In a period of significant workforce change, consultation and redundancy, NHS managers and leaders need to redress the dangers inherent in employing staff they find similar to themselves to allow a fairer and unbiased employment processes, argues Salma Shah.

“Mini-me syndrome” is a social phenomena where executives, leaders and others in the consultation, redundancy and recruitment process choose employees and successors who are similar to themselves - often in age, style, NHS experience and importantly, gender and race.

Habitually, these leaders adopt an attitude of “it’s worked well up until now, so why change course?”

Nearly every NHS trust in the country has plans to shed staff over the next four years, with some losing up to one in five employees. It is inevitable that these front line cuts will certainly impact the back room as clinical workers have to pick up the administrative burden. Fundamental to the survival of the NHS is to do everything possible to minimise the impact on patients.

To ensure that going forward the best employee for the role is retained by the NHS it is absolutely crucial that all consultations and redundancy processes are 100 per cent unbiased and unfair. 

Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice has shown that there is an unconscious instinct for us all to favour those who remind us of ourselves. But in an NHS corporate context, the tendency for leaders to recruit and retain “mini-mes” in their own image can prove a risk beyond imagination as it impacts the wellbeing and care of patients.

If the goal is to have a talent pool of diverse NHS managers and leaders, there should be a commitment to retaining and developing a diverse talent pool which will encourage a mix of styles, capabilities and approaches that can help ensure that the NHS is capable of providing a high level of service in challenging conditions with scarcer resources.

Research has proven that most of us are not even aware of our subconscious filtering of candidates. This is of concern for any organisation where the majority of leadership positions are held by men. In order to sustain a high level of NHS service, it is vital in the new NHS to offer the right balance of strategic thinking, problem solving and visioning both internally and externally.

So what does unconscious bias look like? The cost of consultations and redundancy itself will be high, those who run the consultation process and the interview panel are also diversity gatekeepers. Some will have a genuine commitment to improving diversity, and will have provided worthwhile diversity training and guidelines. They should hopefully be positioned to avoid wilful discrimination. But even so one can still fall prey to one of the simplest forms of unconscious bias – a negative assessment of non-standard career history and career paths.

It’s easy to discount a CV that isn’t set out in a normal way, or describes a career path that doesn’t adhere to the normal move up through the NHS. Unconscious bias applies at all stages of the consultation process from reading the CV to briefing the candidate of the consultation process by HR to how the panel interview processes work.

Bias awareness is a step in the right direction to make visible and measurable difference. Behaviour and attitudes need to be challenged and changed. Moving forward to a fairer, high performing, slimmer NHS the following five crucial initiatives can make a difference to reducing the bias during consultation, interviewing and recruitment;

  • Make sure that each step of the redundancy and consultation phase is free of unconscious bias. This may mean challenging the current processes thoroughly and examining candidate experiences.
  • Address stereotypes with those in the process that some groups such as women and minority employees ‘lack the necessary skills’.
  • Build NHS-wide cultural awareness of the subconscious stereotypes that exist in appointments, appraisals, redundancy processes, recruitment and succession planning.
  • Build management and leadership capability so your leaders and managers understand the impact of their unconscious bias and have the skills to engage in more effective appointments, consultations and conversations with all individuals.
  • Work and partner with organisations to ensure that all your key personnel involved with this process are aware of their own unconscious bias