It’s time to strengthen the recruitment process, says the RCN’s Howard Catton
I remember clearly being asked why I wanted to be a nurse at my interview back in the 1980s. Smugly, I gave my prepared and, what I thought to be, model answer, saying I wanted to care and I gave examples of caring as a volunteer and for relatives. One of the panel, whom I later knew as a formidable ward sister, lent forward and said: “Howard, we know why you want to care, but tell us how you think the people you have cared for were feeling.”
Caring is tough and complex work and so much more than the offer of a shoulder to cry on or a cup of sweet tea. While no one would want to think of themselves as uncaring that doesn’t mean everyone has the intrinsic ability to deliver nursing care. Caring and compassion need to be tested in the selection process and we should neither be embarrassed about wanting to recruit the best nor afraid to really get under the skin of applicants at interview.
“If an employer has concerns about the students coming to them from the local university, then they should get involved in the selection process”
It is simply not enough to rely on a candidate’s personal statement and references as these alone are an inadequate indicator of their resilience for the reality of nursing today. Asking a candidate what they would do if, on arriving home they found their neighbour distressed because their pet dog had died, is likely to be a better predictor of the candidate’s ability to deliver compassionate care than the pre-prepared answers on the application form.
The recruitment processes should also be strengthened by providing more opportunities for the NHS, patients and carers to get involved. If an employer has concerns about the students coming to them from the local university, then they should get involved in the selection process. Similarly, if a student’s attitudes and behaviours on a placement raise concerns they should be challenged there and then, rather than passing the buck to the next clinical area.
There is, of course, a distinction between those who quite simply are not cut out to nurse and bad behaviours that may have been picked up from poor role modelling and leadership or inadequate mentorship. Students should never be blamed for our own shortcomings, and leaders in every organisation should walk the talk and invite challenge when they don’t.
Nursing is a profession of the hands, the head and the heart and the move to a graduate-entry profession is right for patients. However, the introduction of £9,000 a year tuition fees for many other subjects could mean that nursing is an attractive route to obtaining a degree. An A* student could on paper look like an attractive candidate to an admissions tutor, but if their motivation is wrong they’ll quickly become an attrition statistic.
There’s a big leadership role here for the new education and training bodies (Health Education England and Local Education and Training Boards). They will be responsible for spending millions of tax payers’ pounds. Unfortunately many details about how these organisations will work are still vague and some early statements worryingly commit only to delivering a “sufficient” workforce, which is neither visionary nor reassuring.
The NHS Constitution, on the other hand, is a powerful, inspiring yet simple document that can and should be used now as part of recruitment processes. It eloquently sets out the principles and values of the NHS. If the NHS is the closest British people have to a religion then the constitution is its tablets of stone. At a time when many are worried about the future of the NHS and that it may become nothing more than a brand, what better way to ensure it lives and thrives than to recruit staff to it, across all grades and disciplines, who embody the values set out in the constitution?
Howard Catton is head of policy and international at the Royal College of Nursing