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Header image for the current page How reverse mentoring can help tackle inequality in the workplace

How reverse mentoring can help tackle inequality in the workplace

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Statistics show that a diverse workforce leads to better outcomes for organisations and that there is a positive link between NHS staff experience and patient satisfaction.

Significant work in recent years has sought to create a more diverse workforce, reflecting the communities that we serve and the different capabilities individuals bring. However, as with most industries, there is still work to do in the NHS to close the gap between the opportunities and outcomes for staff from minority ethnic backgrounds and those with protected characteristics.

A key barrier to progress is a lack of personal lived experience or detailed understanding of the needs of different individuals in our workforce, and the disproportionate impact some decisions can have, whether that’s due to an individual’s gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or mental or physical health.

One way of tackling this is to use reverse mentoring to offer decision-makers a personalised opportunity to view the role, decisions, and wider organisation through a different lens.

How reverse mentoring works

The core principle behind reverse mentoring is that the person being mentored – the mentee – is the more senior, while the mentor is more junior and can provide a fresh perspective to help leaders assess the impact of their approach and decisions.

At NHS Arden & GEM, we’ve developed this principle to specifically help the leadership team understand the perspectives of those from different ethnicities. Initially, we matched 15 senior leaders with volunteer mentors, ranging from the managing director and wider executive team through to roles such as IT technician, engagement and consultation support officer, pharmacy technician and project manager. Between them, the mentors represent different ethnicities and offer a range of perspectives.

As with traditional mentoring, the sessions are confidential and the pairs make their own arrangements about meeting type and frequency, provided they meet monthly as a minimum. There are no fixed outcomes – this is fundamentally about deepening understanding and allowing mentees to think about how the sessions will influence or change their approach.

“As a white man in a leadership role what more can I do to help deliver equality? For me being part of the reverse mentoring scheme helps me to better understand the challenges and inequalities that colleagues have faced in the past and are facing today. I know that with the greater understanding that reverse mentoring brings we can ensure that true equality becomes the reality for everyone in our organisation.”

John Parkes, Managing Director

Addressing challenges

Careful thought needs to go into preparing both mentors and mentees so there is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities.

The two main challenges to address are:

  1. Keeping people in their roles. It would be easy for leaders to step into ‘fixing’ mode or start mentoring their mentee. To maximise the long-term benefits of this programme, the focus must remain on enabling mentees to see different perspectives and understand systemic issues, rather than becoming distracted by short-term troubleshooting. It’s important that there is a way to address specific issues if they arise, but outside of the reverse mentoring process.
  2. Creating a safe space for discussion. It’s not uncommon for people to limit their own learning through fear of asking ‘the wrong question’ or using the ‘wrong language’. Similarly, more junior mentees may feel curtailed in sharing their perspective with a senior colleague. Creating a safe, confidential space for open discussion, with support available where needed, is essential to give enable both parties to fully embrace this opportunity.

Key to this is providing the right training for mentors, both on how to be a mentor, as well as the aims and objectives for the programme overall, and what they can expect to give and to gain from their involvement.

“I have been involved in the Arden & GEM reverse mentoring programme for a few months now. I have found this programme very useful in opening the discussion / learning about the diverse cultures in the UK.  This programme has helped my director-level mentee to develop a clearer understanding of the present and past barriers and struggles faced by people from a minority ethnic backgrounds.”

Jatinder Singh, Transformation Programme Manager

Delivering outcomes

Although reverse mentoring isn’t about setting indicators and measuring performance, there are ways to monitor the impact. The principal aim is to give leaders access to valuable knowledge and lived experiences that will help adapt ways of working to offer a more equitable workplace. How that plays out will vary between organisations and will likely have most impact if delivered as part of a wider workforce strategy.
From Arden & GEM’s perspective, we have seen a noticeable increase in leaders engaging in staff communications channels, sharing views on the importance of diversity and inclusion, as well as an increase in demand for us to recognise and celebrate events and anniversaries that reflect the diversity of our workforce. One pair has started a joint blog sharing their experiences and learning, and our managing director is addressing all staff about what he has learned through the process as part of our Race Equality event.

Reverse mentoring has the potential to play a very meaningful role in an organisation’s journey to tackle inequality in the workplace, while demonstrating a genuine commitment from leaders to learn from their colleagues and encourage open, supportive conversations that build a stronger, more diverse and inclusive workplace.

This blog was originally published by Healthcare Leader. Please click here to read the full version.

Picture of Usman Malik

Author: Usman Malik |

As Arden & GEM’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead, Usman works with NHS organisations and systems to deliver positive and sustainable workforce change by promoting and embedding the benefits of diversity and inclusion. With expert knowledge of each of the protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act, Usman chairs the NHS Midlands Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) experts group, and is a member of both national and regional groups and committees looking to advance equality and diversity in the health and care sector.

Usman brings together his expertise, experience and networks to help create inclusive workplaces which value their staff while celebrating diversity.