When is going 'outside the chain' okay?

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Lt. Col. Kevin Cruze is the 50th Space Wing inspector general. The IG's responsibilities include conducting wing expeditionary and operational readiness inspections and investigating allegations of fraud, waste and abuse. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Lt. Col. Kevin Cruze is the 50th Space Wing inspector general.

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- A chief master sergeant at another base was accused of sexually harassing a fellow squadron member. The squadron commander directed an investigation which found the chief had acted inappropriately. The chief explained he was unaware his actions were perceived as harassing and apologized. 

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Several weeks later, the chief approached several squadron members who had testified during the investigation and told them he knew they had testified. In the future, he told them, they needed to bring issues to him before complaining to anyone outside the squadron. 

Is this a problem? Wasn't the chief simply employing long and widely held principles regarding the military chain of command? 

As military professionals or as civilians working in military organizations, we all appreciate the importance of the chain of command. In fact, whenever an individual comes to the inspector general's office with a complaint or issue, one of the first questions we ask is whether the chain of command has had a chance to resolve the issue. The chain of command is usually the best channel for dealing with a wide range of issues quickly and effectively. 

With that said, the chain of command sometimes either cannot -- or for some reason will not -- deal with an issue. In those rare instances, people still need an avenue through which they can try to resolve their problems. The IG is one of many agencies individuals can use to address issues they believe need attention. 

The individual's right to address issues through the IG, Congress, audit agencies or law enforcement agencies is guaranteed by law and Air Force Instruction 90-301, "Inspector General Complaints Resolution." The intent is certainly not to discredit or deemphasize the chain of command. Rather, that protection is given to ensure people have somewhere they can go to address problems when they perceive the chain of command cannot help them. 

Conceptually, restriction seems straightforward. Title 10 mandates that no person may prohibit or restrict a member of the armed forces from making or preparing to make a lawful communication to a member of Congress, an IG, a law enforcement organization or any member of a Department of Defense audit, inspection or investigation. 

Restriction can, however, creep up with subtlety. Squadrons or flights often take on characteristics of families because we spend so much time with our coworkers. Many squadrons I've been a part of have been tight-knit, and members looked out for each other. There was also a sense of competition with other squadrons, and we always wanted others to see us at our best. The flip side of that was that we did not necessarily want others to see our "dirty laundry." 

In that type of environment, it's not hard to imagine a flight commander, first sergeant, superintendent or commander wanting to solve problems in-house without outside scrutiny. The line is fine, and leaders need to step carefully here. 

As leaders, you are responsible for helping those in your organization resolve issues, but you must also make it clear that other organizations, like the IG, are available to them. And while you can certainly encourage people to use the chain of command, personnel have the right to see the IG or contact their Congressional representatives without first going through their chain of command. 

Open communication is crucial to effective and efficient operation, and the potentially subtle nature of restriction can easily lead to miscommunication or misperceptions.

The IG is responsible for conducting any investigations regarding restriction. Commanders cannot resolve allegations of restriction through commander-directed investigations. If you believe you have been restricted, you need to let someone know, and the matter needs to get to the IG office. 

As for the chief in the opening scenario, his actions doubled his trouble. First, he was found through a commander-directed investigation to have sexually harassed a squadron member. Second, an IG investigation found that he had tried to use his authority to restrict individuals from using channels guaranteed to them by law. 

Know your rights and responsibilities, and don't let this happen to you!