James "Vodafone changed my life"

It seems like a very over-the-top statement, one that couldn’t possibly be true. However, the impact of joining Vodafone in 2011 genuinely changed the direction of not only my career, but my entire life. 

I had been working as a freelance make-up artist and on-counter in at a major retailer for three months after leaving my previous retail management job on completing my two year make up course. I wanted to do something creative, and the make-up artistry world was very much on the cusp of a revolution with YouTube and Instagram bloggers changing the face and accessibility of the industry. I’d worked in the video games world for almost eight years before this, a challenging and very male dominated sales environment in the mid-2000, where many harsh lessons were learnt in dealing with sexism and harassment. Moving from an aggressive male environment into a predominantly female one was an interesting shift, and with it I had to learn to adapt my management style – both businesses were incredibly traditional and some might say, outdated in their gender roles, and I had moved from working with mostly under 30’s to over 40’s. Age truly makes little difference the workplace; however this illustrates how much of a culture shift it was. 

Being LGBT+, sometimes these gender roles and ‘traditional’ heterosexual values can be even more of a jarring experience, and like many new employees, I went from being ‘out’ to ‘back in the closet’. There were no “out” LGBT people in my new workplace, and in my previous job, my line manager was very vocal about having challenges accepting and understanding LBGT+ relationships. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. Being bisexual, I was ‘lucky’ in the aspect it was easy for me to hide my sexuality. I was in an opposite-sex relationship, and had been for many years. There was no reason for anyone to assume I wasn’t straight, and LGBT+ issues weren’t really discussed, save for one of the supervisors saying she’d conducted an interview for a potential new colleague, stating “He’s gay… but he’s alright.” To this day, I’m not entirely sure what that means – these days I wouldn’t think twice about challenging that statement, but that shows what having an open, accepting and supportive environment does for you. 

In the beauty industry, it’s very common to not receive any training for your new job role, due to the high turnover of employees (I still question this, I’m sure these two things are related.) and I was coming to the end of my three month probation period. I realised how unhappy and alienated I was, and I felt like I’d given it a good go, but it wasn’t right for me, I didn’t fit in and I wasn’t able to be my true self. Directly across the road from my job was a small mobile phone store – Vodafone and they were advertising. Feeling safer in the tech world, I went in and spoke to the Assistant Manager and dropped my C.V. in. An hour later, the Store Manager gave me a call wanting to get me in for an interview as soon as possible. To this day, I truly believe engaging your potential employer face to face makes a huge difference to your interview chances. 

At the time, the only vacancies were 25 hour a week Sales Adviser roles, the store was expanding and due a refit, and the store manager assured me there were plenty of extra hours going. Being a retail veteran, I knew this was a risk, but after being interviewed and offered the job, it just felt like a risk worth taking. I never worked those 25 hours a week – I became full-time almost immediately. We had a great mix of people in the team. I never once had to be in the closet at Vodafone - or in fact, come out. I just was. Being a top 10 (elite) store, we had a huge volume of customers in that tiny space, and during the refit I got to really bond with my new team through training days and a very memorable (and muddy) afternoon spent paintballing. 

Vodafone had, and always has had, an ease about it; there was never any fear of speaking up or getting involved. With the encouragement of my store manager, within six months I was promoted to Assistant Manager of that elite store, managing a team of 25+ at peak season. Running the store in my manager’s absence afforded me opportunities to come to HQ in Newbury and the Stoke contact centre and make connections throughout the business. No matter what level people within Vodafone are, they are personable and easy to engage. In such a fast paced and changing environment, you bond with your colleagues very quickly – after all, we were spending upwards of 45+ hours a week together. 

Vodafone retail enabled me to make lifelong friends. Behind the scenes of managing an intensely busy retail store and all the challenges and triumphs that come with it, I was struggling privately. In retrospect, I was picking up extra hours at work to avoid going home. Despite being able to manage my team coaching them with work and listening to personal issues, my own personal life was a wreck. Before coming to Vodafone, I had no friends. I had people I stayed in contact with via social media, but there were few nights out, dinners or trips to the cinema, or museums and art galleries. 

There was a lot of loneliness and isolation, and only after joining Vodafone and starting to make friends at work and start going to social events again, I realised that in fact, my home life was not normal. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates that 7.7% of women and 4.4% of men experienced any type of domestic abuse in the last year (2016-2017). This is equivalent to an estimated 1.3 million female victims and 716,000 male victims. That’s over a million people with families, friends, careers and co-workers. Living in fear of your partner is strange, because at the time you don’t realise that you’re afraid. Walking on eggshells at home is just the norm. Sharing your home with a person with a volatile temper who swung between fits of rage and hours of angry silence – it’s a slow thing. There’s an old metaphor – if you put a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump out. If you slowly heat the water, the frog is boiled alive. I’ve always thought this is a perfect explanation for domestic abuse. Eventually, it’s easier to cut off friends and colleagues than fight about wanting to go out, or dealing with the consequences later. Thankfully, my partner was never able to cut me off from my family, who are, and always have been, incredible and supportive. assume everything is fine – and somehow, like that slowly boiling frog, you think that everything is normal, which is why you never say anything to the contrary. That’s certainly what had happened to me over the last few years; however, I had been granted a chance to build my confidence, which had been slowly eroded over seven years. 

Thanks to my managers and colleagues, I had a chance to be successful. I was never afraid to take on a difficult customer challenge or listen to and give advice to my team members when they faced professional and personal struggles – but it took me six months of confidence building, conversations with my manager and friends to one day head home in the middle of the day and put everything I didn’t want to lose forever in a bag. Thanks to my manager understanding the situation, having been through something similar, I was able to leave whilst he wasn’t there. Eventually, I had to do something even tougher and face him and tell him I was leaving. To date, this is the hardest thing I have ever done. Afterwards, I found myself holding on to the hallway wall for support due to a mix relief and regret for staying so long - something that you would think only happens in melodramatic TV- however I can attest, it happens. Your entire torso crumples up like tissue paper. This isn’t a sob story. Experience can either make you or break you – I’m certainly not unbreakable, but it made me stronger. It makes you sure of what you don’t want in life. It does make you tougher, but also more compassionate – everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. 

Of course, it took time- this was in 2013. Since then I have been able to represent Vodafone retail at our first ever Amsterdam Pride with one of my best friends, when I close my eyes I can still see the red and white confetti pouring down in the blazing sun. I will never take for granted the countless nights spent having a takeaway and a bottle of wine with my friends, who are loud and full of life and laughter, even without the wine. This year I have been inspired to make 2017 the year of “Yes” after joining Vodafone Corporate Security at Newbury HQ in April 2016; I vowed this year I would say yes to as many opportunities the business could throw at me, which is how I ended up as part of the “Ready?” rebrand, with my face and voice, plus many of my colleagues appearing on internal and external branding. It’s my way of showing that Vodafone has become an integral part of me, and without its people and its values, I would not be the person I am today. I’ve taken part in several people campaigns, become a Stonewall LGBT+ Role Model and led several large LGBT + Friends Networks sessions on site at Newbury; the me from 2011 simply couldn’t have done that. 

Never underestimate the impact you have on others at work. Kindness, open discussion and encouragement can change the course of a person’s life. It enables us to grow and say “Yes” and be fearless. Nothing I will ever have to face at work will be as terrifying as that day I left. I have left my fear behind with my self-doubt. Public speaking? Easy. Making a quick decision? No problem. Saying yes instead of ending up in regret for saying no? Of course. I’ve got this. 

The future is exciting. Ready?

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