When Highmark Health VP of Diversity and Inclusion Lonie Haynes and other veteran-employees began discussing the need for a business resource group (BRG) focused on veterans, they all agreed that the group’s mission should go beyond just hiring more veterans. Although recruiting and developing veteran talent was a central purpose, they also saw how veteran employees could help Highmark Health speak to and hear the veteran community at large. The name they selected for the BRG reflects that: Voices of Employees That Served, or V.E.T.S.
HM Health Solutions Director Jonathan Edmonds, the chair of the V.E.T.S. BRG, puts it simply: “The V.E.T.S. BRG is really here to help Highmark Health understand the value of the veteran, and help the veteran understand the value of Highmark Health,” he says. “No matter what the relationship might be — employer/employee, insurer/member, doctor/patient — the V.E.T.S. BRG helps bridge that gap and gain better understanding in both directions.”
That includes helping the company’s business units to serve veterans in their markets. From health coverage and care to strategy development and marketing, the V.E.T.S. BRG helps Highmark Health companies match what they provide, and how they communicate, with the unique needs and situations of veterans and their families. United Concordia, one of Highmark Health’s affiliated businesses, has a five-year contract to administer the TRICARE Dental Program — which includes dental benefits for nearly 2 million uniformed service active-duty members, National Guard and Reserve members, and their families.
When it comes to helping providers communicate with veterans, Edmonds says, “I’m generalizing, but the military member is one who is very stoic and of service, and may not always seek out the care they need. They may feel that it’s not important enough or that they have to be tougher than that. We have to find ways to reach that community and help them understand how to use the system effectively.”
Within Highmark Health, V.E.T.S. partners with the talent acquisition team to attract veterans, as well as supporting veteran employees who are already part of Highmark Health. The group has been actively involved in pre-hiring work, including attending Veterans Job Fairs and other recruiting events, and working directly with veterans on tasks like how to “translate” their military experience for a business resume or an interview. That “translation” support goes both ways; V.E.T.S. and its members also help business leaders to understand the meaning and value of what a veteran candidate did while in the military.
Haynes points out that if an employer isn’t acquainted with military roles and the relevant terminology, they may not initially see where a candidate will fit in. He said it’s important — for both veteran candidates and employers — to break roles down into the related skill sets and strengths involved.
“For example, we had a former officer who was applying for a position at Highmark and had been a bomb technician in the military,” he says. “When you really sit down and take a look at what that means, he understands logistics, because he had to design where the bomb would be set. He understands mathematics because he had to plot the coordinates and make the calculations to detonate a bomb three miles away. He understands project management, and coordination, and leadership, because he managed a whole team of people involved in setting up and detonating bombs. He’s a ‘bomb technician’ on paper, but his skill set and experience, once you understand it, make him a great candidate for program management or forecasting or other roles in the workplace.”
One formal activity in this regard has been conducting training sessions with talent acquisition on reading military resumes and understanding military experience, and Edmonds says those sessions are being rolled out to hiring managers across the organization. He adds that these efforts have helped veterans who “may not have found their way into Highmark Health had we not been out there educating the community about veteran needs and working with our talent acquisition team to address the challenges.” He says that where veterans had been unsuccessful with other companies because “it just wasn’t connecting,” V.E.T.S. has been able to help translate a candidate’s skills and experiences to make that connection. “We have some very successful employees providing great value, but without that extra effort, we may have missed out on them,” he points out.
V.E.T.S. helps Highmark Health’s existing veteran-employees in numerous ways, including bringing them together for camaraderie. Haynes says one of the group’s goals has been to create a buddy system, so every newly hired veteran can have an ally who is either a fellow veteran, or a spouse/parent/sibling of a veteran. The buddy is available not just to help navigate workplace issues, but also outside the workplace. “Sometimes it’s the simple things,” Haynes explains. “There’s a good chance you moved to a new region when you left the military and entered the workplace. It can be helpful just to have someone you trust who can give you tips about finding a house, schools, shopping, sports and recreation, the basics.”
One potential challenge for veterans in the hiring process can also be a tremendous asset at Highmark Health: their focus on the mission. The challenge, as Edmonds explains, is that military culture can be so focused on the team and the mission that “it’s difficult for some military personnel to talk about and ‘sell’ themselves or their individual contributions, because in their mind they worked as a team.”
However, the military mindset is a great fit in a fast-changing industry like health care and as part of a highly collaborative, purpose-driven culture like Highmark Health. “Veterans have been a part of an environment that is dynamic and mission-focused, very much like Highmark Health,” he says. “Veterans are agile — they’re able to adapt to surroundings and situations very quickly.”
The sense of shared mission at Highmark Health is very familiar to veterans. “It’s similar to the military mindset, where it’s about the mission and service to the country and doing something bigger than yourself,” Edmonds says. “That’s what we aspire to at Highmark Health as well — doing something bigger than ourselves, being of service to our community and country by providing better means to better health.”
A sense of shared mission extends to partnering with different groups to support veteran-related causes and needs like housing, and doing volunteer work throughout the community. In the past, V.E.T.S. has partnered with groups like the United Way and the Veterans Leadership Program on a range of service projects.
The earliest meetings to talk about forming a V.E.T.S. BRG took place in 2014 and involved about 10 people. From there, the organization has grown to nearly 100, with solid representation from every branch of the armed services. Like other business resource groups, V.E.T.S. is open to everyone: veterans, family members of veterans, and people who just want to be good allies in helping veteran-employees and pitching in to support the mission.
The group’s activities have expanded by leaps and bounds too. As one quick example, in 2015, members of the group got together to help a veteran family with Christmas presents; by 2016, they helped 12 families with Christmas presents and another 25 families with food at Thanksgiving, and they’re continuing both holiday season efforts again in 2017.
High-level successes include development of a corporate strategy to attract, hire and retain veterans and military personnel; a private gathering of business and community leaders in Pittsburgh to discuss a regional strategy around supporting military personnel, veterans and their families, featuring Highmark Health Plan President Deborah Rice-Johnson and attorney and human rights activist Ted Kennedy Jr.; and partnering with the United Way of Allegheny County to host military forums to develop a strategy for local businesses and nonprofits to partner in supporting military personnel, veterans and their families.
Looking ahead, Haynes says the group will continue getting more involved in events like the Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community to be a more visible presence. “We want the community to know that Highmark Health is a veteran-friendly organization, that we value their service to the nation, and we understand the value they can bring to our workplace, and our mission in improving health care,” he says. “We’re here to help, we’re here to volunteer where needed, and we want to see veterans thrive in the workplace and in the community.”
He adds that the group has strong senior executive support from V.E.T.S. BRG champion, Deb Rice-Johnson. She recently formed an executive council — the Military Advisory Council (M.A.C.) — specifically to support Highmark Health’s overarching strategy around veterans and the military. Comprised of senior executives throughout the enterprise, including several veterans, “The Military Advisory Council will support our strategy to recruit, retain, and develop transitioning veteran and military personnel,” Haynes explains. “Deb’s belief was that rallying and engaging senior leaders from across the organization would change the trajectory of our military strategy. M.A.C. will partner with the V.E.T.S. BRG, Talent Solutions, Talent Management and Diversity & Inclusion to advise on and advocate for our enterprise strategy to become the employer of choice for veterans, military personnel and their families.”
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