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Seeing MI5 Differently

Published date: 03 Dec 2020

MI5 is committed to ensuring that diversity is at the forefront of everything we do. International Day for Persons with a Disability, on 3rd December 2020, gives us the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to creating an environment that is inclusive for everyone, and promote the value of people with disabilities in the workplace. This year’s theme is “Not all disabilities are visible”. What follows is an honest and inspiring blog written by a colleague in their own words. 

Once you start at MI5, it’s a friendly, inclusive organisation. One that fosters close professional and personal relationships, which values diversity of background and diversity of thought. There are many individuals who have shared stories internally on topics such as mental health, disability and experiences or discrimination which they have been subject to outside of the organisation, which have all been met with resounding support, empathy and interest. Possibly due to the secretive nature of our day jobs, we are more open in other aspects of our lives. 

I think, had I known this about MI5 during my application process, I might have felt reassured and less nervous. As much as there is a culture of openness once you are inside the organisation, from the outside it can appear inscrutable and mysterious. I had images of highly confident individuals, in impeccable three-piece suits, with picture perfect lives. It was an image I was worried I wouldn’t be able to live up to as an applicant. You see, when I applied to join MI5 I had only recently recovered from a rather serious bout of depression and I also came with the additional ‘baggage’ of having several learning disabilities. ‘Why would MI5 want me?’ I thought. 

I applied on a whim to the Intelligence Officer Development Programme in the midst of several other graduate scheme applications. It was the day of the deadline, but I thought ‘why not’. I’d never seen myself as a spy, never envisioned myself as the James Bond type. But the work looked fascinating and I thought the worst that would happen was that they would say no and I would be back to where I started. I didn’t expect to get through to the next stage, or the stage after that. There was a written exercise to complete, I fretted that asking for asking for extra time due to my learning difficulties would make me seem a worse candidate – more difficult to adjust for, surely not suited to the fast-paced world of intelligence and investigations. But this request was easily met and did not hinder me at all. I progressed through the assessment centre and received a job offer. Fantastic! I was over the moon. Except, this wasn’t the last barrier for me. 

Before I could join MI5 I had to go through a vetting process, to get security clearance. I agonised about the idea of intrusive questioning, prying through my life with a fine toothcomb, unearthing the things I was worried most about, particularly my history of depression. I worried that they would think I was unsuitable for the role, too weak, lacking resilience. I worried that I would have gotten so far in the process only to fail at the final hurdle. I debated trying to hide my mental health history. How could they accept me if I was open about the state I had been in, the state I had to make a conscious effort not to fall back into. Would they accept that I had been on high doses of medication? Would they be concerned that I might not be able to function without it. 

As it turned out, despite my worst fears, my vetting officer was a kind and patient person. They sat through my stuttering explanations of my darker times, asking occasional questions for clarification. But my depression wasn’t the deep, unavoidable focus of the conversation that I fretted it would be. Instead, it was a side-note. It was discussed and then we moved on. I don’t know to what extent it may have been factored into any decision-making, but what I do know is that it wasn’t the barrier I thought it would be. I write this now as a fully-fledged member of MI5, and it almost seems silly the extent I worried about it. I am also very glad now that I was honest, as I know that the organisation has accepted me, warts (depression) and all. In fact I learned later that a lack of honesty during the recruitment process is actually the most significant barrier. 

As you can see on our website, MI5 has won a good few diversity awards in recent years and has just been re-certified as a Disability Confident Leader. If you’re wondering if this really translates into the working culture, let me reassure you, it absolutely does! I would encourage anyone who may self-censor, who might think that they should not apply because of factors such as existing mental health concerns or disabilities, please re-think that assumption. Don’t rule yourself out. You are your own biggest critic and the things you think are unassailable barriers can end up being mere bumps in the road. All I know is, I’m very glad that I ignored that self-doubting voice and persevered. I’m now in my third post in MI5 and I’m loving it. 

To find out more about the roles and opportunities please visit our careers pages


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