Andrew Mutandwa explains how he’s breaking down communication barriers and supporting BAME staff

After a long day at work a few years ago, I was asked if I wanted tea. I didn’t want tea at that point, I was hungry, and I wanted a meal.

To be honest I was a little put out that I was offered just a hot drink. I politely declined, only to later find out that what I was being offered was, in fact, a meal. A meal called tea.

No wonder I was confused.

But what happened back then just goes to show how easily people can be misunderstood, even if they’re trying to be helpful. 

Andrew Mutandwa

Andrew Mutandwa

This is especially the case if someone’s first language isn’t English. Some communication can even be seen as offensive, and people acting with the best of intentions can find themselves in trouble. 

Speaking and understanding in your second or sometimes third language can be a challenge at any time, and even more so when operating under the workplace pressure of the health care frontline.

People acting with the best of intentions can find themselves in trouble

Some colleagues have told me they have had to tone down and lower their voices in their workplaces. That’s not always an easy thing to do if that’s how you’ve learnt to speak. It’s difficult to unlearn.

Thankfully, in my role as a cultural ambassador, I can help.

Tackling inequalities

After making a Freedom of Information request back in 2015, BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) activists alerted the RCN West Midlands office to the over-representation of BAME staff in disciplinary processes.

As a result of this and the fact that research has shown that staff from BAME backgrounds often experience inequality, discrimination and prejudice in the workplace, the RCN started training cultural ambassadors.

I now identify and explore issues of culture and behaviour - where staff may be treated less favourably - potential discrimination and unconscious or conscious cultural bias. I’m not here to judge but rather to be curious about these issues, make them transparent, and create a dialogue to establish their potential impact.

We always see if a case can be dealt with before it becomes formal

It’s a voluntary role undertaken by BAME staff and it enables me to be part of an investigation team or a member of a decision-making panel for grievances and disciplinary hearings where a BAME member of staff is involved. I work on all stages of workplace investigations and hearings – but we always see if a case can be dealt with before it becomes formal.

When the role was first introduced it seemed to be aimed at senior people. I argued successfully that this approach brought drawbacks. If you hold a very senior position in an organisation, it can be more difficult to see the issue from anything other than the workplace perspective.

I’m a nursing support worker and have worked in health care since 2003 but my background is in writing, the media and diplomacy. I believe my experience makes me an ideal cultural ambassador as I’ve always been aware of issues of culture and the impact they can have on people whose first language isn’t English. 

Seeing positive change

Being a cultural ambassador has helped me personally too. I now know my organisation much better. Before people were just names in a mailbox.

Now I interact with a wider pool of staff at all levels and feel more valued as a member of staff. The trust involves me at the highest level, and I’ve been invited onto a panel to interview for non-executive board directors. 

However, for me, the most important outcome has been the positive change the role has brought to the organisation.

I’m starting to see a clear impact where teams have previously worked with a cultural ambassador. For them it’s no longer just a process; they’ve now changed the way things are thought about. 

Best of all, I can see more positive change coming as the role embeds itself into the organisation. It’s worked so well because the managers I’ve worked with get it too. They’re very supportive, looking at the bigger picture, and the organisational benefits of everyone getting a fair chance. 

It’s encouraging to see how the way people think is changing so rapidly. Black History Month was amazing last year. It was huge and people didn’t need to be asked to participate. They just did.

It really is so important to have representation at all levels

I’d urge other nursing support workers to consider becoming cultural ambassadors too. It really is so important to have representation at all levels, so we reflect the staff working at all grades and continue to break down barriers.

Andrew Mutandwa is the author of A Temporary Inconvenience.

What is the RCN cultural ambassador programme?

Volunteers from BAME backgrounds in participating organisations receive specific training to enable them to sit as part of investigation teams or as members of decision-making panels for grievances and disciplinary hearings where a BAME member of staff is involved

Wendy Irwin, RCN Diversity and Equalities Co-ordinator, says: "The cultural ambassador programme equips participants with rare and necessary racial literacy which has the power to create accountability and action to prevent further harm.

"All institutions and employers need to recognise the extent to which forms of racism continue to blight the lives of health care staff and patients from BAME backgrounds."

Find out more about the programme

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