Positive Action in the United Kingdom

Migrant worker at building site


by Uduak Archibong and Fahmida Ashraf

This paper provides an overview of the laws regulating positive action in the UK. It also presents key findings from a selection of research studies on positive action in the UK conducted between 2003 and 2009 by the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Bradford, and provides examples of positive action drawn from these studies.


The projected life expectancy for workers who were 60 in the year 2000 is now 80 years (Griffiths, 1997). While the numbers of retired people post 2010 are set to rise dramatically, many will thus still have a life expectancy of a good number of years ahead of them at that point. To add to this, the UK has seen lower birth rates in the last 20 years (Griffiths, 1997) and the average age of first time mothers has also increased (National Statistics, 2004/2005). Moreover, the UK is likely to see decreasing numbers of economically active people and an increase in the average age at which people are entering into the workforce, yet it will simultaneously see a rise in the number of retired people. These factors together present an economic challenge for the future as the burden on pensions, health care and welfare rises, and together they provide a compelling economic case for diversity, as it will become increasingly important to place all those who can work into employment.

In addition to the economic obligations, the business case for diversity in UK workplaces has never been clearer. Many authors (e.g. Cassell, 1997; D’Netto and Sohal, 1999; Woodhams and Danieli, 2000) have shown that diversity is associated with competitive advantage and business success in several ways. Foremost, organisations that have ethical policies and procedures and which actively manage diversity are associated with an improved corporate image. This is increasingly important in a world where competition and markets are global, and where employees and customers alike are increasingly having more choice about who they give their custom to and who they work for. From an employee perspective, a heterogeneous organisation that celebrates diversity in its workforce has been associated with a range of desirable effects, from reduced staff turnover levels and increased workforce motivation to enhanced team working and improved business ideas (Cassell, 1997; Kochan et al., 2003). By breaking down the boundaries created by past discrimination, organisations that celebrate the diversity of their workforce are also better placed to attract and retain the best personnel (Woodhams and Danieli, 2000). Further, diversity has also been associated with increased organisational effectiveness in terms of improved decision making and problem solving, enhanced creativity and innovation and better quality management (Von Bergen, Soper and Parnell, 2005; Perkins, 2006). It is also associated with helping to create a flexible workforce that can aid the processes of restructuring and organisational change (Cassell, 1997).

From the consumer perspective, increased technology, the internet and global migration have meant that organisations now serve global markets and must therefore appeal to a multi-national, diverse customer base (Platt, 2005). D’Netto and Sohal (1999) note that today’s organisations must serve a customer base comprising people who are different and who share different attitudes, needs, desires, values and behaviours. So for example in organisations like the National Health Service (NHS), it is argued that where the workforce is representative of the communities that they serve, this will lead to care being delivered more effectively (Archibong, 2002; Woodhams and Danieli, 2000). In fact, equality and diversity strategies (DOH 2003) make a clear business case for the NHS to harness the diversity of its workforce. In other organisations, it is argued that mirroring the composition of customers and clients will provide an organisation with a desirable competitor advantage as the workforce will be better placed to understand its customers and will have an enhanced ability to deal more sensitively with their needs, thereby increasing customer satisfaction, and gaining and keeping their trust (D’Netto and Sohal, 1999; Von Bergen, Soper and Parnell, 2005). In addition, organisations with a diverse workforce are also associated with an ability to attract ethical investors, which is particularly important in the public sector (Cassell, 1997).

Clearly there remains a vibrant debate about the most appropriate way to tackle inequality and diversity at work (Edwards and McAllister, 2002; Bagshaw, 2004; Stratigaki, 2005; Bajawa and Woodhall, 2006; Young, Mountford and Skrla, 2006). Woodhams and Danieli (2000) have explained how the current UK approach to equality, at least in terms of legislation is to ensure that people are treated equally or “the same” (or no less equally) in spite of their differences. In other words the focus is on ensuring that circumstances do not arise in which decisions are based on differences (assumed to exist on the basis of socio/biological groupings) between people, as it is viewed that these circumstances often allow unfair discrimination to result. Nevertheless, Woodhams and Danieli (2000) argue that such policies and practices are flawed because they regard differences as negative and attempt to formally gloss over and ignore many of the fundamental group-based characteristics that divide one group from another. They have particularly noted the difficulties in placing people with disabilities within such an agenda because of the heterogeneity of this group. The above discussions indicate a compelling reason for institutions to take steps to ensure that their policies and practices are fair and lawful from the outset and have strengthened the need for transparent positive action measures for realising equality of opportunity in the workplace.

