When it comes to workforce and recruitment, “diversity” has become associated with creating challenges for employers, managers and their teams. Philppa Tucker discusses how to approach recruitment so that workforce diversity ends up benefiting everyone involved.

Leaders in the healthcare sector need the best possible teams around them if they are to deliver a quality service while undergoing budget cuts and significant organisational restructures. Unfortunately, the word “diversity” has become so politically charged, and the management profession has been closed off to so many groups for such a long time, that managers are missing out on valuable and talented team members when it comes to recruitment.

Only by taking a positive and strategic approach to managing the challenging issue of diversity will the healthcare system be able to best meet the needs of the patients who depend on it.

Mention the word “diversity” and most people will instantly think of race and religion. The true picture, however, is of course much wider. A truly diverse workforce will encompass different cultures, include youth and experience, men and women, and embrace people of different socio-economic backgrounds and personality types. This is currently rarely modelled in practice. There is also a worrying lack of understanding about disability, with only one in four disabled people in employment – a huge waste of skills and talent.

It is important, particularly in the healthcare sector, that the demographic make up of the organisation is similar to the community that it serves. Managers need to emerge from their silos and start to widen their understanding of what diversity really means and just how much untapped potential they have at their disposal.

A key task for leaders and managers is to find new and creative ways of overcoming the barriers to diversity so that their workforces can begin to reflect the reality of the rich, varied and multi-cultural world we now live in. One way of doing this is to rethink some of the more traditional ways of advertising jobs and find creative ways of communicating with the people they want to attract.

Many people are held back from taking direct action on diversity because it has become confused with “political correctness”. Of course, an equal society where human rights are respected and people are treated fairly is imperative. However, we also need a responsive system where the skills, talents and potential of all employees are maximised to the full, and employers can recruit with confidence, knowing they won’t be subjected to claims of discrimination.

Healthcare managers should also be aware of the tendency for staff to carve themselves into groups, particularly in organisations employing large numbers of people, such as hospital trusts. At a time when managing the patient experience across a range of service providers, and between public and voluntary sectors, communication skills and team working will be increasingly important.

While special interest groups can be helpful in providing a forum where employees can share experiences and concerns, they can be divisive if not managed carefully. Diversity is about inclusiveness and managers need to make sure they are not reinforcing differences or allowing employees to fall into a “them and us” mindset.

Practical ways to manage diversity

There is no quick-fix or magical formula for effectively managing diversity, but there are some key things can be put in place to start the process. Firstly, setting realistic and achievable goals is very important, as is a firm commitment to these goals from leadership from the outset. It is also essential to gauge how diverse your workforce currently is, audit your current policies and benchmark your practices against others. Once you have all the information to hand, you can start to look at areas where change is needed. Another helpful practice is to identify diversity champions who can act as change agents to lead initiatives and cascade them to other employees.

NHS Tower Hamlets

NHS Tower Hamlets in East London is a great example of how this can work in practice, and how a workforce that mirrors the diverse community it serves can be built. Some of the measures and targets it uses are part of the local government best value regime that sets all local authorities targets around gender, race and disability. As well as comparing themselves to other local authorities to ensure they are in the upper quartile of success, they also use their local community as a benchmark for the diverse mix of staff they should be attracting.

NHS Tower Hamlets use a range of talent and diversity initiatives to ensure their targets are achieved. These include the Hamlets Youth Scheme and different graduate programmes linked to professional career paths, as well as positive action programmes for aspiring leaders and middle managers. They have also previously held a career café for 150 of their diverse leaders’ network, aimed at getting them to take more responsibility for managing their own careers and to think about what is needed to move up the organisation.

A strategic and positive approach to managing diversity will help the health sector widen its talent base and get the best from the mix of experience and perspectives it has at its disposal. Managers must not be scared to take action, but instead ensure they are doing their utmost to develop a diverse health service workforce that can provide an excellent quality of care and provision to the communities they serve.