“Why discrimination is bad for business – reputationally, financially, morally.”

“Would you have the courage to speak up?” was one of the key questions posed at a recent NHS system-wide staff cultural event led by equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) leads at NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin. 

Speaking at the event – a celebration of cultural diversity in the local NHS as well as an opportunity to challenge current processes and culture - Michelle Cox, a registered general nurse who practised in the North-West, delivered an inspiring keynote speech to delegates describing with uncomfortable detail the ordeal of taking the NHS to an employment tribunal on the grounds of race discrimination, harassment, victimisation and whistleblowing. 

Also speaking at the event, which was held at AFC Telford on Thursday 21 September, were Sal Hampson and Sue Gorbing from Safe Ageing No Discrimination (SAND), a local community interest company campaigning for the rights of older and old LGBT+ people. 

Described by one journalist as ‘a Rosa Parks moment for the NHS’, Michelle won the landmark case (Cox vs NHSE) after the judge heard evidence that her employer had treated her unfavourably because of her race and because she was willing to speak up. 

Talking about the judgement, Michelle said: “Discrimination is bad for business - reputationally, financially, morally; I continue to be surprised by the number of departments, line managers and HR colleagues who are not familiar with the rights and protections under the Equality Act 2010 and the interpretation of the law. 

“Staff contact me weekly with traumatic stories of bullying, harassment, and exclusion, working in hostile environments, dreading going to work, and ready to resign. Change won’t happen overnight, but I think the [Cox vs NHSE] judgement has been a wake-up call to system leaders, HR departments and legal teams, that incidents of racism will no longer be tolerated and should be recorded with the same rigour as any other reportable incident. 

“Discrimination is rarely overt, and articulating an event or series of events can be difficult for individuals, hence why most grievances in the workplace are not upheld. Whether on purpose or unintentional, discrimination regardless of intention is illegal. 

“I hope that by sharing my experience it will help people gain a better understanding of what it means to discriminate and be discriminated against. How institutional racism can translate through policies, processes, and practices, which sees preferential treatment given to one group of people over another. 

“I know my experience of race discrimination, harassment and victimisation resonates with hundreds of staff from the global majority in the NHS, and if that inspires someone else to take a stand against poor behaviours or discriminatory practice then I believe change can happen. I want all staff experiencing poor behaviours to know they are not alone. Speaking up and having brave, courageous conversations are needed to create the pace of change required. 

“As a nurse, I often found that it was the patient stories at board meetings, and testimonials at staff networks, that were more impactful than any mandatory training offer. What happened to me could happen to any member of staff and no organisation is immune from similar cases. 

“By sharing my experience, organisations will better understand their risks, challenges, and opportunities to see grievances through a different lens; and for staff to understand their rights and responsibilities. It is fantastic to have the opportunity to speak at an EDI event like this and I hope my message resonated with those in the room.” 

Image: Michelle Cox taken by Zak Grant at Caseus Photography. 

Page last updated 26 September 2023