by Scott Prater
5/1/2013 - SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Perception is reality.
That phrase can serve Airmen well if they contemplate its meaning prior to entering or continuing a relationship.
Periodically, the 50th Space Wing Staff Judge Advocate reminds Airmen
about the difference between professional and unprofessional
relationships because these concepts can have a profound impact on the
Air Force at its core.
Air Force Instruction 36-2909 defines both terms and sets guidelines for
service members to follow throughout their daily life -- in and out of
"Professional relationships are those that contribute to the effective
operation of the Air Force," said Maj. Erika Lynch, 50 SW deputy judge
advocate. "The Air Force encourages personnel to communicate freely with
their superiors regarding their careers, performance, duties and
missions. This type of communication enhances morale and discipline and
improves the operational environment while, at the same time, preserving
proper respect for authority and focus on the mission. Participation by
members of all grades in organizational activities, unit-sponsored
events, intramural sports, chapel activities, community welfare
projects, youth programs and the like can enhance morale and contribute
to unit cohesion."
The instruction also defines unprofessional relationships.
Relationships are unprofessional, whether pursued on- or off-duty, when
they 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.
Unprofessional relationships can exist between officers, between
enlisted members, between officers and enlisted members, and between
military personnel and civilian employees or contractor personnel.
Fraternization is one form of unprofessional relationship and is a
recognized offense under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military
Justice or UCMJ.
"The reason it is so important for service members to consider these
concepts is because the lines can gray in so many circumstances," said
Relationships can create confusion. People involved may believe they are
perfectly professional, yet their coworkers or unit members may see
that same relationship in a different light.
"Say for example an officer in a leadership position routinely plays
racquetball or golf with one of his subordinates," said Lynch. "The
officer and his subordinate believe their relationship is professional,
but others in the unit may view their interaction and begin linking
other outcomes to that relationship. If that subordinate has earned
recent awards or is perceived to have received favorable treatment, his
coworkers may have a case for reporting the relationship as
unprofessional to commanders or investigators."
This is one of many examples where crossing a line may not actually have
happened among the parties involved, but others in the unit could
perceive that it has.
There are a lot of areas where relationship concepts come into play:
fraternization, dating and close friendships, living accommodations,
social clubs and relationships with civilians and contractors.
"Enlisted service members should be careful too," said Lynch. "There's a
common misconception that officers, alone, are responsible for heeding
fraternization guidelines, but enlisted members can be disciplined for
these type of offenses as well."
When 50 SW judge advocate staff deliver briefings on the topic they
implore service members to contemplate professionalism before
interacting with other members or civilians.
"Unprofessional behavior can quickly erode an office or a unit," said
Master Sgt. Karana Rice, 50 SW/JA superintendent. "With this in mind, we
all have a responsibility and duty to make sure that we are setting the
proper example in everything we do. There will be instances, where you
will find yourself being buddies with an individual one day and
supervising them the next, and find yourself having to draw that line.
The bottom line is, there is a common sense factor. We have to avoid
relationships that negatively affect morale and remember, professional
relationships are consistent with Air Force values."
When in doubt or questioning a proper course of action regarding their
own relationship, Airmen can seek advice from the 50 SW/JA office or
from their leadership.
"We talk about the concept of 'Perception is Reality,' Lynch said. "How a
relationship is viewed by others is important and has far reaching
effects to the unit. Many times, it serves an Airmen well to approach
their supervisor or squadron leadership to explain circumstances and
clear up any misunderstandings."
On the other side of the issue, Lynch also pointed out that Airmen may
be conflicted about the best course of action when they suspect an
unprofessional relationship may be occurring in their unit. She
recommends Airmen use their chain of command when dealing with such a
She said the Air Force considers unprofessional relationships seriously
and that discipline for offenders can be severe, even to the point of
Article 15 punishment and courts martial, depending on the level of the
offense and the offenders.
For more information on the topic, visit or call the 50 SW legal office
at 567-5050. The full AFI can be found at the Air Force e-publishing
website. Type "AFI 36-2909" into the search bar.