Black professionals who hope to reach administrative positions in hospital systems know to keep their mouths shut when it comes to issues of diversity, inclusion and race. Speak out, and they risk being branded angry or difficult, labels that stick once assigned. Better to have a silent seat at the table, than no seat at all.
Black professionals and those of other minority backgrounds also understand the necessity of collecting master's degrees, equipping themselves with multiple advanced diplomas and crossing their fingers that it's enough to prove they can do the job. Even if the same isn't expected of their white colleagues, it's a prerequisite for getting a toe in the door.
And those few minority professionals who make it to the C-suite know the importance of holding on to that position by not rocking the boat. Just being there and visible provides value and encouragement to other minority healthcare workers, students and patients.
These are a few of the truths shared recently among professionals getting their master's degrees in health administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. These unwritten rules of healthcare are mostly kept under wraps in their professional lives, but the UAB class members—doctors, nurses and administrators at health systems and other provider organizations across the country—were able to open up in the safety of a classroom setting.
Despite many of the nation's hospitals pledging to increase diversity on their boards and in their management ranks and physician workforce, and many installing chief diversity officers to that end, healthcare remains predominantly white. Racial discrimination and bias are keeping it that way.
"Speaking too much can be a killer professionally. If I speak about my experiences, then I'm perceived as weak, or I'm perceived as angry. I'm perceived as not a team player; I'm perceived as a troublemaker. So to talk about these things openly and professionally, you're setting yourself up for failure," said Dr. Julian Booker, a black MSHA student and an associate professor and medical director of cardiovascular imaging at UAB.
It's tough for minority executives working in the healthcare industry. They want a fair shot at landing administrative roles, but they aren't getting it. They want to right the wrongs they see at their organizations when it comes to racial and ethnic bias, but they can't risk the jobs they already have. Several of Booker's classmates didn't want their organizations revealed for fear of backlash.
"We're not to a comfortable place where I can have that kind of real discussion at my work environment without some repercussions in some form or fashion, which makes us uncomfortable to speak our truth," said Wardrick Griffin, assistant chief practice officer at Gadsden (Ala.) Regional Medical Center, an MSHA student who is black.
The situation may actually be worsening. Some UAB students said they feel that the tension surrounding race-related issues in the workforce, which they claimed was previously kept in check, is now bubbling to the surface in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
As one UAB student said, there's no upside and a lot of downside to speaking up: "Every time I (speak out) all it's doing is branding me and taking me lower and lower and lower down the totem pole to where it's to the possibility that there's no room for me." (Modern Healthcare is not identifying the student to keep his employer's name private.)