Viewpoint: Unprofessional Relationships
By Chief Master Sgt. Marilyn Savage, 460th Space Communications Squadron superintendent
/ Published January 27, 2010
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The responsibility of "doing what's right even when no one is looking" lies with each and every one of us. Are you up for the challenge? Consider this scenario: suppose you have been involved in a serious relationship with another Air Force member for two years. You are both in the same career field but currently stationed at different bases. Then one of you gets orders to be assigned to the same base as the other. Nothing wrong with that, right? Almost a blessing in disguise considering you aren't married - no join-spouse issues to worry with. But then you realize not only is that person being assigned to the same organization as you but to the very same shop! Now the problem arises since you are a technical sergeant as well as being the NCOIC and he is an airman 1st class, now the subordinate. What do you do since the both of you are very much in love and plan to eventually marry? Here's something they both need to ponder, according to the Air Force, they are both are engaging in an unprofessional relationship.
The scenario depicts a very basic physical privacy right issue concerning professional and unprofessional relationships and fraternization that all too often plagues our military. An outsider looking in might think this isn't an issue with the strict discipline and enforcement of rules. Unprofessional relationships can creep up anytime if the personnel involved are ignorant of the rules. However, most unprofessional relationships occur due to the blatant disregard of the rules.
There are distinct differences between professional and unprofessional relationships and what constitutes fraternization. A professional relationship contributes to the efficient operation of the Air Force via effective communications that enhances morale and discipline and improves the operational environment, at the same time preserving proper respect for authority and focus on the mission. Whereas an unprofessional relationship, whether pursued on or off-duty, detracts from the authority of superiors or results in, or reasonably creates the appearance of favoritism, misuse of office or position, or the abandonment of organizational goals for personal interests. Unprofessional relationships can exist between officers, between enlisted members, between officers and enlisted and between military personnel and civilian employees or contractor personnel.
Fraternization comes into play when the relationship exists between an officer and an enlisted member because it violates the customary bounds of acceptable behavior in the Air Force and prejudices good order and discipline, discredits the armed services, or operates to the personal disgrace or dishonor of the officer involved. Fraternization may occur between males, between females or between males and females and is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
When faced with the issues surrounding professional and unprofessional relationships and fraternization policies, it's important to uphold the moral duties of doing what is right through strict enforcement of these policies. By following these duties objectively, we are behaving morally, even if the results are unpopular.
Keeping the scenario in mind, what should the couple do? Are they expected to now dissolve their two-year relationship? Since the relationship only became unprofessional when the TSgt became the supervisor, the rules must be somewhat elastic to accommodate differing conditions and operational necessities but the underlying standard is that Air Force members are expected to avoid relationships that negatively affect morale, discipline, respect for authority and unit cohesion or raise the perception of favoritism or misuse of position. The mere fact that maintaining a professional relationship may be more difficult under certain circumstances doesn't relieve a member from the responsibility to maintain standards.
According to Air Force policy, there are no grey areas where the morality of their actions is questioned. But in actuality moral questions more often involve grey areas than absolute black and white choices. How do you control matters of the heart especially when there was no initial problem? Why does changing positions now change all of that? Thankfully for the two Airmen in my example, there was no adverse impact on morale, good order or discipline, so no charges or administrative action were necessary. The airman 1st class was reassigned to eliminate the perception of favoritism and to preserve the interests of the Air Force as an institution.
The best way to maintain good order and discipline is to enforce the standards at every turn even if it's an unpopular decision or brings about hurt feelings. We can't diminish the principles of "duty, honor, and country" because we chose to look the other way. It is the duty of all leaders to define, practice and enforce the standards of behavior and to stand ready to swiftly educate or discipline violators no matter the rank, no matter the circumstance. The Air Force prides itself on being the best "fighting force" in the world and this is directly attributable to those leaders who have the moral courage and sense of duty to uphold the standards while preserving the beliefs from which this great country was built. The responsibility of "doing what's right even when no one is looking" lies with each and every one of us. I challenge you to do what's right!