Legal perspective of positive action in the UK

Whilst legislative mandates which have been developed over the last 40 years have helped to create and respond to change in society and to promote civil rights and equality, inequality and discrimination persist today (Framework for a fairer future - The Equality Bill, 2008). For example:

  • The gender pay gap, though down from 17,4% in 1997, still means that a woman’s full time pay is on average 12,6% less per hour than a man’s. Women working part time are paid around 40% less per hour;
  • The rate of employment of disabled people is risen from 38% ten years ago to 48% today, but if you are disabled, you are still two and a half times more likely to be out of work than a non-disabled person;
  • If you were from an ethnic minority, in 1997 you were 17,9% less likely to find work than if you were white. The difference is still 15.5%;
  • 62% of over-fifties feel that they are turned down for a job because they are considered too old, compared with 5% of people in their thirties;
  • 6 out of 10 lesbian and gay school children experience homophobic bullying and half of those contemplate killing themselves as a result.

There is widespread recognition that the problem of discrimination will not disappear on its own and that appropriate strategies are required in order to nurture a workforce that comprises a variety of talents and reflects the diverse community being served (DOH, 2003; AUT, 2004; Archibong, 2006b, Archibong and Burford 2006). Indeed the current projections (Framework for a Fairer Future - Equality Bill, 2008) show that if progress is not stepped up:

  • The pay gap between men and women will not close until 2085;
  • It will take almost 100 years for people from ethnic minorities to get the same job prospects as white people;
  • Disabled people will probably never get the same job prospects;
  • It will take 20 years for women to achieve equal representation in the Senior Civil Service; and
  • It will take 80 years to elect a representative House of Commons.
  • In the UK, positive action policy has been put in place to redress disadvantage, eradicate discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for every member of society.At present there is no legal definition of positive action (Archibong et al. 2007), however key equal opportunities legislation allows employers to target specific groups (including women, disabled people and ethnic groups) in legally acceptable ways (NHS Employers, 2005).

Legislation that establishes positive action measures in the UK

In relation to the law applying in Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), positive action schemes are not established by legislation, although there are obligations on public authorities to promote equality.

The situation is different in Northern Ireland.  In 1989, the law on religious discrimination was significantly revised and it is now found in the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO) (SI 3162 (NI 21). In general terms, there are several key elements to the legal framework:

  • Employers with more than ten employees are obliged to collect data on the religious composition of their workforce, as well as job applicants.
  • At least once every three years, each employer must review the religious composition of those who are employed and determine whether “members of each community [i.e. Protestant and Catholic] are enjoying fair participation in employment” (Art 55(1)).
  • If there is not fair participation of both communities, the employer must determine “the affirmative action (if any) which would be reasonable and appropriate” (Art 55(2)).

The Equality Commission can require employers to provide evidence of the reviews that they have conducted. Ultimately, the Commission can direct an employer to take affirmative action and set goals for the employer as well as and timetables for changing the religious composition of the firm. These directions are legally enforceable.
In order to redress the substantial under-representation of Catholics in policing, recruitment to the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) is governed by a special legislative arrangement. The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 establishes a “50:50” recruitment scheme. Applicants to the PSNI are first sorted into pools of qualified persons (i.e. those who have sufficient qualifications to be considered for appointment). Two pools are formed: one consists of Protestant applicants (and any other non-Catholic applicants); the other consists of Catholic applicants. For every person appointed from the Protestant pool of applicants, one must also be appointed from the Catholic pool (section 46(1)).

Legislation that establish obligations on public or private sector organisations to take positive action

There are no legal instruments in Great Britain which oblige private sector organisations to take positive action.
With regard to public sector organisations, there are a range of legal obligations which place public authorities under a duty to promote equality. Whilst these might not constitute positive action per se, they establish frameworks within which public authorities can be expected to take positive action.

The first duty to promote equality was created in Northern Ireland. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 places public authorities under a duty to “have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity-

(a) between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status, sexual orientation;
(b) between men and women generally;
(c) between persons with a disability and those without; and
(d) between persons with dependents and those without.”

Schedule 9 of the Act specifies that all public authorities are required to prepare an “equality scheme” setting out the detailed arrangements for complying with the duty.

In Great Britain, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 introduced an amended section 71(1), which states that a public authority:
“shall, in carrying out its functions, have due regard to the need
(a) to eliminate unlawful discrimination; and
(b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.”

The general duty in the Act was subsequently supplemented by a series of legally-enforceable specific duties set out in the Race Relations Act 1976 (Statutory Duties) Order 2001 (No. 3458). In summary, these create obligations for public authorities to collect data relating to the ethnic origin of their employees and, in relation to education providers, students. Most public authorities must also prepare a race equality scheme explaining the organisation’s procedures for taking race equality into account in policy-making. The race equality duty has now been complemented by further duties on disability and gender. The disability duty was created by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the gender duty is included in the Equality Act 2006. Both follow a broadly similar structure to the race equality duty, although there are differences in their detailed requirements. The government has expressed its intention to introduce a single equality duty covering also the grounds of gender reassignment, age, disability and sexual orientation (Government Equalities Office: Framework for a fairer future – the Equality Bill’ (cm 7431, 2008) p. 15).

Forms of positive action permitted, but not required, by legislation

Most of the British anti-discrimination legislation provides specific exceptions for two types of positive action in relation to employment. Firstly, there are exceptions for ‘outreach’ measures (e.g. s. 37 Race Relations Act 1976). These are steps designed to encourage participation in the workforce from under-represented communities, e.g. advertising a job in ethnic minority newspapers. Secondly, there are exceptions for training schemes. This allows employers and other bodies to provide targeted training schemes for members of under-represented groups, either for job-seekers or for those already in employment. In addition, the Northern Ireland legislation allows employers to adopt criteria in redundancy selection which might indirectly discriminate against the over-represented religious community (Art. 73 FETO). Employers in Northern Ireland can also limit recruitment to persons who have been unemployed for a specific period of time (this would indirectly discriminate against Protestants because Catholics are over-represented among the long-term unemployed) (Art. 75 FETO).

In relation to positive action outside the employment sphere, two provisions can be highlighted. Section 35 of the Race Relations Act 1976 permits measures “done in affording persons of a particular racial group access to facilities or services to meet the special needs of persons of that group in regard to their education, training or welfare …”. This has been used for a wide variety of schemes, such as nursing homes for particular racial groups (Para 4.23, Department for Communities and Local Government 2007).  In addition, the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 permits, inter alia, the use of women-only shortlists when political parties select candidates for elections. It should be noted that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 forbids discrimination against disabled persons, but there is no corresponding prohibition of discrimination against non-disabled persons. This means that no exceptions are needed to justify positive action for disabled persons as this cannot be challenged as unlawful discrimination against non-disabled persons.

Forms of positive action prohibited by legislation

With the exception of disability, anti-discrimination legislation applies in a symmetrical fashion. This means that positive action measures designed to assist groups vulnerable to discrimination (such as women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities) may constitute unlawful discrimination against members of the advantaged group (e.g. men, the White British, Christians, etc). Unless it is protected by the specific statutory exceptions described above, positive action is vulnerable to legal challenge as direct or indirect discrimination. For example, Lambeth v. Commission for Racial Equality (1990 ICR 768) concerned a Council district where over half of all tenants were Afro-Caribbean or Asian. In order to make the housing service more sensitive to the needs of minority ethnic communities, the Council reserved certain posts for minorities. In relation to those posts which did not involve substantial contact with the public, this was held to constitute unlawful direct discrimination.

The new Equality Act (2010) brings together nine separate pieces of legislation into one single Act simplifying the law and strengthening it in important ways to help tackle discrimination and inequality. Implementation of the majority of the Equality Act will begin on 1 October 2010. The Equality Act 2010 provides a new cross-cutting legislative framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all; to update, simplify and strengthen the previous legislation; and to deliver a simple, modern and accessible framework of discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. There is on-going debate on how the Equality Act will extend positive action.

Positive action in the UK: Research evidence

This section presents findings from four studies conducted by the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity, University of Bradford between 2003 and 2009.

Study 1

The three-year collaborative study “Positive Action Research in Education and Health (PAREH) (Archibong et al. 2006a) was undertaken between September 2003 and August 2006. It aimed to explore the understanding of Positive Action and assess its impact on workforce diversity in the Higher Education, Further Education and National Health Service (NHS) sectors. It was jointly funded by the University of Bradford and the European Social Fund. The scope of the study was broad and addressed the following research questions: What are the meanings and goals of positive action in three specific contexts: Higher Education, Further Education and National Health Service sectors? To what extent does the reality of positive action match the experiences, expectations and aspirations in the areas of race, gender and disability? A comparative case study methodology was utilised with a combination of various participatory methods – literature review, documentary analysis, concept analysis, interviews, focus groups, conference and survey. 

