I’ll tell you something: the people profession must lead by example on inclusion and diversity

If we don’t address racial inequality for HR staff, we can’t credibly advise other functions on creating inclusive cultures, says Cheryl Samuels

For nearly a year, we’ve all been locked down and had our freedoms restricted in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus. But some people with ethnic minority backgrounds have been living their whole lives with a different virus: racism. They’ve been living in a state of lockdown for much longer, with restrictions impacting their dreams and aspirations, as well as their wellbeing. This happens because not only is the world we live in not truly inclusive, it’s now been proven that this is harmful to health thanks to research by Professor David Williams at Harvard University.

The pandemic has illuminated the impact of racial inequalities on ethnic minority communities, and this is reflected in the NHS workforce. For years the HR profession has advised on creating compassionate and inclusive workplaces. However, progress is slow as the profession itself is not diverse and representative at all levels, which is extremely frustrating for those most affected. 

The HR function is often described as the ‘moral compass’ and ‘heart’ of an organisation. We need to be the real trailblazers of true inclusivity and diversity at all levels. When we lead by example with diverse leadership, we create a sense of hope, belief and credence that there is equality of opportunity and this can be a reality with measurable business benefits.

It’s heartbreaking to hear stories from the many ethnic minority HR, OD and L&D professionals I have mentored. Through their various career journeys they have been scarred because of microaggressions, stereotyping, barriers to progression and unequal access to development. Their stories are shared in small circles owing to the lack of psychological safety experienced by our own HR and OD staff. If we don’t address equality, diversity and inclusion for our own staff, how can we credibly advise and support other functions to develop such practices?

The NHS is the largest employer in the UK. It needs to make a concerted effort to address the inequalities so that staff feel a greater sense of belonging and genuine inclusion. The publication of the NHS People Plan and the London Workforce Race Strategy last year recognises the racial inequalities found in the NHS and sets the ambition to achieve greater inclusion in a way that looks and feels different.

In the absence of research into the impact of inequality among ethnic minority people professionals, the Healthcare People Management Association (HPMA) recently commissioned independent research and issued a formal response to the findings, setting out key recommendations that will make a significant difference. 

It’s time for our profession to improve the lived working experience of ethnic minority HR, OD and L&D professionals, and white HR leaders have a pivotal role to play by becoming active allies. Let’s make sure this is a positive legacy of Covid-19.  

Cheryl Samuels is deputy director of workforce transformation (London) at NHS England and NHS Improvement