasure of leading over 80 high-quality humans in various roles, including supervisors and custodians. While the majority of my team are women with limited English proficiency who come from many different countries, all of my employees are unique with diverse backgrounds. It was especially heartbreaking to hear that through the Well-Check employee survey, our custodians had rated us low on: “My organization values and respects employees across gender, race, age, religion and ability.” I felt responsible, that someone I love was being treated poorly. 

When my leadership team first saw the results, we decided with our organizational development consultant Michael Danielson to bring it to our teams and ask the question “As your leadership team, what should we be doing?” We meet in-person, once a month with our teams at their respective health centers.

At these meetings, I first thanked them for their participation in the Well-Check survey and explained the importance of why we ask these questions. During these conversations, it quickly became clear that custodians defined their team broadly to include the place where they work, and anyone working at their health center.

I then followed up “Tell me more about that, why don’t you feel respected in those locations?” 

Their responses devastated me. Our employees weren’t being disrespected by leadership – they were facing discrimination in the health centers where they worked. Instead of a 30-minute discussion, their stories filled entire meetings.

The trending theme was not being acknowledged and not being included in the team. 

Why don't you feel respected?

Jess asked her team members to reflect on experiences that left them feeling disrespected or excluded.

"I said 'Hello' to a clinical team member every day for almost a year. She made eye contact, but never responded. Then one day, she came around her desk, offered me Chapstick, and said, 'This is for you. They’re giving it to us because we’re all wearing masks and our lips get chapped.' I just stood there frozen. I couldn't believe she was talking to me–I didn’t know what to do." 
"When I’d collect trash, one woman refused to acknowledge me. I’d say, 'Hi, may I take your trash?' Sometimes she’d move, but she never spoke or looked at me. I tried asking, 'How’s your day going?'  Nothing. Then, after many months, she finally said something. I laughed awkwardly and told her, 'Iwas worried you couldn’t talk - you’ve never spoken to me until now.”'
"When I attempted to collect trash one provider was so rigid, he refused to move. One day, I felt like he rolled his chair into me on purpose. Another provider in the area observed this but didn’t address his colleague. He knew it was wrong, but instead of confronting the problem, I was met outside the office and was offered me a gift card and said, 'I'm sorry this keeps happening. I feel bad, and I just want you to know I appreciate you.'” 

Listening to their stories about how they were overlooked and excluded every day made me feel hurt, enraged, and guilty that the people I loved had suffered so long in silence. And that worse, they even felt they had done something to deserve this treatment. They just took this discriminatory behavior on the chin and continued to show up as their best selves, awesome individuals determined to keep smiling and be kind, even in the face of mistreatment.  

Confronting the problem 

After I listened to my team recount their experiences and some reflection time, I realized I had faced similar discrimination throughout my career and responded the same - just took it on the chin.

I wondered – if I had reported those incidences all along, would my employees still be fighting for inclusion? Would they know they could take action? Why didn’t I report them? Well, you never really know if somebody is being a jerk because you’re a woman or because you’re a different race, or just because they’re a jerk. We knew we needed to educate ourselves on what discrimination is, and what it is not.

In addition, there was only so much I could do for my employees on my own and I knew this needed to be escalated. The discrimination wasn't about me or our leadership – it was about the people and places where they worked. I knew if I was going to initiate change, I’d need more help.   

With guidance and support from my Director Michael Bronson, Michael Danielson, and Trinh Mai at the Resiliency Center, I connected with the University of Utah’s Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). Sheila Sconiers of OEO offered training for our leaders, managers, directors and EVS employees. The training addressed:  

  • What discrimination is and isn’t and most importantly how you don’t have to decide or know for sure to report it.  
  • How do I report discrimination? 

  • What are our responsibilities as leaders to report discrimination? 

  • How do I have conversations with those employees, and what happens after? 

We prioritized helping our employees feel comfortable and safe reporting instances of discrimination. We didn’t want to force them to do something they didn’t want to do. Even if leadership was mandated to report an incident an employee disclosed to us, the employee could decide whether to proceed. 

This was an important nuance–that the employee needs to feel comfortable reporting. Employees are worried about retaliation, and nobody wants drama or conflict at work. Employees experiencing discrimination usually don’t want other employees to get disciplined or fired, they just want the negative behaviors to stop. It was important to be clear about what would happen after reporting and to know that an employee would be first coached about their behavior along with instructions not to seek out the discriminated employee or apologize.

