RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Rankism…

It was an interesting day in work today. I was doing my usual day job, which is pretty dull on the face of it, but does allow me to work with a wide range of people from across the station.  In today’s case I was doing work with the Station Operations Personnel, looking at how they do their Flight Operations stuff. It’s interesting in a way as it is far, far away from my trade of Avionics Technician – but it’s been so long since I actually DID any Avionics Techie-ing I consider my trade title to be Avionics (Retired).

But I digress.  The team I am working with has a wide range of people in it, from Senior Aircraftman (SAC) – which ironically even though it has the word ‘Senior’ in the title is actually quite a lowly rank – all the way through and up to a Squadron Leader.  Indeed at the very start of the ‘event’ we had the direction for the activity set by a Wing Commander, but he left after about 30 minutes of briefings.  The wide range also stretched to having both males and females in the room and a wide age range from the SAC’s in their twenties up to the Sqn Ldr who – and I am guessing was in his early 50’s.

And the way they all worked got me to thinking about rank, and how it works…and how sometimes it doesn’t. About how although rank is necessary and important – hey it’s expected, we are a military force, sometimes it can be a barrier to the way it operates and how it can demotivate personnel.  I know I’ve blogged about this before when it came to calling my old boss by his first name…but this time it was a topic of conversation that took my thoughts in a different direction.

Firstly the Sqn Ldr was very ‘Old School’.  He had a really easy-going manner, but a clinical sharp edge to him. He had a way of standing that was very…well…very much like how a Sqn Ldr should.  He actually reminded me of the way that Richard Attenborough played Roger Bushell in The Great Escape – although the character in the film was named Bartlett. (Watch it, for two reasons; one you can get an idea of how this Sqn Ldr today stood and two it’s a bloody ace film…) I just got a feeling that this Sqn Ldr would be like Bushell. No nonsense, clear, fair, down the line. He was clearly good at his job and was quick to make a decision, but he took prompts from the team and listened to what they had to say first.  He just came across as a ‘good egg’.  The sort of person you’d like to have as a boss.

Unlike the person who was the topic of conversation just a few minutes later.  Clearly there are all sorts in the RAF. Good eggs, indifferent eggs, and bad eggs.  Good leaders, average ones and not so good ones that do somehow seem to have made the grade but then failed to live  up to their potential.  And this one seemed like one that was a person who would NOT be so great to work for.

And it’s odd, because the story I am going to tell is almost exactly the same thing as happened to me about 12 years ago, as happened to one of the SAC’s who was in the room today.

She told us that she was the only SAC in the her particular office – in fact other than her boss, a Flight Lieutenant – she was the only person in the workplace.  And one day the phone rang. She answered it in the usual way we do in the Forces, by saying the name of where she worked, and then gave her rank and name.

Down the other end of the line there was a slight silence…and then an “Oh…” Followed by more silence.

“Can I help you?” said the SAC.

“Well, actually, can I speak to someone senior? Are any of your Grown Ups there?”

And this, quite rightly offended the SAC a bit. You see, it’s just a little bit rude.  It sort of discounts you as a person, as an individual, as a professional at your job.  It basically says – I am far more important that you. I have something very important to say and I want to speak to someone there who is as important as me, and quite frankly I don’t think you are important enough to help me.  You can take it a bit further and say that the person at the other end of the line assumes you are pretty useless just because of your rank. The thing that makes it worse is when the person calling doesn’t ask for a named person. Just a rank. Can I speak to someone else is, at the end of the day, just rude. I know that people can be busy, and that they might have important and urgent things to discuss, but as the saying goes “it’s nice to be important, but it’s just as important to be nice”.  Even in the military…these things are important.  For instance what if one day that SAC finds herself working for that other person…will there be any respect there? Does the senior person deserve any respect? Maybe the RANK deserves respect…but does the person.  By negating an individual just because of his or her rank…well that negates pretty much everything that they do.

