Guest Blog Q+A Session with Brigadier Mark Abraham OBE,British Army

Brigadier Mark Abraham,OBE


Diversity in the Army: 
Although we are probably seen to be an organisation that is reducing overall numbers, the reality is that we will still be employing nearly 100,000 people, 130,000 when we include the TA, and we will still be recruiting somewhere around 7,500 a year to replace those who leave.  It is important that a nation is defended by its own people and we need to be representative of the diversity of this country so that everyone in the army understands the people, culture and lifestyles we support and defend.  We have people from over 40 commonwealth nationalities in the Army and over 50 religions are represented.  We are keen to see more diversity, particularly to see young talented BAME men and women joining the organisation at all levels.  From Afghanistan to the Olympics, we are working closely with hugely diverse people and cultures so the more empathy and understanding we bring through having a diverse workforce the more effective we can be. 

What steps has the Army taken to attract, nurture and develop ethnic minority staff?
We have set up a number of support groups and associations that provide advice and mentoring as well as bringing issues around race and diversity to the attention of senior leaders. As an example the Armed Forces Muslim Association has the Chief of the Defence Staff as its patron and is active in every part of the Army. 

We monitor all our staff for ethnicity and use this data in relation to level of responsibility, length of time they stay with us, speed of promotion and contentment in our Continuous Attitude Survey.  In some of our trades young BAME soldiers and NCOs are the fastest promoting group at the moment which is demonstrable evidence of race equality.

What have you personally done to promote race equality in the Army’s workplace?      
I always ensure that diversity and race issues are a key part of management boards and future plans.  Once leaders understand the issues and why this is a constantly evolving issue, not something that can be consigned to a policy statement, they are keen to get involved and make a worthwhile contribution.  I directly engage other leaders and junior commanders encouraging them to talk about diversity and to get used to the language and openness required to achieve the sort of understanding and equality we all aim for.  I often worry that there is a perception that race and diversity issues are difficult to talk about and people feel they might “get it wrong” which can lead to a reluctance to start the conversations we need to have.  I have used drama based diversity events and individuals recording their experiences on DVD and other media to draw everyone in to the debate.        

I have presented issues around multiculturalism in Armed Forces to the EU and shared our experiences with those of other nations.  Despite coming from very different societies with very different laws and cultures, it is the similarities in terms of successes, and challenges to achieve race equality that stand out.

Have you a recent example of how successful race equality is good for your organisation?
We were recently asked to help with Security for the London Olympics - in a big way.  One of the most important aspects was that the task involved all our people interacting and dealing with a large number of foreign visitors and a huge number of spectators from this country.  One of the stand-out features of the London Olympics was the national and international diversity.  With so many nationalities within the Army and with so many of our ethnic minority men and women as the first point of contact for visitors, our diversity was visible, reassured people and contributed to the positive atmosphere at the Olympic venues.  For us the media coverage was very supportive and public support was evident.  A large part of this was due to the levels of respect for others our teams demonstrated which starts with respecting difference and diversity within the organisation.       

Is there anything unique you feel your organisation can do?
I have noticed that two of the concerns around developing ethnic minority talent are; firstly how to achieve success at the most senior and professional levels and secondly how to be a responsible employer by nurturing and employing those starting from a position of relative disadvantage.  The most powerful stories are where individuals from the most disadvantaged backgrounds make it to the top and employers need to think about how their recruitment, training and mentoring processes really support this.  Although not the only employer doing this, we recruit highly qualified BAME men and women for such careers as lawyers and doctors while at the same time having programmes to recruit talented but unqualified young people into careers where they can realise their potential and rise to higher ranks.  Quite often those from a disadvantaged background or those who have ability but lack life-skills respond extremely well to a structured programme within an organised residential learning regime which is what Army training provides.   Supported by education specialists who provide the formal qualifications that many did not get from school and with the motivation of a paid career with promotion based on ability, many youngsters who were looking at a bleak future gain self respect, motivation and a feeling of success.   It is in the area of developing young ethnic minority men and women who have missed out on opportunities early on and placing them in careers where they can realistically aspire to make it to the top that we are making a big effort and seeing success.                            

The best private and public sector employees are keen to have the right approach and have lots of initiatives in place but is there anything individuals can do? 
There are many really advanced programmes across both sectors all aiming to improve race equality and harness the diverse talent in this country.  They are succeeding in improving diversity and equality in the work place but, despite this, personal interaction by everybody in an organisation sometimes has more effect than all the policies and plans put together.  Equality is all about human interaction, fairness, respect for talent irrespective of background and the way we behave towards each other every day.  If you are a leader at any level you can have a great effect by understanding the issues involved in leading multicultural teams and you can set an example that others will follow.  Just taking time to ask others what life is like for them in your workplace, how they view diversity in the team and what might make working there a lot better adds hugely to your and their understanding and cohesion.  It’s all the little bits that we all do at work, in our communities, on social media and in our day to day lives that, when added together, change mindsets.  If you have the power of a large organisation behind you use it to create the changes we need to achieve race equality in every part of society.