Key findings - Conceptual dimensions of positive action

A concept analysis framework was adopted in this study to consider the usage of the notion of positive action within both legislative and practical contexts. With a focus on the UK context, the approach involved identification of conceptual characteristics in terms of borderline cases, related cases, antecedents and consequences.

Whilst the overall equality and diversity agenda receives high profile media coverage and continues to be well debated in academic circles, there is significantly less conceptual analysis of the nature of the anti-discriminatory tools that the public sector employer can call upon, and this presents both practical and theoretical problems in their application. This is particularly the case with positive action, which has been on the statute books in the UK since the mid-1970s and is a means of overcoming structural workforce-related disadvantage for particular social groups. More than thirty years later, with a public sector increasingly aware of positive action’s potential for overcoming inequality and enhancing workforce diversity, considerable confusion remains over its appropriate application in the workplace. In NHS case studies, Iganski et al. (2001) found few positive action initiatives that were embedded in systematic strategies, and arguments for such initiatives were neither understood nor embraced. Bhavnani (1997) also found that schemes are often developed in an ad hoc and pragmatic way in which theory does not accompany practice.

Certainly, whilst it has strong potential as an anti-discrimination measure (Karim, 2004), positive action remains a contested term (Nowak, 2004), with wrongful interpretation by employers leading in some instances to litigation (Karim, 2004; Nowak, 2004, Millar, 2006a). In the recent consultation document on age discrimination, positive action proposals were criticised by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), who said that the guidelines were, “Vague and insufficient” (DTI, 2006). Within the workforce, poor communication of well-intended positive action measures have sometimes caused confusion amongst intended beneficiaries and their peers (Arora and Archibong, 2003); with such situations potentially leading to stigmatisation of recipients and a negative impact on overall staff morale. Moreover, such methods are also limited because there is a lack of parity between legislative provisions for equality strands. Indeed suggestions have been made for Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups to be given the same priority as gender equality, particularly in Public Administration (PA) training and setting targets at higher structural levels within universities (Carter, Fenton and Modood, 1999).

Positive action can be considered to have three significant conceptual dimensions: the legislative, the practical and the political. Statutory equality bodies explain the legislative concept, whilst managers within organisations develop the concept of positive action and apply it through workforce diversity measures. Nonetheless, the perception of positive action is affected by its communication through the media. It can seem directly dependent on the context, and can be driven and framed by the political agenda of the time. These factors can impact on the nature of positive action and the initiatives that materialise in reality.

Other findings

Although the majority of organisations involved in this research had detailed equality and diversity policies in place, there were mixed interpretations of positive action and confusion between general equal opportunities practices and positive action. There were perceptions of exclusion by the very people targeted by positive action, particularly in relation to being ostracised and made to feel uncomfortable when taking part. Senior management were not involving under-represented groups in the decision-making process in relation to positive action, suggesting that positive action implementation is more to do with compliance with legislation and less to do with “hearts and minds”. Most positive action activities which were identified in this research were targeted at women and black and minority ethnic groups. There was limited evidence on programmes aimed at disabled staff.

There was an over emphasis on positive action initiatives aimed at service users and less so for schemes aimed at staff. Specific initiatives such as schemes for supporting learning, training, mentoring, work shadowing and forums for networking have been highlighted as selective examples of positive action.

Participants have reported the visible benefits of positive action, particularly in relation to promoting a diverse workforce, providing assistance to minority groups and improving representation in the workforce.  Although the benefits of positive action are highlighted, particularly in relation to improving representation of women and BME people in organisations, more effort is required in getting minority groups in senior posts within organisations.

Some designers of positive action initiatives felt that they were doing well in terms of disability, and positive action was therefore not necessary. However, evidence from the study suggests that positive action is least prioritised in organisations. Others, especially peers, felt that such practices were unfair and that minority ethnic people were being advantaged at the expense of the majority.