The immediate impact 

With support from Michael Bronson, we presented the concerns at the directors’ weekly huddle, where directors across Community Clinics meet to discuss and provide input for their peers. Once I shared my employees’ stories, I experienced an outpouring of support. Some directors even expressed similar concerns within their own departments. Michael has made a concerted effort to include me in leadership meetings, along with appreciating and respecting the diversity of my team and I. . 

The next day, multiple leaders followed up with me individually to address specific concerns at their locations and brainstorm new ways to foster inclusion. I felt that my teams and I were being immediately cared for. Being a part of those meetings strengthened my team’s relationship with other departments 

Steps towards inclusion 

Since the presentation, we’ve taken important steps towards inclusion. The Directors of the Community Clinic Hubs have met with their leadership teams and informed them of the situation and our teams have seen a great response! We were highlighted in one center's newsletter. Since most of our employees begin their day at 5:30, they and their work often go unrecognized. The newsletter spotlight finally gave them a chance to introduce themselves to other teams. 

Now, every Community Clinics locations includes EVS employees in the center’s events by inviting and making sure food is set aside for those who are in later. Leaders include EVS in counts for treats and gifts.

We’ve witnessed growing respect for our team too, as other leaders show up for us, advocate for us and check in on us more often to ensure we are supported. We have a seat at the table and are included in projects and have schedules in advance, rather than receiving last-minute requests.  

What's next 

I've learned that first, we must be kind to and take care of ourselves. You can’t draw from an empty well! Prioritize your self-care, plan it out and execute it like you would any other initiative. Get your team on board and lead out so they’ll do the same with their wellness. Don’t forget to take an account of the emotional labor required as a leader. Pace yourself so you don’t get injured.

Although confronting workplace discrimination challenged us, we didn't have to face it alone. As a leader, it can feel lonely sometimes, but our organization has provided excellent support. In addition to colleagues like Michael Bronson, Dallas Martinez, Nikki Gilmore, Justin Atkinson, Jan Pagano, Thomas Kline, Tina Hepner, James Walston and David Chatterton – all who jumped at the opportunity to address these concerns for the benefit of all Community Clinic employees.

Simple kindness can create a safe space.  

People sometimes withhold kindness or respect, waiting for someone else to initiate. I tell my employees, don’t wait for them to do it just show them how. Watch how your act of a friendly voice and smile can transform someone else’s in return.  Go first with kindness to challenge assumptions.  I remember when I attended one of my first ever Leadership Meetings and I was so nervous walking in the room, but Nikki Gilmore made eye contact with me right away, smiled and asked me to come sit by her! As leaders we need to create an environment of safety and open communication so when you ask, like with the survey they will indeed tell you the hard things.

We need to have these hard conversations. If we never did the survey, never asked the questions, how long would we go on and never know? How long would I avoid confronting what had happened to me? How long would others experience the same thing? I know that I have a responsibility, not just to my employees, but to the organization that I’m proud to work for. I want it to be successful, I want it to do better, and this is the way to start making that happen. We need to remember that our EVS colleagues and many more are still experienced devaluing treatment everyday yet still showing up in big ways for our community. We need to build awareness and realize it’s hard, but it’s worth it. 

My Recommendations for Training and Support Resources

  • Organizational Development: facilitates courses with practical lessons for use not only at work but in your everyday life. Available for leader coaching so that when your emotional labor is high and you need an assist, they are great at listening and providing guidance. My consultant Michael Danielson has been incredibly helpful.
  • Employee Relations: Available for leader coaching. Call to talk things through early on, even to validate that you are on the right track in an effort to engage and retain employees and prevent disciplinary action. It’s not easy holding employees accountable and keeping them engaged. Let Employee Relations triage those situations with you! Jessa Hansell continues to support our teams so we can be consistent in our practices.
  • Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (OEO): As a leader, you have mandatory reporting requirements. OEO will provide training to you and your teams about what discrimination is and what it is not. 
  • Value Engineering: This team can school you on continuous improvement, providing resources, training and mentorship all with improving engagement for your team.
  • Resiliency Center & BIPOC support group: Trinh Mai has helped me untangle my feelings from my past experiences so I can educate people from a place of healing and wholeness. 

Jessica Rivera

Director, Community Clinics Environmental Services, University of Utah Health

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