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Earlier this year, senior nurse Michelle Cox made Black history after winning a landmark race discrimination case against the NHS, thanks to legal representation and support from the RCN. 

Now she’s looking to help other members challenge discriminatory practices by launching an award with the RCN Foundation to fund projects that create anti-racist workplaces. The award will provide £2,500 a year, for the next 10 years, to an RCN member who successfully applies.

“Imagine a world without race discrimination,” says Michelle. “I want staff to be confident to rise up, speak the truth and feel safe in doing so.”  

The psychological impact of these events has been profound

Launched on 2 October, at the start of Black History Month, the award is open to registered nurses and midwives keen to progress ground-breaking projects to build anti-racist workplaces. Winning entries could potentially include webinars, virtual learning packages, reverse mentoring and advocacy programmes, with Michelle encouraging entrants to be as creative as possible. 

“Currently there are very few awards specifically for anti-racism and this vital work often goes unremarked,” says Michelle. “I hope these awards go some way towards changing that, providing a real opportunity to share some great practice, alongside celebrating excellence.”  

How can you challenge racism in your organisation? 

  • Listen to and learn from those who have been targets of racism and oppression. 
  • Examine and challenge your own prejudices, stereotypes and assumptions. 
  • Learn how to challenge oppressive remarks, behaviours, policies and institutional structures. 
  • If you witness discrimination, don’t be a bystander, says Michelle: “Don’t watch and say nothing, avoid conversations or stay silent.” 
  • Utilise the RCN’s resources on equality, diversity and inclusion.

A registered nurse of 25 years, Michelle decided to blow the whistle on poor practice in her service across the North of England, submitting a grievance, which also included allegations of race discrimination against her manager.

Dissatisfied with the way her complaints of racism were handled, and certain she had been mistreated for whistleblowing, Michelle took the NHS to an employment tribunal – supported by the RCN – which she won. 

Michelle Cox sitting at desk

Above: Michelle Cox, who won a landmark case against the NHS

The milestone judgement, given in February this year, ruled her line manager had excluded Michelle at “every opportunity”, which created an “intimidating, hostile and humiliating environment” for her to work in. 

“A chief executive recently told me this judgement has brought more scrutiny on the race equality agenda than he has seen in the last 20 years. That was a ‘wow’ moment for me and undoubtedly in part due to the continued focus from the Chief Executive of NHS England Amanda Pritchard on this agenda,” says Michelle.  

There is a striking disadvantage experienced by Black staff who feel the least equality of opportunity

But the case has taken a huge personal toll on her. “The psychological impact of these events, which took over 5 years of my life, has been profound,” says Michelle. “There is no denying I have felt battered, bruised and broken. I still feel extremely sad that few listened to me and those who did were powerless to do anything. I’m also sad that my nursing career, as I knew it, is now over.” 

Unfortunately, statistics continue to paint a grim picture of workplace discrimination in NHS trusts in England. According to the latest Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) report, published in February, the percentage of staff experiencing discrimination at work from other staff is 2.5 times higher for those from a Black and minority ethnic (BME) background than their white colleagues – 17% compared to 6.8%. 

It’s a pattern that’s been evident since at least 2015, says the report. Numbers increased markedly between 2019 and 2020, and continued to rise in 2021, now reaching their highest level since WRES data began being collected.

Legal support from the RCN

Ferguson Doyle, RCN Senior Legal Officer and Solicitor who acted on behalf of Michelle, says: “This case demonstrates the true value of being a member of the RCN when you consider the cost of instructing lawyers in a multi-day discrimination claim on a private fee-paying basis. Michelle received our legal support and representation as a benefit of her membership with no extra cost.”

Are you having an issue at work? Our specialist team of RCN officers and in-house employment lawyers can deal with all aspects of employment law from unfair dismissals and redundancies to complex reorganisations, whistleblowing and discrimination. Contact our advisers here.

“In terms of staff experience, it’s striking that there is heterogeneity in the experience of BME staff,” says the report. “Most notably for nurses and midwives, the largest part of the workforce, there is a striking disadvantage experienced by Black staff who feel the least equality of opportunity and are the largest victims of discrimination.” 

Racism against staff is a real crisis, says Michelle. “It is a pandemic in the NHS, and we will no longer tolerate it,” she says. “These behaviours and exclusionary practices are hurting us, causing us trauma and sometimes death. The NHS will always be a very valued institution, but that doesn’t grant it absolution.” 

My experience of race discrimination resonates with hundreds of staff

Through both sharing her story and launching this new award, Michelle hopes to foster lasting change. “I know my experience of race discrimination, harassment and victimisation resonates with hundreds of staff from the global majority in the NHS,” says Michelle. 

“If it inspires others to take a stand against poor behaviours or discriminatory practice, then I believe change can begin, but it won’t be achieved overnight. What happened to me could happen to any other member of staff. Those experiencing poor behaviours need to know they’re not alone – and we stand with them.” 
Words: Lynne Pearce
Images: Zac Grant, Caseus Photography

Becoming an anti-racist organisation

At RCN Congress 2023, an emergency agenda item was brought to the hall: that this meeting of RCN Congress calls on RCN Council to ensure that the RCN is an anti-racist organisation. This resolution was passed, and since, we have been working hard to put this into action.

This isn’t a quick fix and requires a huge amount of focus and participation. As a first step, RCN Council has already agreed to re-establish its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee.

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