Talking Openly in the Workplace About Income Disparity

Wage disparity is a complex issue; when an organization tries to become part of the solution, it is better suited to meet the needs of its employees and customers.

Income inequality or income disparity—the extent to which income is distributed unevenly between a city or country’s wealthy population and everyone else—is a growing problem in the United States. Household income inequality in this country is greater now than it was before the Great Recession.

The City of Boston, where 23 percent of Boston Medical Center (BMC) HealthNet Plan’s employees live, is among the top three cities in the country with the largest income gap according to the Brookings Institute.

Organizational Change

To address the issue of income inequality in the U.S., a cultural change needs to happen, and employers and employees can play an important role in this effort. It is important for organizations to start a dialogue on income disparity with employees. As a nonprofit managed care organization committed to providing the highest quality health-care coverage to underserved populations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, BMC HealthNet Plan is taking steps to be part of this conversation. Our company recently held the second program in an ongoing series titled “This is Where We Live.” The forum was open to all employees and held during a lunch hour when they are more available. The event was well received and included top executives, managers and mid- and entry-level employees. The discussion featured expert panelists Reginald Nunnally, executive director of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts; John Barros, chief of Economic Development for the City of Boston; Marlene Kim, professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Megan Costello, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement with the City of Boston. It was facilitated by Alberto Vasallo, president and CEO of El Mundo newspaper and host of Urban Update. The panelists shared thoughts on Boston’s income disparity gap, its relation to race and gender, and answered questions from BMC HealthNet Plan employees.

Economic Mobility

The forum’s conversation reflected issues that affect both BMC HealthNet Plan employees, and the communities it serves. One topic discussed was how economic mobility contributes to income disparity and how it becomes difficult for individuals to improve their economic status when cities have a lower minimum wage coupled with rising rent prices. Boston is widely considered to be one of the most expensive cities to live in the country. Half of the city’s renters must allocate an average of 70 percent of their income toward rent. With less money to spend on food and other necessities, families become unstable, which creates a less productive city economy. Many of our members, as well as some employees, struggle with this issue every day. As an organization, we need to work to address the strain on economic mobility to better serve our clients and take care of our staff.

In support of that effort, we partnered with the City of Boston to sign on to the 100% Talent Compact, a public-private partnership committed to closing the gender wage gap and making Boston a top place to work for women. As part of this partnership, we recently hosted a salary negotiation workshop, open to all employees, to help them cultivate the skills it takes to negotiate salary and career moves.

Workplace Diversity

Another issue discussed at the forum was the need for people at higher levels of organizations to look more like the consumers they serve, as they bring new perspectives and experiences. Organizations need to create a better pathway to promotion for minorities and women. It’s not enough to just acknowledge it—it’s time for us to start doing something about it. Companies need to commit to hiring minority and women employees with the promise of equal pay and career advancement opportunities. At BMC HealthNet Plan, we recently launched an Employee Mentor Program to accelerate employee development. It allows mentees to receive support from more experienced employees and to increase their perspective and knowledge of different functions within the organization.


The middle class continues to shrink, and more Americans are falling below the poverty line. By understanding our employees’ issues, we are able to better appreciate what is going on in the communities we serve. Wage disparity is a complex issue; when an organization tries to become part of the solution, it is better suited to meet the needs of its employees and customers. Listening and sharing ideas on topics such as income disparity is crucial to successful communication inside and outside the workplace.

Stephen Barrett is vice president of Human Resources & Diversity at Boston Medical Center HealthNet Plan As a member of BMC HealthNet Plan’s Senior Leadership Team, Barrett is responsible for leading both strategic and day-to-day operations of all Human Resource functions. He is the founder and leader of the organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, which was developed to champion a culture of inclusion for all.