What is an unprofessional relationship?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Nancy Opheim
  • 28th Medical Operations Squadron
Everyone is going out on Friday night, should I go out with the rest of my unit? What could be wrong with that? Before answering, you might need to consider what Air Force Instruction 36-2909, Professional and Unprofessional Relationships, defines as a professional and unprofessional  relationship. 

A professional relationship, according to the AFI, "encourages an atmosphere in which personnel communicate with their supervisors regarding performance and mission." This type of interaction "enhances morale and discipline, improves the operational environment, and preserves the proper respect for authority and focus on the mission."

Unprofessional relationships, however, are clearly outlined within the regulation. "Whether pursued on- or off-duty, [unprofessional relationships] detract from the authority of superiors or result in, or reasonably crate the appearance of, favoritism, misuse of office or position, or the abandonment of organizational  goals for personal interests." 

These standards apply to all military professionals, as well as Department of Defense civilians and contract employees. 

In recent year, the military, and Air Force in general, came under fire for allowing an atmosphere where unprofessional relationships occur. The unprofessional relationship that occured at he Air Force Academy and technical training bases led to sexual assaults and failed careers. Even though these examples are extreme, it is easy to see violations of professional relationships every day. 

Airmen must be aware that certain relationship and situation are specifically prohibited. For example, officers must avoid any relations with an enlisted member that "may prejudice good order and discipline, discredit the armed forces or compromise an officer's standing."  This includes gambling, lending or borrowing money, dating or intimate relationship, certain officer and enlisted marriages, sharing living accommodations, engaging in a business enterprise, or soliciting sales to an enlisted member. Violations , such as these, are punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

Other more common example which constitute an unprofessional relationship are a noncommissioned officer who eats lunch with their subordinates every day; NCOs going out to drink on a regular basis with the airmen they supervise; and supervisors and subordinates calling each other by their first names. 

As Airmen, we may find ourselves in situations such as these or others, that maybe interpreted as an unprofessional relationship. Be on guard to keep relationships professional. 

If you are not sure about a situation, ask yourself these questions. Has my familiarity with my subordinates caused them to question my order? Has my relationship with my subordinates caused others to think I'm showing favoritism in job assignments, performance reports or award packages? Has this relationship prevented me from fairly administering discipline? 

The ultimate test come when you have to select someone for deployment or send someone you supervise to do a dangerous mission -- will the relationship prevent you from making the correct decision? 

So, should you go out with everyone on Friday night? 

Yes, if it's a special occasion, such as retirement or going away party or going out with a peer group. No, if they are supervisor or your superiors. 

Remember, your actions and choices today may have devastating effects on your career. The people you socialize with today may work for you later. Someday you may have to make the hard call and send someone outside the wire and into harms way. Maintaining professional relationships does not make this task easier; it prevents subordinates from questioning your integrity and aids completion of the mission.