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Seven Survival Steps for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) NHS Staff - Step 4: Get Connected

Making the right connections can not only serve you well for career development, but can be vital alliances during challenging times, for the provision of advice, information and support.

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 4 - Get connected

The people you have around you, in your corner, supporting you are critical to your survival as a BME NHS worker. There are many opportunities for making good connections in the NHS and that is one of the key strengths of the service enjoyed by many. Sometimes opportunities to make and maintain helpful connections will be easy to find and develop, but if you are from a BME background, you may find that you have to work harder to ensure that support is in place.

The support you need comes from influential and helpful individuals who understand your needs and are willing to help you, and it also comes from groups and networks able to do the same. This article describes examples of individuals and groups, internal and external to the organisation you work for, that you can connect to, sometimes for the whole of your career.

Mentors - these are staff members who are more experienced than you, in your workplace, or external to it, who are interested in helping you develop and achieve your professional goals. They might be someone you identify that is further down a career path that you want to emulate, and are prepared to share their experience, wisdom, ideas and help you shape your career. If you are interested in working for your employer on a long term basis, then a successful mentor within your organisation might be a good idea. It will be up to you whether you choose a BME or non-BME mentor, but their skills as a mentor is paramount. Some senior BME staff, although successful may not be able to advise you on race equality aspects of your development, and some non-BME mentors may be able to offer skilled advice, dependent on their experience.

An internal mentor knows the organisational back story, individuals, and how things work. They should be someone who is well respected, involved, engaged, and able to challenge rather than accept the status quo, while getting results. An internal mentor may need to balance their commitment to mentoring you with balancing their own interests in the workplace, which might sometimes conflict. Some mentors only take on the responsibility to build their CVs and not because they are really interested in developing you as an individual, or in mentoring generally. They may not be particularly good at it.

An external mentor will give you an outside perspective of your organisation, one that is not blinkered by alliances, relationships, and self-interests. They may be disadvantaged by not knowing the organisation, but if they work for the NHS, they will have insights that can be shared from their own organisation due to how the similar the NHS is throughout.

Sponsors - recently more attention has been given to the high value of sponsors in the workplace. Rather than just being focused on helping you to develop your career, a sponsor will actively advocate and promote you within the workplace, rooting to make sure real opportunities to come your way. Some of the most successful NHS senior staff have had sponsors interested in their careers who have gone out on a limb to secure them opportunities for promotion, helping to make it happen, helping them up each step of the ladder. Unlike mentors, sponsors are supporters within your workplace. Be clear on the difference between mentors and sponsors and make a plan of how to incorporate them into your career.

Networking - There are different types of networks internal and external to your place of work which you will be able to use to find supporters, build your reputation and credibility, and increase your visibility. They may be research, educational, or academic networks, and although are more likely to be available to clinical professionals, they can also exist to promote good practice in workers in all roles in the NHS. Leading busy lives, NHS workers are benefiting from a number of e-networks such as the We communities, and the Guardian Healthcare Professionals Network.

BME networks - This is the opportunity provided by employers to form a forum for BME workers to meet exclusively to discuss specific issues affecting their experience in the workplace, from a BME perspective, and to provide a supportive space to freely air issues. These forum usually feed into the workforce and organisational development directorate and can bring issues to the attention of the organisational leadership and effect change.

There is a national NHS BME network, not exclusive to NHS staff as the discrimination and marginalisation experienced by BME NHS staff is often mirrored in the experience of BME patients and carers using the NHS. NHS England has its BME staff network and may be a good starting place in identifying an approach

Non-NHS BME networks - there are a number of leading think tanks, campaigning and policy groups such as the Race Equality Foundation, and the Runnymede Trust that seek to raise awareness of race inequality in the NHS and secure improvement actions.

Making the right connections can not only serve you well for career development, but can be vital alliances during challenging times, for the provision of advice, information and support.

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality

Martin Luther King, Jr