About 18 months ago, I had the privilege of being in the audience at a conference where Ruth Hunt, the CEO of Stonewall, came to talk, and what she said really made me think.
She explained that in the Navy we are very good at the approach to our people which goes something along the lines of, "I don’t care what you do in your personal life, as long as you can do your job then I’ll treat you the same as I treat everyone else."
As she said this I nodded along, secretly congratulating myself for her endorsement of my 'fair approach' to management. However, she then went on to explain that actually, that isn't the best way to get the most out of people and that instead it can stifle people. If you allow people to bring their whole selves to work, to be open as to who they are and to talk about their home lives, people feel valued and it gives managers a much better understanding of how to get the best from their people.
Understanding what is important to people, whether it be in relation to their sexuality, how their children are or whether they are caring for a partner or relative, means that when there is poor performance you actually understand the reason behind it. With my slightly smug exterior suitably punctured, I realised that she was absolutely right. When Ruth left she advertised the Stonewall (Straight) Allies Programme, so at the first opportunity, I signed up for a programme at the MOD (Ministry of Defence).
If you allow people to bring their whole selves to work, to be open as to who they are and to talk about their home lives, people feel valued and it gives managers a much better understanding of how to get the best from their people.
Commander Kara Chadwick
The programme was a day long, run by the energetic and inspiring (ex-Logistics Officer) Mandy McBain, and was attended by a broad range of people from across the Ministry Of Defence. The programme expanded on the idea of being able to bring your whole self to work, and challenged us to think about pre-conceptions and how we would and should deal with situations that we encountered in the future.
It got me thinking about a previous experience, when as the Deputy Logistics Officer of HMS Monmouth (an all-male ship bar two female officers) one of my Leading Chefs came to tell me that he was gay. He had been in the Royal Navy for 20 years but had never felt able to talk about it.
To begin with, he did not want anyone else to know, but after a run ashore one night and a few drinks, he came out to the Ship's Company. It was understandably a huge deal for him, especially after so long hiding who he was, but thankfully, for the majority of the Ship's Company it wasn't an issue. I did my best to support him and to confront any issues that arose, and am proud to have attended both his Civil Partnership and subsequent Wedding in the intervening years, but did I do enough?
Did I confront every person who used the word 'gay' in a way that had negative connotations? Can I be sure that I haven’t said "that's so gay", without thinking about what I was doing? Have I done enough to actively enable people to feel that they can be themselves in the workplace?
After the programme, I became a member of the D&I team at work and have tried to ensure that I never condone or 'walk on by' behaviour that is homophobic or more subtly undermining of people's sexuality. I have also become an advocate for what I learned that day. The other great thing about what I learned on the Allies programme though, is that the approach that they teach is equally applicable to other minorities or challenges in people’s lives. It makes you stop and think.
But I'm still learning how to be an ally and feel that there is more that I should do – the problem is how to do it in a way that is effective and meaningful. Should I have a rainbow flag on my desk, or is that going too far? Perhaps I could add 'Stonewall Ally' to my signature block? Can I become a member of Compass? All suggestions welcome.
Our next Allies Programme
Takes place 18 October 2016 in Plymouth: