Relationships that help, hurt mission

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Nancy Opheim
  • 28th Medical Operations Squadron commander
A group of Airmen goes out Friday night and one wonders if they should go out with the rest of their unit? Some may think, "Sure what could be wrong with that?" Consider what Air Force Instruction 36-2909, Professional and Unprofessional Relationships, defines as professional and unprofessional relationships.

A professional relationship "encourages an atmosphere in which personnel communicate with their superiors 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 on the other hand, "whether pursued on or off-duty, detract from the authority of superiors or result in, or reasonably create 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 civilian and contract employees.

There are certain relationships and situations specifically prohibited. Officers must avoid any relationship with an enlisted member that "may prejudice good order and discipline, discredit the armed forces or compromise an officer's standing." These include gambling, lending or borrowing money, dating or intimate relationships, certain officer and enlisted marriages, sharing living accommodations, engaging in a business enterprise, or soliciting sales to an enlisted member. Violations are punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In recent years, the military, and the Air Force specifically, came under fire for allowing an atmosphere where unprofessional relationships occur. Unprofessional relationships that occurred at the Air Force Academy and technical training bases eventually led to sexual assault charges and failed careers. Although these examples are extreme, it's easy to see violations of professional relationships every day. An NCO who goes out to smoke or eat lunch with his subordinates each day is one example. NCOs going out to drink on a regular basis with Airmen they supervise is another. Another example is supervisors and subordinates who address each other by their first name.

Airman at any rank may find themselves in a situation that could be interpreted as an unprofessional relationship. Airmen must be on guard to keep relationships professional. If they aren't sure, they should ask themselves these questions: Has my familiarity with my subordinates caused them to question my orders? 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 comes when they have to select someone for deployment or send someone they supervise to do a dangerous mission. Will their relationship prevent them from making the correct decision?

So should an Airman go out with everyone on Friday night? Yes, if it's a special occasion such as a retirement or going away party. Yes, if he's going out with his peer group, such as all junior Airmen or all NCOs. No, if he is the only airman first class and the rest of the group is NCOs or his supervisor.

An Airman's actions and choices may have devastating effects on his career. The people he hangs out with today may end up working for him in five years. Someday, he may have to make the hard call and send someone outside the wire and into harm's way. Maintaining professional relationships doesn't make this task easier; it prevents an Airman's subordinates from questioning his integrity and aids completion of the mission.