No more awkward silences - opening the door to open conversations


Patrick Price, general manager and equality and diversity lead at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, explains how open conversations with colleagues has led to LGBT staff at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust experiencing greater levels of job satisfaction, and has increased their confidence in career progression opportunities.

I’ve been a manager of one kind or another in the NHS in the North East for over 20 years. I got involved in health-related issues as a result of being part of that group of (mainly) gay men and lesbians who worked to establish HIV/AIDS prevention programmes in the North East in the early 80s.

That experience, working alongside NHS and social care staff to improve services for gay men, sparked an interest in broader health issues. This in turn led to my first NHS appointment, as a manager working to establish integrated sexual health services in Northumberland. I now have responsibility for overseeing the majority of community health services across Northumbria Healthcare Trust – one of the Stonewall top 100 employers 2016.

When I first started work I was completely open about my then partner of four years, joining in the banter during tea breaks (remember when we had time for them?) confusing matters by discussing my first son’s recent birth. There was one of those extended silences – I’m sure I saw some tumbleweed roll across the room – followed by the swift end of the tea break. 

I could tell that people were a bit embarrassed to ask all the obvious questions and were avoiding me in terms of personal conversations. It’s easy to see how LGBT people can be marginalised even if the intention is not to exclude them.

It resolved itself when I decided to come clean at the team meeting and explain that - despite the fact that I was in a long-term relationship with a man, I had fathered a child. I understood instinctively that the issue was not necessarily prejudice, but embarrassment in case they said the wrong thing, or maybe that was how I chose to view it, either way it opened the door for a conversation that continues to this day.

Somewhere along the line, the trust’s and the local council’s staff survey results indicated LGBT staff were not as confident as their peers that they were being afforded equal treatment in terms of career progression.

At this point my bosses remembered that I had a previous existence as a community worker with one of the early national pilot programmes providing HIV prevention and support to gay men.

It’s not that I was the only gay in the village, but I was certainly out at work and quite open about my passion for equality and diversity. They may also have remembered the tales I told about singing in an LGBT band and an LGBT choir and being part of an LGBT running group – notice a theme?

Anyway, back to the job in hand. In order to understand what the issues were I established a staff network group that was advertised in staff newsletters and, most importantly, through the team brief that all staff receive. It seemed on further investigation that many of the perceived barriers were based on the assumption that LGBT staff were not progressing because they were not visible, particularly at the top of the organisation. Other issues that arose were around specific cultures within teams, the need for general awareness raising and evidence that policies, for example the parental leave policy, applied equally to LGBT staff.

Luckily I work in a trust that actively encourages the values of respect and inclusion, and have had support from the very top of the organisation to implement changes needed to make LGBT staff feel that they are valued along with their peers. After a lot of work to address the issues raised, LGBT staff now regularly report the same level of satisfaction as their peers.

We have publicised profiles of senior staff who are open about their sexuality, and have a well-supported staff network group that meets regularly. We have revised policies to reflect the specific needs of LGBT staff and have updated our training programmes and our induction process to ensure everyone is aware of the need to treat colleagues and patients with dignity and respect, regardless of sexual orientation.

At the heart of all of this progress is the principle of involving LGBT staff and communities in shaping policy, training and campaigns. We have a regular presence at our regional Pride event and are proud to be one of the Stonewall top 100 employers 2016.

We still recognise that things can always be improved, LGBT history month gives us a further opportunity to challenge assumptions, and to present our experiences in a real way that is grounded in the lived experiences of our LGBT workforce. Our visibility and that of our peer supporters sends a clear message to other staff and patients that we are welcome and valued.

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