07/09/2015 05:31 BST | Updated 03/09/2016 06:59 BST

Seven Survival Steps for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) NHS Staff - Step 5: Know Your Rights

This series of articles will appear weekly and present Seven Survival Steps for black and ethnic minority staff working in the NHS, but may have provide a wider focus for discussion. The articles are excerpts from a forthcoming handbook, and provide highlights.

Step 5: Know your rights

A key step in survival is to know your rights in the workplace: your entitlements as a BME worker in the NHS. These are the same rights and entitlements for everyone working in the NHS, however lack of awareness can prevent BME workers from speaking out or taking self-protective action. In previous steps in this series, I wrote about setting up your line of defence from the start of your NHS career (Step 1), to understand your obligations to your career and to others (Step 3), and knowing your rights completes the triad for the firm foundations to survive, and enjoy a career in the NHS as a BME worker.

The main rights you will need to be aware of are employment rights set out in law; organisational policies, often based on law, professional codes, and those rights set out in the NHS Constitution. This is knowledge you are recommended to be aware of, understand, without a need to draw on this on a day to day basis.It is not necessary to carry these rights around with you waiting for something to go wrong. Knowing your rights doesn't mean you are more likely to use that knowledge, and seek to assert your rights inappropriately. In fact most organisations have processes in place to prevent the exertion of rights when it is not required, or if used maliciously. Your main rights in the workplace, some of which are covered by legislation are to:

  • A fair pay and contract framework;
  • Right to be involved and represented in the workplace;
  • A healthy and safe working conditions and an environment free from harassment, bullying or violence;
  • Treatment that is fair, equal and free from discrimination
  • Take a complaint about their employer to an Employment Tribunal in certain cases

In addition, the NHS, through its Constitution has made a number of pledges to staff:

  • A positive working environment for staff
  • Clear roles and responsibilities and rewarding jobs
  • Personal development and education and training
  • Support with health, wellbeing and safety
  • Opportunities to be involved in decisions that directly affect them
  • To encourage and support staff to raise any concern with their employer in the public interest

The performance of the NHS on race equality for BME workers has been shown to be poor over many indicators, and getting worse. This tells us that laws and pledges mean nothing if they are not making a difference and bringing about change. Action that is needed must be that which effects change, or it is not worth the time and effort. There is a laisez-faire tolerance of sub-threshold racism that BME staff put up with, and leaders turn a blind eye to. Without a zero tolerance approach to race inequality against BME staff in the NHS, the position will remain static.

Many initiatives such as BME leadership programmes, and the Equality Delivery System, have been developed and run with limited effect on the bigger picture. Now for the first time, the requirement to report and demonstrate progress against a Workforce Race Equality Standard has been written into the NHS contract in 2015, and will be monitored thereafter.

This will be the first real test for the NHS in whether it can deliver its own self defined standards on achieving race equality.

No change can come if those who are impacted the most by discrimination are not willing to stand up for themselves.

Zainab Salbi