Study 2

This study addressed “Critical Success Factors in the Implementation of Positive Action in the NHS UK” (Baxter et al. 2008). Early desk top research by NHS Employers (2005) established that, although positive action initiatives are common in the NHS, there is little coordination of these activities nationally. The main objectives were to investigate and identify the types and range of positive action activities, identify key success factors, and showcase examples of successful positive action schemes. A total of 20 organisations took part in the study, providing over 70 examples of positive action for consideration. The researchers visited each of these organisations and conducted in-depth interviews to find out more about the respective positive action schemes.

On completion of the interviews, the schemes were analysed, and a focus group brought together all participating organisations.  Emerging findings were shared and consensus gained on the key factors supporting successful positive action.

Key findings

Participating organisations were asked to consider the factors which, in their view, were key to achieving success with positive action. There was a considerable degree of consensus on these, and participants emphasised that all of them needed to be in place to strengthen the chances of success.


By far the most often cited “success factors” were connected with strong leadership. These included:

  • a dedicated resource, in the form of a designated individual, preferably with a sound knowledge of equality and diversity issues, in a position to drive through the required “logistical” aspects of the work but also able to overcome some of the less tangible – cultural or political – issues which inevitably arise;
  • passion for the work and the objectives, i.e. understanding and enthusiasm, drive and perseverance;
  • commitment from the top of the organisation, and across the organisation, including managers, clinical staff etc.;
  • an emphasis on team working.

    Strategic Management Approach
    Many organisations pointed to the value of undertaking positive action initiatives within a strong strategic framework, which ensures that the option to try positive action emerged from a sound, appropriately funded, long-term strategy for the organisation. Examples include positive action as part of a long-term recruitment and retention strategy or wider organisation development programme.

Several examples of positive action in our survey were developed as part of a local partnership scheme with other stakeholder organisations such as other NHS Trusts, the local Strategic Health Authority, the Local Authority and Jobcentre Plus (a UK government agency supporting people of working age from welfare into work and helping employers to fill their vacancies).  These schemes not only support coordinated action across a community but also often provide real resource savings, as part of the work involved is delegated to other organisations or shared across several partners.

Sound planning and project management were regularly cited as instrumental in achieving success. This includes robust evaluation which demonstrates that the positive action being implemented is having the required effect. Outcomes might include changing the balance of ethnicity among staff in general, or increasing the number of disabled applicants for certain posts.


Communicating to the right people, in the right way at the right time is a major success factor and should be considered carefully. Three main aspects of this emerge in relation to implementing positive action:
1. Communicating with target groups: knowing the local community and why certain groups are being targeted - and effectively marketing the organisation or specific initiative to them in ways which will make an impact.
2. Communicating within the organisation: making it clear what the positive action initiative is about and what it is trying to achieve, managing expectations, why it is not “unfair” to other groups, when it is due to end etc.
3. Sharing good practice: there is a great deal of good work taking place; re-inventing the wheel is wasteful and time-consuming whereas networking and mutual learning can offer shortcuts and earlier pay-back.

Organisational Culture

Another, less tangible aspect of successful outcomes is the culture of the organisation – “the way we do things round here”. For example, the ability to “think outside the box”, be flexible and adaptable, and even to take calculated risks, is seen by several of those involved as key drivers in determining what they did and how they went about it.

Celebrating success is also seen as an important feature of achieving cultural change: fostering a sense of achievement, improved morale and laying the foundations for more successful action in the future.


Unsurprisingly, securing adequate resources is considered fundamental to success. However, many of the other success factors can help to bolster the resources available, such as: sharing good practice to save needless repetition of work, careful targeting and evaluation to improve the value derived from each initiative, and sound planning and project management to help to ensure that resources are used effectively.

Study 3

The third study project is entitled “Positive action measures in the European Union, Canada, United States and South Africa” (PAMECUS) (Archibong et al. 2009b). This section is an extract that will present the main findings from the thematic analysis based upon the data collected from 2 consensus workshops and interviews involving 62 HR/ED professionals in the UK. In addition, the research involved a documentary analysis of the materials provided by workshop participants relating to positive action policies and practices within their respective organisations.

Key findings

Whilst all interviewees perceived positive action to be closely linked to the mission of their organisation, their understanding varied significantly across sectors. There was a general consensus that positive action was an effective way to change organisational practices in order to redress former injustice experienced by historically oppressed minority groups.  Several interpretations of positive action were offered. Positive action is viewed as an effective and legitimate tool to bring about change within organisations.

A number of reasons were identified as to why positive action had been introduced within organisations. Public sector interviewees consistently attributed the impetus for implementing positive action within their organisations to legislation which “makes organisations ... stand up and seem to be committed”.

