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Commentary: Accountability has Associated Costs. . .

  • Published
  • By Col. Charlie M. Johnson
  • 18th Wing Judge Advocate
It is abundantly clear that the Department of Defense expects the Air Force to hold its members accountable for failures, mistakes, inattention to detail, and errors. 

Accountability, however, comes with associated costs. Over the last nineteen years on active duty, I have witnessed countless supervisors and commanders hold subordinates accountable, only to subsequently find themselves as the subjects of complaints filed under Article 138, Uniform Code of Military Justice or with the Inspector General or the Equal Opportunity Office. Imagine this scenario.

As you assume your new leadership position, you discover your predecessor left some unfinished business; in particular, personnel actions. Your civilian secretary is unmotivated, can't spell, and spends most of her time looking for another job. Your deputy, a field grade officer, is 40 lbs overweight and looks horrible in his uniform. The workplace culture promotes complacency, mediocrity, and intolerance. To exacerbate the situation, there is a Unit Compliance Inspection in the near future. What do you do?

You embark on a path to change the culture. You spend long hours in the office (14 hour days are the norm). Your weekends, down days, and holidays are used to catch up or get ahead. You assess your office (personal observation, meetings with the staff, and a unit climate assessment.) You realize you have to make drastic changes. Many of your changes require personnel actions: performance improvement plans, frequent critical feedback, fitness improvement plans, etc.) What happens? Members of your staff start filing complaints . . . against you!

You cannot ignore the problem. If you fail to address the problem, the situation will not improve but will worsen. Your "troubled troop" will not self-correct. Other staff members will wonder why you have not acted and will feel cheated that they are required to meet standards and comply with rules but the "troubled troop" is given special treatment at their expense. Allowing the "troubled troop" not to comply puts the rest of the standards in question. Your employees should not have to wonder which standards deserve compliance; all employees should comply with all standards. No one is permitted to pick and choose.

Your first plan of attack should be to keep your superior commanders informed. Throughout the ordeal, always maintain your military bearing. Being accused of discrimination or favoritism when you have not done anything wrong is difficult to bear. While the investigation is pending, it is likely you will be expected to continue leading the unit in spite of the ugly allegations. Are your "defensive systems engaged?" Stay focused on your objectives, while avoiding becoming overly defensive. Your daily course of action needs to be tailored to the situation as it changes. What should not change is your continued professionalism, which is your ultimate defense.

When allegations arise against you, remove the emotion out of your responses. Yes, you are upset that someone could think you have done something improper. Remember; don't lose your military bearing. Stick to the facts. Be succinct. Only answer the question asked. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. If you don't understand a question, say so.

Dealing with the complainant can become exasperating so it is never in your best interest to be alone in the same room with them. There should ALWAYS be a third party present. Most importantly, even though it may be extremely difficult, do not harbor ill will against the complainant. You must treat him or her like the rest of your employees.

After investigating the situation where the allegations have been unsubstantiated, you will still need to be careful. If this employee misbehaves, you must address the infraction. Ensure that the disciplinary action you take is necessary and is not retaliation. Remember, you cannot punish an employee for availing himself/herself of the complaint system.

Although accountability has its associated costs, these costs are clearly outweighed by the ever important and critically necessary maintenance of good order and discipline. At the end of your tour, you can be proud of your contributions to the mission. You will realize that the price you paid to maintain good order and discipline was worth it.