How to Promote a Culture of Belonging in Pharmacy

Companies that incorporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) into their everyday operations will be instrumental in shaping a new standard in their workforce and ultimately in society.

“It’s only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued that we can start to get a full picture of the world, who we serve, what they need, and how to successfully meet people where they are.”

~ Brene Brown

The reckoning of racial justice protesters from the turbulent summer of 2020 has made many of us question our roles and wonder how effective we have been in combating systemic racism in the United States. Many of us have even been asking ourselves whether we have an unconscious bias toward certain groups of people.

Many companies have taken an active role by stepping back and reflecting on systemic racism. Corporations have gone above and beyond to publish statements on the big three: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

Many have taken an active role by revisiting their business practices, bylaws, strategic goals, and delivery models to demonstrate their seriousness about DEI. On LinkedIn, there has been a surge of senior level positions advertised with an emphasis on DEI. Many companies are engaging consultants or hiring an internal DEI expert, as well as investing in tools to assess their employees and policies.

Making a big statement about DEI is one thing, but making real change is hard! If long-lasting change is going to permeate our business culture, companies must incorporate DEI into their day-to-day operations.

This is contrary to what we see in many companies, where DEI is viewed as an HR compliance requirement or an obligatory box to check. It is not! DEI is everyone’s responsibility.

Companies that incorporate DEI into their everyday operations will be instrumental in shaping a new standard in their workforce and ultimately in society. An organization that creates a culture in which differences—including sexual orientation, faith, race, age, gender and more—are valued and respected, sends a welcoming message of belonging. To promote a culture of belonging, there must be an ongoing commitment to a culture of accountability, trust, learning, and understanding of what DEI really is.

Many terms related to DEI are used interchangeably, yet they hold different meanings.

Diversity is a collective term that can only make sense in relationship to others. An individual can be unique, but only a group can be diverse.

An individual can be a woman of color, member of LGBTQ+, identify as male or female, from a certain age group, and more. However, having a diverse team means having members from a variety of sexes, LGBTQ+ identities, races, age groups, levels of work expertise, etc, each of whom has a different perspective.

Diversity expert Verna Myers remarks that if diversity is being invited to a party, inclusion is being invited to dance at the party. If diversity is equal representation from each group, inclusion is about welcoming, leveraging, and valuing those different perspectives in decision making.

In other words, a company can make a statement that they have a diverse team, but that does not mean those team members with a marginalized identity feel included, welcomed, or valued. In brief, diversity itself does not guarantee inclusion.

For starters, it is important to realize that diversity and inclusion are not possible without empathy. If you are an employer, you show empathy by caring about the well-being of your employees.

Empathy is understanding your employees through their cultural lens or perspective. We all have different upbringings, with different cultures and sets of standards that led us to develop our unconscious biases, and these affect our perspective.

It is important to note that having an unconscious bias does not mean we are bad people; it simply means we have an ingrained feeling because of how we were taught to see the world. Being a first-generation immigrant, I grew up with my own cultural views and reservations.

For example, in the Middle East, I was conditioned not to smile at random strangers. As a result, when coming to the United States, I was perceived as overly serious for not smiling and was asked to smile more.

Our culture impacts everything we do. It impacts how we evaluate people, how we behave, dress, express ourselves, who we think has “talent” and who is the “right fit” for a position, how we perceive the role of families, and ultimately the values we hold. It is important to remind ourselves that our view is merely our own view, not necessarily the “correct” view or the one that will be held by others.

As leaders, we should have the courage to include people on our work teams who have a diverse mix of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives because that makes us all better and stronger. We must have the courage to acknowledge our own privileges and stay open to learning about our own unconscious biases and blind spots.

For example, when employees are faced with a challenge, they will try to address the challenge from their own perspective. Their perspective should not be looked at as right or wrong, just different.

As leaders, understanding diverse perspectives requires learning. Inclusion is learning the source of an employee’s perspective and being able to look at an issue from the employee’s point of view.

A company that claims to prize diversity and inclusion should welcome perspectives from many different sources: religious groups, levels of expertise, age groups, sexual orientations, differently abled bodies, racial groups, etc. When differences in perspective are valued and respected, only then we can say we are promoting a culture of belonging that is guaranteed to foster a fusion of creativity.

