Informal feedback is vital, but it must be employed consistently to be fair.
On 3 June 2020, U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General, Lt Gen Jeffrey Rockwell, released a memo detailing an investigation into racial disparity concerns inside our military justice system. He concluded that the Air Force had a significant disparity in the rates at which black Airmen faced non-judicial punishment (NJP) and court-martial. Shockingly, black Airmen in 2019 faced two times as many NJPs and courts-martial as white Airmen of the same rank, despite only making up 14.7% of the force. Clearly, there's a broader issue in play, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force has ordered a review of the military justice system by the Inspector General. While this article will discuss things in the context of an Air Force issue, I don't doubt that it's a symptom of problems present in a whole host of organizations, including yours.
Military Justice: A Primer
For some background, supervisors are expected to document the issue(s) using progressively serious letters in the course of standard military discipline. This progressive discipline system starts with a Letter of Counseling, then a Letter of Admonishment, and finally a Letter of Reprimand. None of these are considered punishments; they are strictly administrative actions that will be part of an Airman's record for a period. More severe infractions may result in moving up that ladder faster or going straight to their unit commander. Once it's in the commander's hands, the commander may decide to pursue an NJP (also known as an Article 15 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice) or a court-martial. The NJP is considered an in-unit function and has limited punitive options, while a court-martial resembles a civilian criminal trial and can result in far more dire consequences. In either case, those letters can be considered to establish a pattern of underperformance.
Notice above that I said that a supervisor is expected to document an underperforming Airman's issues. This is a formal approach. Many well-meaning supervisors will first attempt to correct the issue using a host of informal options, including verbal counseling and extra duty. During a town hall with some senior Air Force leaders last week, an interesting hypothesis was brought up to explain the racial disparity in our military justice system: While racism and prejudice likely play a role in some of these cases, some white supervisors may be afraid that informal discipline of underperforming black Airman might be perceived as racist and want an outside opinion.
In all formal discipline, some level of oversight will occur so that the documentation can be admitted into a court-martial later, if necessary. This oversight also ensures that the supervisor's assessment of their Airman's performance is correct and fair. On the other hand, informal discipline will not necessarily have any additional oversight and might be applied inconsistently. It's not to say that it doesn't have a place. As a supervisor, I've selectively used alternative disciplinary measures when it fits the Airman. Some will respond directly to a Letter of Counseling, while others will use it to light a cigar. Those Airmen might respond better to extra details, like filling sandbags or 'weed-and-seed' duty, to help them better appreciate their regular duties. Most service members inherently want to do good work, and they'll usually respond to the informal feedback of verbal counseling.
While most supervisors strive to apply these options fairly because they are not codified in our military justice system, there is no formal standard for the practice, and some will fail to measure up. Additionally, knowing that these alternatives don't fit the specific rules for appropriate discipline, supervisors may feel vulnerable employing them when there's a threat of oversight. This threat becomes very real if there's even a slight perception that you're acting unfairly based on race (or sex, orientation, age, disability, etc.), hence the hypothesis that supervisors of black Airman may prefer using formal discipline.
While we have discussed formality and informality in our military justice system, I believe that the sword cuts the other way as well: mentorship. There are formal developmental opportunities designed to sharpen the next generation of leaders, like service-wide professional military education and base-wide professional development seminars, but there is also a whole range of informal options. Everyday things like one-on-one meetings, phone calls, group chats, distro lists, and lunches can be excellent communication and developmental tools that will focus on motivation, coaching, and direct mentorship. On some occasions, one person will be selected for a significant engagement, meeting, or trip and can bring along an observer; these will be powerful opportunities.
What is the likelihood that these informal mentorship opportunities are only inadvertently extended to those who are culturally similar to us? I've heard from many minority and female Airmen that they perceive that they aren't given the same number of developmental opportunities and are left to form cliques with others in their same group. I won't presume that this is intentional; I wholeheartedly believe that the majority of Airmen are not explicitly racist or sexist, but I believe that there are many of us with implicit biases that create that perception. Particularly in matters of sex, I've definitely seen leaders express fears over rumors that they are having an inappropriate relationship with a member of the opposite sex. In a post-"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military, this seems cognitively dissonant to me, but here we are.
How Do We Fix It?
Like anything else, start by recognizing that there is a problem and that it may begin with you. While few may explicitly identify themselves as racist or sexist, learning more about your implicit biases can be very powerful. Project Implicit, sponsored by scholars at the University of Washington, University of Virginia, Harvard University, and Yale University, offers an outstanding series of tests with immediate feedback on your implicit biases. As with any test of this nature, be honest about your answers, and be receptive to the feedback. While I generally feel that I'm rather egalitarian, I have sometimes been surprised by my results and have biases I need to guard for. I have previously written about some great ways to continually challenge your assumptions and biases - the shortcuts our animal brains like to make in life.
Have you taken any of the Project Implicit tests? Were you surprised by the results? Will you try to change some of your behaviors for the better? I hope so. Our respective organizations and their people deserve as much!