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Morality & Me - Episode 5: Leaving the defence industry

Watching HMS Queen Elizabeth leave Portsmouth Harbour just two days prior to starting on the naval base in 2018.

This final episode on my morality journey throughout my career is also the one where I have come to understand, accept and embrace my own moral values. In this article I revisit how in the last four years working in the defence industry various moral considerations have surfaced, ultimately leading me to the decision of leaving the industry, after one of the most intense period of self-reflection of my career. While I continue to pursue my research on the moral discourse in the defence industry and proceed with analysing my recent interviews, now felt like a good time to look back and think through my own experience and perspective.

Joining the defence industry

For many, this will seem like the obvious first question. If I had moral concerns over working in the defence industry, why even consider joining a defence company in the first instance? The simple answer is that those moral concerns weren't at all obvious and as salient to me at that time, for various reasons. First, I was approached for the role right after I had experienced burning out and had time off to recover, with an opportunity to reconsider my priorities. And taking on a less stressful role at walking distance from home weighed quite heavily in my priorities in those circumstances. Second, while I knew I was joining a large global company, the role's scope was mostly around Portsmouth's naval base. At that point I had lived in Portsmouth for over 12 years, very conscious of the critical role, and historical value, of the naval base in the city, yet its heavily restricted access meant that I had never been able to go beyond its walls, and getting the opportunity to become a part of it felt like a privilege, primarily for its contribution to the city and local community. And third, at that time, while I was already sensitive to considerations of a moral nature, my approach remained that there was little I could do or influence on some of society's big questions, by my actions alone. Something which was going to evolve during the following years, particularly through my studies.

First brushes with reality

The first few months in the role were very positive, friendly colleagues, opportunities to make a mark, a trusting and empowering boss, and the novelty of working in the naval base wasn't wearing out; I still considered myself privileged to be in there, amongst the spectacular warships, Victorian buildings, and special moments such as hearing the Royal Navy Band practice, or witnessing from the office window a ship returning from months at sea, families reuniting, even an officer proposing to his girlfriend as he came off the ship - a very special moment indeed.

About 9 months into the role, in May 2019, I was offered the opportunity to attend the company's Annual General Meeting, together with some fellow team members. This was a new experience for me, one that I was keen not to miss. On the day, I had a first feeling of unease prior to entering the venue of the event, seeing a few protesters lining up the road nearby (unsure in my head as to how to react, curious to better understand their motivation), and seeing the extent of the security checks to get in. Past that point, it was back to the slick corporate environment, with displays of the organisation's latest innovation and flagship programmes. The dissonance between what these displays were aiming to convey, and the sentiment outside the venue still occupied my mind though, and so did the question of whether others were feeling it, and making any effort to overcome it.

Inside the auditorium, the session went on with the expected speeches and corporate videos. The most impactful, and defining, moment came during the Q&A, with questions being posed by campaigners against the arms trade, and LGBTQ+ activists, all challenging the organisation's activities in Saudi Arabia, in the backdrop of the war in Yemen, and the human rights concerns in the country. I won’t be going into much detail of the content of these exchanges – accounts of them can be found on articles written by the campaigner groups, unfortunately there is no formal minutes from the organisation of the Q&A session, to provide a balance view of both perspectives. What made a mark is the heartfelt passion with which those challenges were made, as well as the very emotional personal stories shared by audience members, including some who had lost close ones in the conflict.

I came out of this event quite shaken, and could see that it had impacted my colleagues as well, even though none of us quite found the words, or level of ease and comfort, to start a discussion about it, each of us processing it in our own individual ways. I remember coming back home that day with, for the first time, a feeling that I could not, at a personal level, be associated with what had been discussed, and a struggle to make sense of it for myself, together with an element of confusion, almost panic, as this had come as a very abrupt turn of event in what had otherwise been a positive working experience so far.

Coping mechanisms

As it often happens, reality and routine took over again, although the feeling that had been triggered by that experience was never far. Over the following weeks, I worked with a colleague to lead the organisation’s participation to Portsmouth’s Pride event, with indeed much pride in supporting and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community, yet an ever so slight nervousness about doing it as a representative of a defence company – although my focus there once again, was on my own contribution and impact on the wider local community, than the industry in itself.

A few months later, I took on a new role heading up the organisation’s UK graduate programmes. This was a new area for me to get into, and became a hugely rewarding and fulfilling role, working alongside colleagues showing great passion for what they do, and having the benefit of witnessing first hand the benefit and impact our role had on opportunities for, and development of, young people, seeing this contribution to the start of their career as another privileged position to be in. There too, there was much pride indeed in the work that we did and impact that we made. Yet the reminders of the nature of our industry and personal challenges which remained present, did surface regularly, brought up by things like failing to establish external partnerships with charities who didn’t want to be associated with our industry, or students protesting against our presence on campus. Things I felt at a personal level, as they were initiatives intended on doing good for young people, yet with motivations which I couldn’t completely dismiss. As much as I got great satisfaction from the work we were doing and its impact, I always felt some level of discomfort at the idea of publicly expressing pride in the company itself.

In those circumstances, I would focus on the positive impact of my and my colleagues’ work, the success stories of our graduates, and energy I got from them. Referencing back to Bandura’s moral disengagement theory I shared in an earlier article, and while the outcome of my work was more subtle than the ones Bandura and others analysed, I would focus on the technique of “moral justification”, in other words focusing on a higher purpose, such as supporting young people into employment, which justifies the more morally challenging aspects of the industry; I can also see elements of “displacement of responsibility”, as I could easily convince myself that my role was solely to support people and talent development, and that deciding the type of products we would produce, or countries we decide to operate in or partner with, would be well beyond my remit.