Brene Brown states that the greatest barrier to a culture of belonging is fitting in. She remarks: “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging does not require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

When we do not encourage differences in perspective but instead view them as right or wrong, we are promoting a culture of fitting in and seeking approval at work. Employees are human beings and humans, being a social species, are desperately looking for a connection with others. But when we promote a culture of “fitting in,” they will not be authentic and will look to sacrifice their authenticity for group acceptance.

If diversity is to be invited to the party, and inclusion is to be asked to dance, then I would say equity is giving everyone the resources that allow them to dance with abandon at the party. Equity is when a company gives equal opportunities, tools, and resources to ensure growth for all team members.

Equity is when a company recognizes that some of its employees, who are from a marginalized group, are at a cultural disadvantage. In recognizing these disadvantages, a company acknowledges that not everyone is starting from the same place, so the company makes a commitment to correct and address the imbalance. To ensure a culture of belonging, employees from marginalized groups should be empowered to voice their perspectives.

Now that we know how the difference between these terms, it is time to ask how to best ensure DEI in your organization. To successfully implement DEI, a company’s leadership needs to understand that the terms are interconnected.

To ensure a diverse representation of marginalized groups, the company needs to provide resources and tools that meet the needs of all their employees. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are outcomes.

Companies need to have metrics in place to measure outcomes related to DEI. When asked how diverse, inclusive, and equitable they are, a company needs to present measurable outcomes that demonstrate diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Simon Senik recommends that you “become the leader that you always wanted to have.”

As a leader of an organization, do you feel you are included in your organization? What helped with your inclusion and how can you use that to help your employees?

Verna Mayer reminds us that any small thing can matter to members of marginalized groups, because what may seem like a minor slight to the dominant group (a microaggression) is not minor when someone suffers it for the 50th time in their life. Acknowledging people, pronouncing their name correctly, making efforts to understand their holidays and practices, and asking questions about family practices shows that you care.

As a Muslim pharmacist, I always appreciated how my supervisor knew about Ramadan and would check on me in the middle of the day to make sure I was okay during fasting. It also meant a lot when she suggested that I work from home two days a week to help with the fasting.

Lastly, as a leader, take a few moments to notice which groups are not being represented in the initiatives you are leading for your organization. As pharmacists, we have been trained in technical matters related to patient care, such as the right dose, right patient, right timing, right price, safety, and efficacy; however, we have not had enough training in emotion-related skills, such as vulnerability, empathy, and inclusion.

Antonio Damasio suggests that “We are not necessarily thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”

The topics of race and marginalized groups make many of us uncomfortable. It is only when we dare to discuss these uncomfortable topics that we are ready to address diversity, equity, and inclusion.

When we hire or recruit new members to our teams, we should consider information from their curriculum vitae that runs counter to ways that we were trained in pharmacy school. For example, instead of looking just at the number of publications and years of experience, we should also consider things such as community service, world travel, and charity work for human rights, among others.

These are experiences that demonstrate how internationally and socially considerate a candidate is. At the end of the day, it comes down to understanding the richness each person can bring to a workplace and that our strength is in our differences. That is the true realization of DEI.

About the Author

Helen Sairany holds extensive knowledge, skills, and experiences in executive leadership, administrative management, regulatory, practice, and accreditation systems gained through her 12 years of work as a trauma informed pharmacist, State Executive and CEO for the South Carolina Pharmacy Association (SCPhA), Director of Content Development and Partnership at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), Director of Quality Assurance at the University of Duhok College of Pharmacy, and as a field provider for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq and Western Syria.

Dr. Sairany holds a Bachelor of Art from Agnes Scott College, an MBA from the University of Maryland, and a PharmD from Northeastern University.

She was recognized by the Washington Business Journal “40 Under 40” for her work on combating opioid abuse nationwide through pharmacist patient care services and trauma informed care.

She has keynoted nationally on a wide range of topics including but not limited to mental health fitness and wellbeing, racial and developmental trauma, addiction, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. She is a proud author of two books; “Trading Grenades for Candy: A Kurdish Refugee's American Journey” and “Post Traumatic Wisdom: Finding Belonging in Wake of Racial Trauma.” Her love for writing started when she blogged about her experiences living as a single woman in a male-dominated field in the Middle East. In her free time, she served as a faculty adviser for the All-Women Blogger’s Club, where she teaches young women from the minority communities how to voice their opinions through writing. She also serves as a mentor for countless number of students, residents, and fellows across the country.