HR Administration

Kaiser Permanente Optimas Award Winner for Ethical Practice

By Ed Frauenheim

Sep. 7, 2011

At Kaiser Permanente, workforce and patient diversity get more than a healthy dose of attention.

    The not-for-profit health care organization treats diversity as a vital, strategic value that is integrated throughout its operations.

    Since 2003, more than 5,000 employees have been assessed, trained and certified as qualified bilingual staff, receiving pay increases for their additional language skill. Kaiser’s Diversity, Data & Demographics Program provides physicians with culturally specific data designed to improve patient care. And the organization, starting with CEO George Halvorson, has committed to hiring and retaining a diverse staff. Five of the health care giant’s eight regional presidents are women, and of nearly 160,000 non-physician staff, 77 percent are women and 57 percent are people of color.

    Kaiser Permanente stands out for its efforts to provide culturally sensitive treatment, including diverse language services, says Ellen Wu, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network advocacy group. "We always hold up Kaiser Permanente as a leading-edge organization," she says.

    Founded in 1945, the organization prides itself on a long history of leadership when it comes to equal opportunity. But that legacy rose to a new level in the 1990s when Kaiser’s cultural competence was challenged.

    A group of members, largely made up of Chinese immigrants, left the San Francisco medical center, recalls Ron Knox, Kaiser’s chief diversity officer. Kaiser heard complaints of a complex, difficult-to-navigate system, with signs in English only and poor, Western inpatient food.

    In response, the leadership of the San Francisco medical center translated signs and established a unit dedicated to culturally competent care, where staff and clinicians spoke multiple languages.

    The initiative did more than persuade the departed group to return to Kaiser, Knox says. "Over the next year, the Chinese membership grew by 5 percent," he says.

    Connecting with the Asian population is key in San Francisco. According to the 2000 census, nearly a third of San Francisco’s population of roughly 777,000 was Asian.

    Kaiser’s success in San Francisco bolstered broader company diversity efforts under way at the time. Kaiser adopted a strategic plan for diversity in 1996. Today, the company’s diversity goals include increasing the cultural competence of its workforce and growing its membership through effective marketing.

    Kaiser’s "staff associations," focused on different minority populations, play a role in those outreach efforts. Knox says that over a decade ago, the Latino staff group took the initiative to develop marketing strategies aimed at the Latino community.

    Kaiser also has pushed to create a diverse leadership team. Half of the organization’s 14 governing board members are people of color, and 36 percent are women. Halvorson is at the center of the leadership efforts, Knox says.

    Halvorson’s top three deputies are a white man, a white woman and an African-American man.

    "It really starts from the top down," Knox says. "He leads by example." Last year, Halvorson was among eight chief executives who received the CEO Diversity Leadership Award from the Diversity Best Practices organization.

    Diversity is not just a business strategy but an ethical principle guiding the organization, Knox says.

    "It’s an inclusive approach, a holistic approach to providing care and services to the community," he says.

    For making diversity a core value in the way it relates to its workforce and patient community, Kaiser Permanente is the winner of the 2008 Optimas Award for Ethical Practice.



Oakland, California-based, Kaiser Permanente is a health plan serving 8.7 million members. It operates in nine states—including Virginia, Ohio, and California—as well as the District of Columbia. Kaiser employees nearly 160,000 non-physician staff and about 14,000 physicians. Its operating revenue in 2007 was $37.8 billion.

Kaiser Pernamanente describes itself as the nation's oldest and largest not-for-profit health maintenance organization. It provides preventative, well-baby, prenatal and emergency care; immunizations; hospital; medical and pharmacy services; and more It operates 32 medical centers and 421 medical offices.

   Workforce Management, October 20, 2008, p. 20Subscribe Now!

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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