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How reverse mentoring can help tackle inequality in the workplace

Mentoring relationship
By Usman Malik Workforce race equality lead, NHS Arden & GEM CSU
16 September 2021

Statistics show that a diverse workforce leads to better outcomes for organisations[1] and that there is a positive link between NHS staff experience and patient satisfaction[2].

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.

Given the unique nature of the programme, ongoing support is provided for mentors throughout, as well as a group session with mentees midway through the programme to assess impact and fine-tune the approach.

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.

Supporting participants with a detailed briefing pack is a good way to ensure a consistent understanding of reverse mentoring and provide additional reading material for the mentee to help build their understanding of equality in the workplace.

Swapping ‘portfolio cards’, which give each party key facts about their reverse mentoring partner, including what they’re hoping to get out of the sessions prior to the first meeting, is a good way to break the ice and offer conversation starters for the initial meeting.

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.

By connecting the scheme with our wider People Plan, we’ve also enhanced our approach to recruitment, implementing diverse interview panels and actively looking to recruit those that bring a new lens to our organisation based on their own background, characteristics and skills.

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.

Usman Malik is the workforce race equality lead at NHS Arden & GEM CSU.

Read more blogs on Healthcare Leader here.

[1] McKinsey: Delivering Through Diversity

[2] NHS England: Links between NHS staff experience and patient satisfaction:

Analysis of surveys from 2014 and 2015, February 2018.

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