And pretty much the same thing happened to me. In fact I have two instances. I was a Junior Technician (ironically a higher rank than an SAC, even though it has Junior in the title!) and there was a vacancy on the Tea Bar committee on the squadron I worked on to be the Treasurer of the Fund.  Not a difficult job, but fairly high-profile, and I was keen to help out, and I was keen to get on by taking on extra “Secondary” duties. I told my boss, who thought it was a good idea, but was then told that “because Jnr Tech Airman is not a Corporal he can’t be a treasurer of a fund.  The rules state that he can’t handle that amount of cash. To do so he needs to be at least a Cpl.” This really hurt me as the sort of cash limits they were talking about was a fund of about £500-£1000 or so, not a great deal, particularly as I had just taken a mortgage out on my house for £50,000. So I could have a mortgage but not run a fund of £1000 just because of WHAT I was not who I was. My bank thought I was a safe bet, but the organisation I worked for didn’t…

The second instance of this Rankism was an almost carbon copy of what happened to the SAC from earlier.  I worked on a Trials and Development team when I was still a Junior Technician and the only other person in work was my newly posted in Sergeant. He had made a quiet entrance into the Bay, but our first impression of him was that he was a fairly good egg. We were right, he was a fantastic chap, and a great leader too. He’d been on the team for about a week and was still pretty much clueless about the equipment simply because he didn’t know the system. And the phone rang. I answered it and got a similar thing said to me as the SAC. “Can I speak to someone senior?” Disgruntled and slightly annoyed I handed the phone to the Sarge who listened to the person speak for a while and then did something that made me love him forever…

“Sir,” he said down the phone, “Can I just stop you there, as I haven’t a clue what you are talking about as I’ve only been here a week. I think you should have a chat to Junior Technician Airman here, he’s been here for two years. He knows the kit better than me” and without listening for a reply he passed the phone over to me…

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5 thoughts on “Rankism…

  1. Luckily in the aircrew world, rank goes out of the window pretty quickly when airborne. Don’t get me wrong, we all know if we have a senior officer on board, however a young, junior, limited combat ready Sergeant will be more than happy to tell a Gp Capt if he isn’t happy with the way he’s handling the aircraft.

    Also on the ground we do have a more pally atmosphere between ranks, this however sometimes bites you in the bottom if you get found called a Flt Lt ‘Mate’ when he’s not part of the aircrew world!

  2. Before the o/h joined the RN, his already serving father gave him many pieces of advise on surviving as an officer.

    One piece of advice is one I have stuck to myself. Just because you have rank it dosen’t mean you know anything. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team and use them, everyone will know something you don’t, give them praise when they deserve it and be willing to admit to not knowing something yourself.

  3. Greg1756 on said:

    Its even worse in thr cadet services, as sometimes you’ll get some jumped up FltLt or SqnLdr who think their it, and rock up to a regular Sgt or Cpl and order them about like some cadet or Sgt(ATC). But unfortunatly you get some WO(ATC)’s who are non-ex-Military but swan aboutlike they own the place cos they looked after some cadets for 8 years.

    Really gets my goat, but every cloud has a silver lining!

  4. I had a classic similar situation. When I was a JEngO I was deployed overseas on Ops. There was a requirement to move the aircraft to another airfield a few hundred miles away, so as a respected engineer, and I was considered good at my job (!) I travelled down with my detachment cdr to do a recce of the site and ensure we could run the flight line. One of my tasks was to see if we could get a certain number of ac on the ASP. So I went out with one of the CTs to measure it, checked it off the size of the wing spans and the minimal clearance required for armed ac. This resulted in less ac fitting on than we needed. When I briefed by det cdr who was a sqn ldr on this issue he said “Gill, you are only a fg off, you can’t possibly make such decisions!” Clearly he thought my lowly rank would not go with the ability to measure hard standings! 6 months later when I redeployed to the new airfield, we never exceeded the numbers of aircraft which I had originally said!

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