The effectiveness of positive action as a tool to achieve sustainable change was unquestioned but appeared to be dependent upon a number of wider variables. Given that positive action can be seen to have negative connotations, interviewees felt that organisations needed to communicate clear messages about the aims behind introducing such measures and how they would be operationalised in practice. Embedding positive action within the philosophy of an organisation with a genuine understanding and acceptance of its importance amongst all staff was considered to be key to successful application of positive action measures. Equally, it was felt that there needed to be a strong commitment and willingness within the workforce to change the existing organisational culture and strong leadership and commitment to achieve change.

Organisations are generally satisfied with the progress they have made through their implementation of positive action measures and could see the benefits. Many organisations recognised the value of positive action as a tool to help them create a workforce that would better reflect and respond to the needs of local communities.  However, there were mixed results in terms of assessing the impact of positive action strategies across organisations. It was apparent that not all organisations felt confident about discussing the impact of their initiatives due to a lack of clarity about what their expectations had been from the outset in relation to their respective project outcomes.  Organisations have no way of measuring whether positive action has achieved its aims; consequently a more robust system of monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment needs to be built into positive action programmes from the outset.

There was widespread agreement that positive action initiatives were more likely to get off the ground with involvement from the target group itself. Some organisations felt that sufficient effort had not been made to mainstream equality internally.

Study 4

This study dealt with Corrective Action to redress the ethnic imbalance in senior management: Experiences of BME Leaders/Managers in the NHS (Ashraf and Archibong 2009). The NHS has historically been undertaking several initiatives to promote equality in employment as well as programmes to develop and promote BME staff (NHS Executive, 1996). However, discrimination remains a feature of NHS employment practices and may help to explain the lack of BME staff at senior levels in the service (Esmail, 2007; Archibong and Darr 2010). Despite having many initiatives BME staff are under-represented in the NHS senior management (National Nursing Leadership Programme, 2002, Esmail 2004, Archibong et al. 2006b) and at the top of each organisation, the management is almost always white (Carvel and Shifrin 2004). The literature review highlights the disproportionate numbers of BME staff at middle and senior management levels within the NHS.

Iganski et al. (2001) and Bagihole (1999) found that implementation of equal opportunities in NHS is slow and there is a lack of equal opportunities-related managerial knowledge and strategies. There are basic statistics on the number of BME staff employed by the NHS but very little on their access to training courses, leadership programmes and promotional opportunities (Esmail 2007; Esmail et al. 2005). Whilst recent attempts to encourage the participation of influential senior managers, acting as role models for BME junior staff and breaking down the old hierarchical relationships, is crucial for the success of BME staff (Salman and Butler, 2004), evidence exists to show that factors such as the lack of exposure to positive BME role models may have militated against effective sustenance of representational diversity (Darr et al. 2008; Archibong et al. 2007). Although several research studies have been carried out on different initiatives/programmes offered at the organisational level, limited work has been published on the experiences of people who have participated in those initiatives.

The aim of the study was to explore the experiences of corrective action initiatives in redressing the ethnic imbalance in NHS senior management. This study explored the main NHS corrective action initiatives to develop BME staff into management, the impact of corrective action initiatives in terms of BME staff progression and retention and their experiences. A case study approach involving in-depth face to face semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis of relevant policies was undertaken.

Key findings

The study revealed many ongoing corrective action initiatives taking place in NHS organisations such as Top Talent programme, the Breaking Through Programme, BME Graduate Programme, Transformational Leadership course, The Mary Seacole Awards and Beacon programme. Other initiatives include management and fast tracking schemes, BME staff forums, BME support groups and networks schemes aimed at recognising and cultivating leadership potential within BME staff (National Nursing Leadership Programme, 2002).

Corrective action initiatives were seen as an opportunity to learn and develop in a safe environment. Most participants felt that corrective action changed their lives in terms of achieving confidence, skills, networking and gaining qualifications. These participants described corrective action initiatives as milestones in their lives that helped them to develop in their roles at work and changed their thinking positively and how they worked from prior to their participation in the corrective action initiatives. Other participants felt that anyone can become a manager but not necessarily be an effective leader, and these initiatives taught them how to be an effective leader or a good manager.

