Diversity is a complicated term because it covers so many topics: age, race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, etc. As an environmental services manager, I experience diversity each day. Working with people from different ethnic backgrounds has made the biggest impact on my life. In the past four years, I have worked with more than 500 staff members spanning three hospitals in Minneapolis, and I have learned two key life lessons to success with diversity: listen and learn.

Before moving to Minneapolis, I thought I was well-versed in human behavior; after all, I had lived in 11 states and just finished my bachelor’s degree in business administration. My first job out of college was as an environmental services supervisor at the University of Minnesota Medical Center–Riverside Campus. What I quickly learned was that I knew very little about the world. I was working with more than 200 employees, the majority of whom were from Africa. I knew nothing about their cultures, beliefs, eating habits, work ethic or style of communication. My first life lesson was to listen to my employees.

I spent a lot of time listening to employees in the beginning simply because I was unaccustomed to the different dialects of the employees; likewise, they often did not understand what I was trying to say. When one employee told me that his time card was incorrect, I could not understand what he was saying. He became impatient and began walking out of the office when I said, “Stop, I want to solve your issue and I will listen to you until we figure it out.” We eventually figured it out and he thanked me and told me I was one of the first managers to not give up and really try to help. Little did I know how much of an impact that would make; soon employees from all shifts were coming to see me with problems. I love to read and learn new things, so my next step was going to the library to pick up some books.

I began researching the cultural backgrounds of my employees. I learned about the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which explained the bad blood between certain employees in the department. I learned why Muslim women did not shake my hand and learned the proper form of greeting. I learned about the Tibetan New Year and the fight to free Tibet. I learned about Ramadan and the different types of fasting during the year. I learned more about the world in two years than I did in my previous 30 years.

Always remember to dedicate time each day for the employees, and listen to their concerns. Learn about them as people, not just as another full-time equivalent. Finally, respect all employees and embrace the diverse workforce; you may learn some life lessons of your own.   

Patrick Covington, T-CHEST, is an operations manager at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.