Not for the first time the NHS stands accused. This time it’s the Royal College of Midwives who have identified that black staff are disproportionately subjected to disciplinary action.

Earlier in the year, the Central Manchester University Hospitals Foundation was found guilty of racial discrimination, with the award of £1m to former manager Elliot Browne.

‘It is clear some organisations do not understand what institutional racism is or refuse to accept it exists’

Unite, the trade union that represented Browne, discovered that while 2 per cent of the workforce were black, they accounted for 25 per cent of people subject to disciplinary action. Why is the NHS disproportionately disciplining black staff?

This is not a situation unique to the NHS. Unions representing staff across the public sector have expressed concern about the disproportionate number of disciplinary cases involving black staff.

Is this to do with the nature of the jobs black staff do in the public sector? Are mangers and HR staff quicker to resort to formal process when a black employee is involved? Or do managers find black staff harder to manage? Whatever the reason, NHS trusts and organisations across the public sector will insist it is not racism.  

Understanding institutional racism

This comes 18 years after the Macpherson inquiry into discrimination in the police first introduced the term “institutional racism”. It is clear that some organisations do not understand what institutional racism is or simply refuse to accept it exists.

“This organisation is not racist,” they say. “I am not racist, nor are any of my colleagues,” they say. “Just because black staff are more likely to be disciplined doesn’t mean it is because of racism. We don’t care what colour someone is we treat everyone the same.”

These are often the same organisations that resist collecting information on the ethnicity of their workforce. Not only who they employ, but who they promote and who they discipline.

Institutional racism is not the deliberate discrimination based on a belief that black people are less intelligent, less reliable, less ambitious or more aggressive. But it is based on a view they are different from white people.

‘There have been changes over the last 18 years but black people are still underrepresented in senior posts’

While such organisations claim it’s about appointing the best person for the job, what happens all too often is they seek to appoint the one they think will fit in, the one they feel most comfortable with; someone they could work with who shares their values, comes from a similar back ground, shares their sense of humour, interest in football, dresses like them, talks like them and is like them.

Long way to go

Likewise, when it comes to disciplinary processes there is a tendency to think people like them respond to a quiet word, people like them deserve a second chance, people like them learn from their mistakes. Whereas people who are different tend only to respond to clear boundaries and a formal response.     

So what should an organisation do to guard against any tendency to discipline some staff more than others? First, recognise that institutional racism exists. Understand how it works, undertake ethnic monitoring because it is hard to argue against the numbers, introduce a challenge into the process to ensure the informal process has been exhausted.

Establish a consistent approach because it is just as damaging for some people to be seen as getting away with inapproproate behaviour as it is for others to be seen as being treated unduly harshly.  

There have been changes over the last 18 years but black people are still underrepresented in senior posts. A male black manager is still likely to be described as “aggressive” when the same behaviour from a white colleague is called “assertive”. Black staff are more likely to describe their manager as unsupportive and in many organisations black staff are disproportionately subject to disciplinary action.