The benefits of positive actions were visible as individual participants highlighted the changes experienced after participation, both at the workplace and at the personal level. These initiatives were seen by participants as an opportunity to develop and progress in their professions. During participation in these initiatives people learnt new skills and gained qualifications to compete. Some participants were promoted at work from managers to senior managers, and some were given team leaders’ roles as well as a pay rise. Those participants who took part in the Breaking Through Programme were encouraged to apply for promotions or a secondment post up to Director level. These initiatives provided participants with learning opportunities including presentation skills, communication skills, negotiation skills and confidence to ask questions/raise any concerns during meetings and one-to-one sessions. In some cases participants were not directly promoted but their roles and responsibilities were changed so that some participants started representing their departments/teams to different boards and meetings. In some organisations where individuals felt that they could not move on with their careers in their own organisation, participating in these initiatives gave them the confidence to apply elsewhere and come back after a few years to more senior posts in their own organisations.

Overall, the findings suggest that there are some good examples of corrective action initiatives taking place in the NHS organisations. Corrective action initiatives were supported by the most senior staff working in the NHS such as executives and directors. The ongoing involvement in mentoring by the executives/directors made huge differences for the participants in terms of encouraging them to share their learning and applying for better posts or secondments. Participants gained skills and qualifications to compete at work. Many participants were promoted at senior levels and others moved out to work with the other NHS organisations for better posts. Most participants reported that BME staff networks helped them gain knowledge and information about different training opportunities.

Although these initiatives made a visible difference in terms of participants’ learning and helping them move on with their careers, it was also evident that it was not the case for every participant. Some people struggled to cope with the change that was taking place as a result of The Agenda for Change. Under the current economic climate, like at any other large organisations, NHS employees were also facing difficulties in terms of their contracts or job securities. Some participants experienced lack of support from their colleagues and were unable to share their learning with their colleagues. Although there are many Directors and Chief Executives involved in mentoring it is often only a short term commitment. To make mentoring more successful, an ongoing commitment from the most senior staff is essential. One-to-one sessions with mentors encouraged BME managers to raise certain issues such as how they were treated by their colleagues and line managers as well as working towards their career progression. Ongoing support from senior management gives confidence to participants and makes a real difference in their development and job progression (McCarty et al., 2005).

Examples of positive action measures in the UK

Black Leadership Initiative

As part of a Further Education College’s efforts to achieve a more representative workforce in relation to disability, gender and ethnicity, the Race Equality Action Plan for the college identified an under-representation of black staff at senior management level within the organisation. A programme to provide mentoring for black staff in the further education sector was set up to help them advance in their career paths. Some of the impetus for this initiative came from the Network for Black Managers, which is an established forum that challenges racial inequality within the further education sector. Members of this network currently meet regularly and make presentations to minority ethnic staff based at the college. College restructuring took place two years ago and involved working with the Network for Black Managers to recruit more minority ethnic staff as well as to make recommendations. 

Creating a more representative workforce

This project was anchored in a voluntary organisation which provides educational, care and employment services for people with complex learning disabilities and other disabilities. The Disability Discrimination Act and related legislation triggered the need to boost the number of disabled people in the workforce. Although the organisation is not a public sector organisation and therefore not beholding to its duties, it works with public bodies such as the Learning and Skills Council that are compliant with the legislation. There are also financial incentives for the organisation to recruit more disabled students onto courses as all these students have financial weighting attached to their disabilities.

Recruitment and selection procedures are in place to encourage people with disabilities to apply for positions within the organisation. There is a guarantee of an interview, once the minimum requirements are met by applicants.  Comparisons are made by the Personnel department on a regular basis with figures held by the local authority to assess whether applications reflect the proportion of disabled people in the local population.

Improving recruitment of people of Chinese and mixed ethnic backgrounds into the health service

This project is executed by a Primary Care Trust. The Trust is committed to becoming an employer of choice and embedding equality into all its policies. It undertook a ‘data cleanse’ exercise in relation to its workforce in 2007, which provided a breakdown of the workforce by the different equality strands. The results of this exercise provided the Trust with an evidence base from which to set workforce targets. The Trust also introduced a number of initiatives to improve the representation of underrepresented groups into the workforce, including specific ethnic groups. 

In order to attract more applicants of Chinese and mixed ethnic backgrounds, job vacancies were emailed to 300 community organisations and also distributed through the organisation’s weekly bulletin. The national website “Ethnic Britain” was also used to advertise 80 posts. In addition guidance for potential applicants on how to access NHS jobs was translated into different languages. Workforce targets are reported on at the end of the year and those targets that are outstanding are rolled onto the following year’s targets. It was highlighted that the online process of filling in application forms for NHS jobs was far from straightforward.

