Overcoming fear of positive action to ensure fairness and promote diversity

The Asian Fire Service Association (AFSA) and Capsticks have been advising a number of fire and rescue services (FRS) on the use of the positive action provisions of the Equality Act 2010 with a view to improving workforce diversity and inclusion. Positive action allows for the more favourable treatment of those with protected characteristics (eg because of their sex, age, race, disability or sexual orientation) when certain criteria apply. More information on positive action in FRS can be found at http://ow.ly/KTcr50wobOp.

Currently, efforts at improving diversity are targeted at recruitment. However, attracting a more diverse workforce is only part of the issue. The culture of an organisation has a huge part to play in the retention of employees and we look below at some of the trends which have emerged from the ‘People’ section from Tranches 1 and 2 of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services’ (HMICFRS) reports and the issues highlighted therein.

Promoting the Right Values and Cultures

HMICFRS found that the values and culture of FRS vary hugely and a significant number have improvements to make with observations made by HMICFRS of staff using inappropriate language and autocratic and domineering behaviour by middle and senior managers.

The reports from Tranche 1 found that 25 per cent of staff who responded felt they had been bullied or harassed over the last year and 20 per cent felt they had been discriminated against, but only eight per cent had made formal reports. In Tranche 2, again 20 per cent of staff surveyed felt they had been discriminated against at work and over half of those did not report the behaviour informally or formally.

The inspections found that staff often lacked trust in the grievance procedures of FRS and in most cases the process was perceived to be unfair, leading to a finding that FRS are not taking the opportunities available to learn and improve as a result of grievances. Addressing the ‘watch culture’ is likely to be a priority for FRS which are seeking to foster openness and we suggest that the use of informal grievance procedures is something which should be looked at by FRS.

Ensuring Fairness and Promoting Diversity

HMICFRS commented that more needs to be done to improve diversity and communicate the benefits of, and need for, workforce diversity. In the discussions we have had with FRS which are utilising positive action, we have heard that the introduction of positive action is met with reluctance, often as a result of fear about what it means for existing staff and concern that the standard of new recruits will be lowered. Training, education and involving more staff in the recruitment process has helped to allay these fears.

The AFSA encourages FRS to focus on (a) diverse representation (b) staff experience and (c) ensuring the voices of underrepresented groups are heard through staff networks and reverse mentoring. HMICFRS found that fewer than half of FRS have staff support networks and we suggest that this should be a priority for FRS looking to address some of the People results in the reports.

Next Steps

The problems regarding bullying and harassment are shared by many public sector employers and FRS may find NHS resources of interest. For example, in the NHS there is a growing interest in ‘just cultures’ which involve a move towards resolving matters informally, acknowledging that matters can be addressed more effectively this way rather than the traditional adversarial approach. The results from a number of NHS organisations which have adopted this approach are encouraging and this, together with the use of workplace mediation, may be something FRS wish to explore further in driving forward change – see https://improvement.nhs.uk/resources/just-culture-guide/

The reasons which sit behind the scores in the reports are likely to be complex and some FRS may feel that the score achieved does not accurately reflect their approach to their staff. However, where FRS want to improve their ratings, it seems clear that they will need to invest a considerable amount of time in addressing the issues raised. Diversity and inclusion is one part of the wider issue of culture change. Given that the benefits of recruiting and supporting a more diverse workforce are beyond doubt, AFSA considers that it would be a significant benefit to have a nationally developed narrative which it prepares with the National Fire Service Council setting out the legal and ethical business case for diversity and inclusion.

The AFSA provide regular seminars and workshops on diversity and inclusion and the use of positive action, supported by Capsticks. If you require further support on culture change and positive action in your FRS, please contact Jagtar Singh or Nicola Green at [email protected]; [email protected]

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