Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Making Your Board Count

Recent national and international events indicate that significantly greater progress in our society is needed to tackle inequality and discrimination. Despite an ethnically diverse workforce across most NHS organisations, staff from ethnic backgrounds are still more likely to experience discrimination, bullying, harassment and abuse, and less likely than white colleagues to reach positions of seniority.

System leaders in senior management positions are ideally placed to ensure their boards and leadership culture reflects the diversity of their workforce and the populations they serve.

The recently published Interim NHS People Plan states the NHS must recognise its shortcomings in inclusion and diversity. The plan includes an action to support boards in setting targets for ethnic minority representation across the workforce (including at senior levels), which goes some way to making the NHS more reflective of its patient populations.

This is just as applicable, however, to charitable and private sector organisations. The answer is not in meeting quotas, but in recognising the potential of what inclusion and diversity can bring to system leadership.

Sir John Parker’s Report into the Ethnic Diversity of UK Boards in 2017 considers how to improve the ethnic and cultural diversity of UK boards to better reflect their employee base and communities they serve. However, the 2020 update report revealed slow progress. Similarly, the Hampton-Alexander Review – Women Leaders Improving gender balance in FTSE Leadership, published in November 2019 states that ‘Whilst progress on representation is perceptible, the pace of change remains disappointing’. There is need for far bolder action to make leaders accountable for participation, advance women into senior and technical roles, and tackle obstacles in the way of building truly inclusive, agile organisations. These and many other reports provide clear signals around the need. However, in the main, impactful action is yet to be seen.

So, what can you do about it?

Board positions need to be framed around inclusion. The temptation to recruit individuals who ‘fit with the existing membership’ must be tempered with the value, representative views and approaches they bring. The homogeneity of many boards suggests that those making appointments (either consciously or subconsciously) confuse ‘fit’ with ‘someone like us’.

This may require different skills in those chairing boards. Board members will want to know if the board understands what diversity and inclusion really means, and what they can bring to the table. There needs to be a clear understanding of what problem is being resolved and the role members are playing. All board members need to be valued and considered an essential part of the team. They need to be trusted, treated fairly and feel safe to show their physical and emotional self.

Achieving this cultural shift is not something for a ‘task and finish’ group, but more sustained recognition and drive from the very top of the organisation. Diversity is easier, but the inclusion part often goes unheard. Boards need to be clear on why both are important. They need to recognise the value diversity of thought brings to decision making, mindful that diversity without inclusion is handing someone a microphone without plugging it in.

There are challenges. Diversity and inclusion can often become a priority but then slip down the agenda. Boards need to get beyond the ‘nice to have’ and make the culture shift become the ‘new normal’. Through this, and genuine leadership commitment, maintaining the cultural shift in the context of mass remote working is achievable.

Understand where you are starting from

Levers are available in the boardroom to drive momentum. Ask yourself:

· What does our board fear?

· How do we enable, support and allow people to speak in their organisations?