Promoting Global Citizenship and Lifelong Learning

Located within a voluntary sector organisation, the initiative was developed in response to a need expressed by members of the African community, particularly young people and women, to learn more about their own history and identity. The purpose was to raise community awareness about social (in)equality, including subjugation and marginalisation faced by African people.

The organisation runs programmes to help teach about the history of Africa as part of a continuum of struggle dating back to the era of chattel slavery. The organisation also teaches skills for overcoming day-to-day challenges, emphasises indigenous self-knowledge systems and encourages people to unify around a belief in common, human dignity. The success of the initiative is evaluated with reference to the satisfaction of community members with the initiative, measured by feedback from individuals, audio interviews and suggestion box type forms.

Widening Opportunity for Women (WOW): Maintaining the WOW factor

In 1999, the percentage of women in senior posts in a health organisation was 28%. One hundred women were surveyed to help develop the content of the programme. W.O.W. consists of a series of workshops which can either be done in sequence or selectively. The workshops originally included issues such as making a difference; assertiveness skills; positive thinking; and time out for working parents. New workshops include finding the balance; making more of a difference; and mentoring/coaching if required. The outcomes of the project include 325 women who have attended W.O.W. training since 2000 and almost 40% senior posts are now occupied by women. Furthermore in 2004, 54.5 per cent of appointments were earned by women. The programme was described by an external audit as “An excellent example of the use of training as a positive action tool.”

Positive Assets: Mental health service user employment service

People who use mental health services are sometimes disadvantaged when they apply for jobs and may suffer discrimination. In order to challenge this discrimination, the Trust has developed Positive Assets to encourage and support individuals who have used mental health services to apply for posts within the Trust. Support is available from the Trust in a number of ways including:

  • Ensuring the recruitment process values the skills and experiences gained by service users.
  • Advertising job vacancies directly to service users, user groups and mental health workers.
  • Working with applicants to identify strengths and skills.
  • Helping with the completion of forms and interview preparation.
  • Supplying practical information – finance, childcare, training etc.
  • Providing ongoing practical support once in post.

Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI)

The University’s WiSETI had its origins in 1993 when the University joined the Opportunity 2000 Campaign. In 1998 some of the University’s culture change goals were targeted at SET with specific initiatives to address the under-representation of women in SET. WiSETI was created in 1999 with support from Personnel and funding from the Vice-Chancellor to raise expectations and to meet the challenge of those raised hopes and aspirations. Its remit is:

  • to improve the numbers of women studying SET at the university;
  • to improve the recruitment, retention and promotion rates of women in SET appointments and 
  • to raise the profile and enhance the self-confidence of women in SET through a range of initiatives.

WiSETI addresses:

  • access - recruitment and admissions; 
  • participation - retention of women graduate students and post-docs;
  • progression - the career progress of women post-docs into permanent posts and their retention if they choose to have children or have to undertake other caring responsibilities;
  • performance - whether women are required to outperform men in order to win research funding or appointments.

WiSETI has played a key role in highlighting the issue of the under-representation of women in SET. It successfully introduced dialogue between the different agencies in the university (where undergraduates are admitted by Colleges) concerned with outreach to school students. It is mainstreamed into and funded from the University's HR Strategy, with additional financial support from the Colleges and the University's learning and teaching strategy. An annual WiSETI lecture by a high profile woman scientist is part of the outreach to girls and women who may be interested in science.


Positive action in the UK is generally viewed as an effective and legitimate tool to bring about change within organisations. The legislative mandate is a key driver for compliance with the utilisation of positive action in the public sector. Many organisations have recognised the value of positive action as a tool to help them create a workforce that would better reflect and respond to the needs of local communities.

Strong leadership and commitment is required for positive action initiatives to be effective. Organisations are generally satisfied with the progress they have made through their implementation of positive action measures and could see the benefits. However, organisations have no way of measuring whether positive action has achieved its aims; consequently a more robust system of monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment needs to be built into positive action programmes from the outset.


Uduak Archibong is Professor of Diversity at the University of Bradford and Director of the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity. She has led the EC commissioned PAMECUS study. Fahmida Ashraf is Research Officer at above Centre of Inclusion and Diversity.

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