Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust (Pennine Care) has sought to address its disciplinary gap by increasing the capacity of the senior HR team to enable greater scrutiny and oversight, coupled with anti-racism training and education.

Pennine Care provides mental health, learning disability, and autism services to a population of 1.3 million people in parts of Greater Manchester and Derbyshire. The trust has a workforce of approximately 4,000 staff, of which 17.9% are from an ethnic minority background.

Data collected by the trust as part of the annual NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) submission for 2022/23 showed a decrease against metric three (with ethnic minority staff 1.1 times more likely, where 1 is equally as likely, to be taken through the formal disciplinary process). This was an improvement on the previous year, where ethnic minority staff were three times more likely to enter a formal disciplinary process than their white colleagues.

The NHS Providers Race Equality programme and Hempsons team spoke to Nicky Littler, director of workforce, and Shawnna Gleeson, deputy director of workforce, at Pennine Care to hear more about the organisation’s work on this topic. This case study shares details of the interventions they have implemented, their impact, the challenges faced, and advice they would give to other board members.

Specific interventions
  • Increased capacity and support in the senior HR team, by appointing a deputy director of workforce who was tasked with strengthening the oversight of cases. They review the employee relations caseload monthly in partnership with the employee relations team and head of workforce. Where disproportionality of ethnic minority staff is identified immediate reviews of these cases are undertaken. 
  • A review of how employee relations data is monitored and reported by protected characteristic and pay band. This has been in response to data that shows lower banded Agenda for Change staff are more likely to enter a disciplinary process and that there is a higher representation of ethnic minority staff in these bands. 
  • Applying a person-centred and inclusive lens to the disciplinary and grievance triage processes, examining the cause behind the action/behaviour demonstrated, where previously the focus had been procedure focused.  
  • Delivering ongoing training to enable HR colleagues to have better conversations about race. This includes programmes ranging from bullying and harassment, neurodiversity awareness, cultural awareness as well as refreshers on supporting fair employment processes. 
  • Commissioning specialist 'lessons learnt' training from employment tribunals for the HR team delivered by Hempsons. This can involve highlighting procedural failings or a revised approach for a better outcome.  
  • Increasing support from senior HR leadership to managers and members of the HR team to help navigate power imbalances that occur when a management decision conflicts with HR guidance and advice, for example a management decision to proceed to a disciplinary which a more junior HR advisor or partner may not feel able to sufficiently challenge. 
  • Mandating trust-wide anti-racism training. This is in addition to mandated equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) training. The training is due to be rolled out across the trust and provides clarity on what is unacceptable behaviour and the trust's zero tolerance approach to any form of discrimination. 
  • Reporting bi-annually on casework at all levels, including at the people and workforce committee and board by protected characteristic, pay band and role type. 

Increased governance and scrutiny, as well as staff engagement have been key enablers to reducing inequality of experience for ethnic minority staff within the disciplinary process. This includes sharing reports amongst both senior, departmental and team managers. In addition, regular staff engagement, including monthly focus sessions, is undertaken to discuss any thematic issues highlighted by the data.


The trust's Race Equality Network (REN) has been engaged and involved in the development of the EDI action plan. More specifically, the REN lead collaborates with other staff network leads, partnership (union) leads, members of the senior leadership and operational leadership teams in the trust's EDI steering group to coproduce and deliver the EDI action plan.


Increased scrutiny of workforce data and employee relations caseload (by protected characteristic) from the people and workforce committee and board, have ensured that focus on race equality and the WRES is maintained year round, where any disproportionality is identified and escalated early, and actions are taken to understand and address the cause. Any subsequent learnings are shared across the workforce team and reported into both the trust management board and operational management meetings.


Prior to this work on improving the disciplinary process, the majority of disciplinary cases received an outcome of, 'no case to answer'. The introduction of case triage and applying a person-centred approach at the start of the process has resulted in fewer cases being taken forward unnecessarily/where there is 'no case to answer.' 


Being able to evidence improvement in WRES metric three has helped the trust maintain the engagement and support of ethnic minority staff, and led to more open discussion on the metrics where more time and renewed focus is needed to deliver impact.  


As a result of the increased scrutiny there have been some unintended benefits. These include earlier and more appropriate decision making and improvements to wider employee relations processes resulting in fairer outcomes and better experiences for staff.  


The increased reporting and governance scrutiny has highlighted inconsistencies in both the application of trust policies and processes and behaviours of some operational teams.  


Discussion at a local leadership level has identified that this is primarily a result of people feeling a real discomfort when talking about race. In response, over the past year, the trust has supported senior managers and board members on how to have the 'uncomfortable' conversations about race via facilitated workshops. Work to roll out training and support to the operational managers is ongoing, with the importance of this being championed by the chief executive and other board members through conversations at senior management meetings and regular trust-wide communication.   


The trust acknowledges that whilst good progress has been made, this has not always been sustained or prioritised. Work to implement a more restorative just and learning culture was paused during the pandemic and has been recently revived by the director of nursing.  

Learning for the board

The board recognises that the issue of inequality within the disciplinary process could not be addressed in isolation. It needed to be part of wider work to develop an anti-racist and restorative just and learning culture. They acknowledge previous challenges in being able to maintain progress and recognise the need for ongoing scrutiny by the board. The additional governance and resource for key teams have enabled more measurable progress and are important in sustaining focus and momentum.  

Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust's four top tips for other board members

  • Be brave and face the issue. Create safe spaces to have the conversations, challenge each other in an appropriate way and do not let fear of saying the wrong thing prevent you from talking about the issues and taking action.
  • Have a strong evidence base - use the data.
  • Take a person-centred approach and embed this insight across all your work.
  • Be ready to discuss challenging issues and get to the core of what the concern is.