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Opinion: Responsive leaders are key when harassment is reported

May. 24, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Maj. Emirza Gradiz
Maj. Emirza Gradiz ()
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As a woman who wears the Air Force uniform proudly, it pains me to learn about other members of our military who have been harassed and subsequently let down by systematic failures to protect the victim. Regrettably, recent stories in the media may have exacerbated this view of our culture.

I, too, have a personal experience to share about harassment in the Air Force, but my story is not of systematic failures — it is of responsive leaders.

When I was a second lieutenant, I went through a terrible experience with a peer officer. I attempted to address it at the lower level, so I spoke with him directly. This did not end his harassment, and after two more attempts to stop his physical offenses, I confided in my supervisor. The lieutenant colonel took me seriously. He asked if I was OK, then he explained the appropriate course of action and told me the commander had to be made aware.

The commander directed an investigation, and I walked around with a knotted stomach for six months as I went from one step of the process to the next. It wasn’t long before the situation was known throughout my organization, and it was hard to face co-workers, my aggressor and other members of my unit as part of daily interactions. Through this period, my entire leadership supported me, as I believe they also supported the person my claim was against. In the end, the commander-directed investigation validated my allegation, and it also revealed transgressions against other women in our unit. As a result, the individual in question received multiple Article 15s and no longer wears the uniform.

My experience does not describe a boy’s club or a woman on the sidelines or disappointment in the Air Force. It describes the unfortunate incidence of harassment in the workplace — a societal problem, not just a military one. Most importantly, it demonstrates responsive leadership.

Today, I think it is important to ask ourselves: How do we, as Air Force leaders, focus on harassment, and what actions do we take?’

From simple observations, I argue, we are operating on two ends of a spectrum that we must balance. On one end, we are diligently pursuing prevention and reporting to improve on former systematic failures. If skillfully executed, these focus areas can improve professional conduct, encourage appropriate dialogue, and improve the relationships that are so important in the military culture.

On the other end, when prevention and reporting are not skillfully managed, we risk creating a hypersensitive culture — one in which individuals become hesitant to say or do anything for fear of offending someone, and one where traditions and micro cultures are misunderstood and not valued for their historical significance. This type of mismanagement can negate camaraderie and open discussions, and can erode traditions — all which could be crushing to the military environment, built on a foundation of trust and sense of belonging.

To balance the spectrum, we must evaluate our actions to ensure they further the purpose of prevention and reporting. Do we endorse extensive lists of taboos, or do we promote a culture of understanding? Do we foster communication, or do we offer scripted responses? Do we teach our members conflict resolution skills to address the problem at the lowest level — perhaps harassment was not intended in the first place? If there is harassment, are we prepared with the proper course of action? There is value in asking these questions to ensure an effective response, without which we create divisions and exacerbate the problem.

Harassment is toxic, and I acknowledge that I was fortunate because there are many cases where circumstances limit the transparency necessary to address an allegation to the satisfaction of the accuser. I am thankful for the responsive leaders who helped me through my difficult situation. They were candid, unbiased and supportive to all parties involved, while respectful of the investigation. Their actions spoke loudly to the entire organization and shaped the beliefs of our unit’s culture.

The Air Force, like any other organization, has its challenges. Now, it’s up to us, today’s leaders, to reflect on what actions will promote the beliefs of tomorrow’s Air Force. It is important that we balance our actions to demonstrate a tough stance against harassment without exacerbating hypersensitivity to the point of unit detriment.

Gradiz, a student at Air Command and Staff College, has served 18 years in the Air Force, first as an enlisted medical logistician and then as a Medical Service Corps officer.

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