In an organization as large as Highmark Health, employees come from many cultures and backgrounds. Honoring and blending all the differences in the workforce is vital for both individual and organizational performance — and we have an entire department devoted to making sure that happens: Diversity and Inclusion.

At the employee level, one way that Highmark Health supports diversity and inclusion is by giving employees an opportunity to participate in Business Resource Groups (BRGs). Sometimes known as Employee Resource Groups, Business Networking Groups or Business Affinity Groups, BRGs center both around providing unique perspectives that support achieving business goals and objectives, and around shared employee characteristics (generation, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) or interests (personal development, caregiving, etc.). There are currently seven Highmark Health BRGs that all work to foster an inclusive work environment and build on the strengths that come from our similarities and differences.

B-Net (Black Network), one of the organization’s first BRGs, has roots going back to 2008. Black History Month (February) is an apt time to celebrate B-Net’s work, but the group is very active in the workplace and in our communities all year round.

Leslie Brandon helping Adopt-a-Family campaign

Leslie Brandon joined other B-Net volunteers to help out with Highmark’s Adopt-a-Family campaign during the holiday season.

B-Net’s Pioneering Start: Plenty to BRAG About

Highmark Health’s Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Sara Oliver-Carter, has played a prominent role in B-Net’s development — and in developing the entire Diversity and Inclusion organizational strategy. But she emphasizes that the formal BRG program was built on a foundation created by existing employee groups and business needs.

“We reached out to our employees and said, ‘We want to start formal Business Resource Groups — what do you think?’ And then we worked with the employees and business leaders to evolve the groups from there,” she says.

Shawn Calloway, Manager of EIDA/EDW Data Quality & Control at Highmark Health, was the group’s first chairperson back in 2008, when it was known as BRAG (Black Resources Achieving Great Business Results). The 15-year Highmark veteran recalls a fervent enthusiasm in the group’s initial meetings.

“We had a ton of momentum — with a large group of participants showing up for meetings,” he says. “They were actively engaged from our very first meetings, which were generally very crowded.”

B-Net playground volunteer

Keisha “Kiki” Jenkins tests out a new KABOOM Playground slide as part of B-Net’s volunteer work during Make a Difference Day 2014.

In its first year, BRAG established volunteering committees, worked tirelessly to build awareness of the group throughout the company and helped institute a program for Highmark employees to commit to a day of service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. (This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, B-Net’s Pittsburgh and Central PA chapters did support work with the Sarah Heinz House and Boys & Girls Club, respectively.)

During his tenure, Calloway says the group worked hard to gain the attention and support of senior management by going from department to department and explaining how the BRG could add value to the company. “In my mind, that was easily the biggest accomplishment of year one,” he explains. “We wanted to set the table for a new generation of leadership.”

Those efforts paid off. B-Net continues to enjoy active executive involvement, including both an executive sponsor, Evan Frazier, Senior Vice President of Community Affairs, and an executive champion, Tom VanKirk, Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer.

B-Net’s Big Picture: Celebrating Diversity and Fostering Inclusion

Frazier emphasizes the big picture when discussing B-Net’s purpose and value. “While B-Net plays a critical role in providing support, encouragement and inspiration to employees who choose to become members, it also helps to create an overall environment that celebrates diversity within the company and throughout the community,” he explains. “B-Net also creates important value for Highmark Health as a whole through its activities, relationships, leadership development, unique perspectives and a commitment to advancing corporate goals.”

Similarly, Oliver-Carter points out that B-Net’s efforts to create a more inclusive environment take many forms.

“On the one hand, B-Net is about celebrating differences, and understanding the unique perspectives of African Americans, and how many different backgrounds are included in the black community,” she says. “There are also practical aspects of this. For example, B-Net has helped raise awareness around issues that need to be considered when the company brings on diverse groups of people who are new to the area — basic things like helping someone locate a diverse neighborhood to live in. When you bring in people of color, retention may be an issue if they don’t feel included or don’t feel part of the larger community. ”

At an even deeper level, B-Net’s presence and programming also help educate people about issues like implicit bias — the unconscious assumptions we make about specific groups of people. These assumptions can lead to a disengaged workforce as well as interpersonal challenges. Oliver-Carter explains that one way B-Net raises awareness about such assumptions is to gain more visibility for the often overlooked contributions of African Americans. That’s a key focus of B-Net’s Black History month projects, including recently partnering with Gateway Medical Society, a group of African-American doctors, on a visual display and presentation about important African-American figures from Highmark Health’s home base of Pittsburgh.

“Part of what we’re doing in Diversity and Inclusion, and with groups like B-Net, is building a collaborative and inclusive workplace that inspires better and more engaging conversations,” she says. She adds that this is also tied to raising awareness that greater diversity in the organization is a necessity to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse consumer base.

Personal, Professional and Community Support

B-Net’s current chairperson is Sharon A. Woodward, a Supervisor of Document Production at Highmark Inc. Oliver-Carter sees parallels between Sharon’s story and the story of B-Net. “Sharon has had several go-rounds with breast cancer, but she never gives up,” she explains. “She is very engaged and involved in the community, as B-Net is, because they feel a need to pay it forward and make a difference.”

Woodward took over leadership of B-Net’s Camp Hill, PA, chapter early in B-Net’s history and spearheaded many of the group’s initiatives, including collaborating with Highmark’s other pioneering BRG: the LGBTA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies) Network.

She had to take a leave of absence when she was diagnosed with breast cancer — and as she successfully fought through three rounds of treatment. But during her absence, she became aware of yet another benefit that her BRG offered: Emotional support.

“You don’t know where all your support is going to come from when you have something like that,” she says. “But having a support group from work was just phenomenal. That helped me as far as the healing process.”

Woodward emerged from that experience not only healthy, but with a renewed sense of motivation that has impacted how she sees the role of B-Net going forward. In addition to the “pay it forward” aspect of community work mentioned by Oliver-Carter, Woodward also emphasizes the group’s accomplishments in supporting personal and professional development. She points to B-Net’s “Mentoring Matters” program, which offers resources and mentoring services for group members looking for extra professional development opportunities.

In 2015, she says the group is also looking for ways to get more involved in helping Highmark compete in the health care marketplace. For example, she says B-Net members can offer valuable insights about communicating with the black community that will benefit areas like customer service and marketing.

“I’ve always taken the staff development part of this to heart,” says Woodward. “That includes providing opportunities for our BRG participants to showcase talents that may go beyond what they do in their day-to-day jobs. I believe you can do anything you want to do — you just have to have a vision and go after it.”