Moral awakening

In September 2020, I started studying part time for an MSc in organisational psychology – those close to me, or following me, will know already just how much I am gaining from this experience, in terms of developing a critical perspective on the world around me, exploring some concepts and phenomena in great depth, and effectively enabling me to bring out and articulate thoughts and ideas which had up until that point been kept hidden in the darkest corners of my brain. The topic I have become most interested and invested in is morality, particularly in the context of work, which is where I drew inspiration for my research topic, and for this series of article. Naturally, my own experiences and feelings at work were a key driver for my interest in this topic, and it isn’t hard to see that developing knowledge on various aspects of morality, as well as critical thinking in a number of other areas were only making myself even more sensitive to things happening around me which were going against my own moral values, be it around social inequality, harm to people, or harm to the environment.

Time to act

A year later, around September 2021, having spent two years in my role and looking for my next opportunity, I entered discussions about my next move, and was eventually offered a new job. It was a promotion, in an area I had expressed an interest for, with plenty of scope to make a difference on a large scale, and to bring in some of my fresh ways of thinking and newly acquired knowledge from my studies. This enabled me to continue rationalising working in defence, if I could help make the organisation a better place to work. So far, so positive, which is what made the next steps tougher.

While I had started getting involved in some new projects, I still needed to sign my new contract (the oh-so common “cobblers’ children” challenge of working in HR!). When I eventually received it, my initial instinct was to quickly agree, sign, and send back, to get the formalities over and done with, and fully embrace this new position and the opportunities coming with it. However, the experience of working part-time for the past couple of years, and being effectively a “non-standard” case, made me decide to read through the full paperwork in detail, and make sure everything was as it should be.

This is where I noticed a new set of terms which I hadn’t come across in my earlier contracts, restricting some of my actions if I was to leave the company. These, to be fair, were the type of restrictions one might expect to see as standard in employment contracts reaching certain levels of seniority, or in certain industries. Except that, for me, they were unexpected, and an additional layer of commitment which I had not considered. And while these were, again, standard practice, and came with a relatively low level of risk, they triggered in me a complete rethink, which brought back up all the moral challenges I had been able to carefully manage in the past: the type of products we produce and their potential impact on people, the connection with war, and sense (which many might consider to be naïve) that the path to establishing and maintaining peace shouldn’t be through the development of ever more sophisticated weapons, and the organisation’s connection with regimes where gay people like me are persecuted. Nothing new there, except that I had never been able to truly make peace with any of these, and was just making efforts to mitigate them. Accepting these new terms suddenly meant re-committing to the industry and what it stands for in my eyes: the good, in terms of employment, technological advancement beyond defence, etc., and the bad, which by that point of my reflection, was outweighing the good, or rather, was something I wasn’t prepared to stand for, regardless of what else, of a more positive nature, was involved.

I was given time to think about how the concerns I had shared about my contract terms could be resolved, however as these discussions progressed, it became clear that this contract represented a commitment I wasn't prepared to make. Much to my manager's shock, and after further thinking, talking things through with my partner, and despite the lack of another job or source of income lined up, I took the decision to resign.

A corporate taboo

These were delicate topics to broach with my manager, not because they weren't receptive; I was still lucky to have very good relationships, open channels of discussion, and good support at a personal level. But having reached this point, it is a challenge with very little scope for someone else to intervene, despite their efforts, and while I had in the past been quite open with colleagues about my challenges from a moral standpoint about our industry, I was mindful that evoking them as a reason for leaving the organisation could be seen as an implicit judgement of those remaining there and their own values. And that was most definitely not the case, as I appreciate that people will have very different motivations for working where they do, even though I might disagree with some of them.

What did transpire however, is the extent to which, certainly in what I have witnessed, talking about such topics in this corporate environment felt unexpected, and something personal which each individual was supposed to deal with for themselves. For some, it is a belief that joining an organisation implicitly means aligning with their activities and wider impact on the world. For others, it may feel pointless as there is no easy resolution to the moral question. Eventually, it means that those trying to make sense of working in the industry, and feel more comfortable within themselves currently might have few options as to who to turn towards for support.

A final brush with reality

For the reasons mentioned above, sharing my decision and reason for leaving with colleagues wasn't easy, as I didn't want anyone to feel judged, or to come across as though I felt I had the moral high ground. People often asked whether I felt relieved, and the truth is that in the first weeks following my resignation, as comfortable as I was having made this decision, feelings of uncertainty as to what was going to be next, and slight awkwardness towards colleagues still prevailed, although it has to be said that I was met by a remarkable degree of understanding and support from those around.

Part way through my notice period, the war in Ukraine broke out, bringing a new perspective on the reality of war and threats, and the role and necessity of defence. One of the first consequences of the conflict was a sharp rise in the company's share price. Feeling generally uneasy about what we as a society tend to sacrifice in the pursuit of profit, this was a very uncomfortable side effect of the suffering of millions of people. On the other hand, I cannot deny that it shed a fresh light on the genuinely defensive purpose of equipment such as those being produced by the company. Still, I would personally view this as a short term response to our current reality, which doesn't take away the aspiration for a different, long term, reality, where drivers for advancing technology, and resources to provide employment would relate to a common commitment to a more sustainable future, reinventing our ways of living in a joint effort where climate emergency and social injustice are considered as genuine global priorities.


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