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4th May 2023, House of Lords #UnlockingPotential

Despite the latest data showing an increasingly diverse NHS workforce, the overall gap between staff and board member ethnic diversity is widening. The 2022 NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) report found that just 13.2% of board members recorded their ethnicity as black and minority ethnic, compared to 24.2% of overall staff in NHS trusts. The Seacole Group is working to change this.

The Seacole Group is a network of black, Asian and other ethnic non-executive directors (NEDs) and chairs in the NHS, with the purpose of strengthening black, Asian and other ethnic NED representation and voices on NHS boards. Earlier this month, the group hosted its inaugural event, Unlocking Potential, in the House of Lords. It was an afternoon of insight, challenge, networking and enthusiasm to foster change.


A key theme throughout the event was the importance of inclusive leadership and the role of leaders in embedding a culture of respect and equity. NHS staff currently have inequitable experiences at work. The 2022 WRES report found that ethnic minority staff remain more likely to report experiencing abuse, bullying and harassment from both staff and patients compared to their white peers, and only 44.4% of ethnic minority staff believe their employer offers equal opportunities for promotion or progression to all staff, with levels below those of other ethnic groups, irrespective of gender.

"We're calling for sustained and effective action to develop an NHS that is representative of the communities we serve at all levels."  Seacole Group

"This was an amazing event and we would like to thank all our members and guests for attending."  (Seacole Group chairs)   

To change this, leaders have to make equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for their staff a personal and board priority and work to challenge the status quo – NHS Providers' Race Equality programme supports boards to effectively identify and challenge race equality as a part of the board's business.

Unlocking Potential discussed how leaders can work to understand the challenges their staff face and nurture a culture where people can talk openly about their experiences, a clear recommendation of the Messenger Review. It is the duty of those in positions of leadership to engage intellectually and emotionally with the equality agenda, listening with humility and fostering an environment that allows staff to work free from discrimination, feeling cared for, valued, supported and respected.

Roger Kline spoke about practical tools to collectively debias processes that stand as a barrier to improving board diversity. He examined the inherent bias in many traditional recruitment processes, and the damage this does to ethnic minority staff. Data shows a white shortlisted candidate is 1.5 times more likely to be appointed than an ethnic minority candidate in the NHS. Trusts are increasingly recognising that different approaches to recruitment are needed and are challenging established processes.

For example, both Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust have a system whereby panel chairs are asked to justify the decision for the successful candidate and outline what steps unsuccessful candidates should take to increase likelihood of a successful outcome in future interviews. 

Focus on removing bias must be prioritised and increased across the entire NHS, with leaders using a critical lens to challenge established processes, improve interview outcomes for ethnic minority staff, and further diversify boards. 

The importance of fostering talent pipelines for aspiring and newly appointed NEDs was also a key theme of Unlocking Potential. The Seacole Group has an established mentoring programme, providing strategic support and guidance for applications, interview practice and engaging, retaining and developing new and aspiring colleagues.

Further, the Seacole Group's Trailblazer programme offers a platform for the voice of young people from diverse racial groups to shape decision-making affecting services for young people and to influence future services that young people would receive as they mature. Attendees agreed that talent must be identified and invested in to further diversify NHS boards and to improve inclusivity within the NHS. Ultimately, this improves patient outcomes: more diversity can bring more understanding of the needs of service users and encourage more creativity in problem-solving, greater innovation and improved risk awareness.

The event closed with final observations and a closing address from Sir David Sloman, outgoing chief operating officer at NHS England. He reflected on the fact that unless the extent of this challenge is accepted, the NHS will be very vulnerable. It is currently in the middle of a workforce crisis, with nearly one in 10 posts vacant, and a national leaver rate of 12.2% – one of the highest on record. The NHS therefore cannot afford to stay complacent on matters of race inequality. Doing nothing or doing the same is simply not an option.

Fundamental to all of this is white allyship and the understanding that improving equity is everybody's business. It is not acceptable to assume that people who are disadvantaged are those who must lead the challenge. Trust boards must work to reduce the double burden faced by ethnic minority leaders, who experience discrimination while also feeling additional pressure to lead on addressing it. Real change requires race equality to be championed by all leaders, taking shared responsibility and seeing this as a core part of their role. After all, diverse boards make better decisions. 

The Seacole Group is grateful to NHS Providers and OdgersBerndtson for their support with our inaugural event.

*blog piece courtesy of Zosia Walecka, NHS Providers

To find out how you can support the work of the Seacole Group, take a look at our priorities.


If you would like to become a member of the Seacole Group, membership forms can be completed here.


NHS Providers' Race Equality programme helps to embed race equality as a core part of the board's business by encouraging hearts and minds change and building their confidence and capability to implement and embed accountability. Recent outputs have included a focus on inclusive recruitment and talent management. 

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