Equality, diversity and inclusion: what role do staff networks play?

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10 June 2024

Kofi Mensah-Ansong
Media and Communications Officer
NHS Providers

What is the point of a staff network? Is the organisation in which it sits serious about creating a space for staff, while also affecting tangible, meaningful change? Or, as is so often the case, is it just a box-ticking exercise?

These were some of the questions I had when joining the race quality group at NHS Providers.

Set up shortly after the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020, the group's aim was to give colleagues a safe space to discuss race-related issues and act as a collective voice on staff experiences at the organisation.

I joined in my first week at NHS Providers and was immediately relieved to see it delivered on its aims. We were given a proper forum to discuss, openly and honestly, how our professional environment impacted us as individuals.

But it was about action as well as words. Soon after its creation, the network agreed to change the original name – the BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) Steering Group – to the Race Equality and Cultural Inclusion Group, aka RECI. Many felt the former acronym was reductive – merging multiple races and ethnicities into a single entity that divided people into two groups: white and not white. It created a sense of othering.

This move, though seemingly small, was giant in impact: it made colleagues feel included, bolstered their sense of belonging and galvanised allyship – a vital ingredient, given race equality should never be championed by ethnic minorities alone.

Discussing race can be hugely challenging. I've found it is best to approach conversations not with a solution in mind but with the desire to actively listen.

Kofi Mensah-Ansong    Media and Communications Officer

When we explained to the organisation why we ditched the BAME acronym, executive management agreed that NHS Providers' external language should be similarly revised. 'BAME' was swapped for 'ethnic minority' in all communications, including press releases, reports, blogs and briefings.

A few months later, I was presented with an opportunity to become the network's chair. It was too good to pass up, and I am grateful to this day that my fellow members voted me in.

Not long into my chairmanship, senior management sought RECI's views on developing NHS Providers' anti-racism action plan. We provided feedback and suggestions, such as ensuring activity to increase diversity was measurable, clearly identifiable and achievable. I talked board members through our suggestions, which helped shape the final plan – proof that buy-in from the top is crucial for staff network efficacy.

As chair, I try to ensure network members feel heard, seen, respected and welcomed. I try to lead with empathy and understanding, while also being brave and confident enough to share my own personal experiences for the benefit of building trust and openness. I'm always touched to hear colleagues share how the network has positively shaped their work-life experience.

"Having experienced some tough times at work, RECI has meant everything to me. I would not be able to get through workplace stresses without this group – their warmth, openness and passion is unparalleled."  - RECI member

Discussing race can be hugely challenging. I've found it is best to approach conversations not with a solution in mind but with the desire to actively listen. This way, we respond to the emotional impact first before discussing relevant solutions based on the information given. Ultimately, this also fosters a safe space: staff can talk about personal issues knowing they are being heard without judgement.

It is heartening seeing how much RECI has grown over the years. Our recent internal staff survey shows that 100% of the workforce know about the network. It has been a pleasure to chair such an engaging group; not to mention my professional – and personal – development has accelerated significantly as a result.

Much of the network's success is also down to its brilliant members. Over the past six months, I helped to create an executive team within RECI, which consists of a deputy chair, general secretary and operations lead. We also established an executive sponsor – our deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery. This strengthened the group's influence, member engagement and organisational visibility. 

As racism and other forms of discrimination persist in today's world, staff networks remain vital.

Kofi Mensah-Ansong    Media and Communications Officer

Allyship has also proved invaluable. When I first joined, there were around 10 members. That has more than doubled - we now have around 25% of the organisation in membership, many of whom are allies (members who identify as non-ethnic minority). While it's vital we ensure ethnic minority staff have a safe space, we've taken a more holistic approach to network membership, welcoming anyone who has a strong desire and passion to uphold anti-racism and race equality.   
The fact that there are so many allies in RECI reflects the wider drive for race equality at NHS Providers, which is vital in the long journey to becoming actively anti-racist. While RECI plays a key role in this, we are not experts in race equality, nor do we have executive power to implement change – but we are now central to the conversation, helping shape important decisions.

As racism and other forms of discrimination persist in today's world, staff networks remain vital. At NHS Providers, we also have one to support mental health and the LGBTQ+ community (Proud Providers). There is power in unity and voice of staff – but this power is only as effective as the backing from the top.

Ideally, a race equality staff network would not be needed because equality, diversity and inclusion would already be embedded into every aspect of work and life. That is not yet a reality, but groups like RECI will help get us there.

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Kofi Mensah-Ansong
Media and Communications Officer

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