Raising Awareness of Diversity
Diversity is defined as differences between people, including age, gender, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, socio-economic status, education level, gender identity, sexual orientation, and physical, emotional, and mental abilities.1 Differentiating within such categories is natural but limits the ability to work with and learn through diversity.
In 2014, the 108,427 veterinarians who worked in the United States were minimally diverse.2 Currently, 80% of veterinary students are women3 and 12% are non-Caucasian Americans,3 so the veterinary workforce will remain homogenous. Also, 95% of veterinary nurses are women.4 However, the US population of more than 322 million5 is highly diversified, so how can teammates and clients feel comfortable in a veterinary practice?
3 Steps to a Diverse Practice
Ensuring that everyone’s cultural characteristics are valued and appreciated paves the way for engaging and satisfying team and client interactions. Diversity in veterinary practices assures no one is left behind and everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
First, raising awareness of diversity in the workplace involves every team member developing cultural competence, which is defined as cultural awareness and the knowledge, skills, and behaviors for successful interactions with people of diverse backgrounds.6 Helping team members be aware of their individual culture is key to developing cultural competence because people operate from their own sets of values, beliefs, and morals gleaned from their family, religious beliefs, life experiences, education, friends, media, and society. Then, take the time to explore how perceptions, prejudices, fears, and stereotypes are formed to uncover unknown judgments and allow differences to be reframed as valuable assets.
Next, recognize differences as diversity rather than labeling them as wrong, abnormal, or inappropriate. Learning to appreciate team members’ and clients’ dissimilar values and behaviors and seeking out the benefits they bring to the practice leads to inclusion. A veterinary practice that strives to be inclusive likely achieves a domino effect: more diversity leads to greater productivity, better service, and a more economically sound practice.7 Inclusive team members are conscious of similarities rather than blinded by differences.
The third step involves learning more about diversity during interactions with team members and clients and being open to their unique experiences and beliefs. Team members can expand their knowledge of diversity by reading histories of different cultures and biographies of people from varying backgrounds, attending cultural events, and watching movies.
Put Knowledge Into Action
Cultural competence includes developing skills to work with diverse groups. Instead of focusing on how someone differs, be curious and treat any difference as an opportunity to grow mutual understanding. Respond sincerely and make an effort to understand, paving the way for effective working relationships.
Acknowledge what has been heard or seen through empathy, seek further information through open-ended questioning, and listen to responses. Seek others’ perspectives, even if they are not completely understood, to gain empathy and enhance comprehension.
Mrs. Williams, I want to hear where you and your husband are coming from [eliciting client perspective].
I understand that your religious beliefs do not condone euthanasia as an option for Max [empathy].
I’m wondering if you could tell me more about your beliefs [eliciting client perspective] so we can work together to plan how to care for both you and Max [offering partnership].
This is an extremely difficult decision [empathy] because you love Max deeply and want to do what is best for him, and we need to choose an option that aligns with your beliefs [offering partnership].
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Actively seek cultural competence by being curious during cross-cultural interactions and sincerely seeking others’ perspectives. The statement Actions speak louder than words holds true. Accept others to promote inclusion and grow the practice by reaching a more diverse, possibly previously underserved, clientele.8 Treat differences as opportunities, focus on similarities, and promote shared beliefs to demystify stereotypes and break down barriers.
LISA HUNTER, LSW, an alumnus of Colorado State University, is an advocate of the human–animal bond and veterinary–client communication, and interim clinical counselor for The Argus Institute at Colorado State University.
FUN FACT: A Colorado native, Lisa lives in Fort Collins with her husband, children, dogs, chickens, and one mischievous rabbit.
JANE R. SHAW, DVM, PhD, is associate professor of Veterinary Communication for Professional Excellence at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She is a recognized expert in veterinarian–client–patient interactions. Jane implements the communication curriculum at CSU and conducts skills-based communication workshops nationally and internationally.
FUN FACT: Jane’s grandmother was one of the ladies in the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” commercial.
Lead the way toward a diverse practice by raising awareness, recognizing differences, and being open to team members’ and clients’ unique experiences and beliefs.
Evaluate your own cultural competency before embarking on team training, as team members will respond to your actions more than your lectures.
Recognize that empathy (ie, one of your superpowers) combined with cultural competence can help you bridge communication gaps with team members and clients.
You are frequently the first point of contact with clients; be curious and learn about their differences to achieve mutual understanding and build stronger relationships.