Fraternization and unprofessional relationships

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sonya Batchelor
  • 149th Fighter Wing Legal Office
The United States military has a long-standing tradition - for more than 200 years - related to officer and enlisted relationships, which is based on the need for effective leadership.
There are two distinct types of proscribed off-duty association: fraternization and unprofessional relationships, and they are governed by Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2909 (1 MAY 1999), Professional and Unprofessional Relationships.
Additionally, for Texas Air National Guard members, fraternization is punishable under Sections 432.137, 432.166 and 432.167 of the Texas Code of Military Justice (TCMJ), and (if on active duty) Article 134 of the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Taking its definition from the Manual for Courts-Martial, AFI 36-2909 describes fraternization as "...a personal relationship between an officer and an enlisted member that violates the customary bounds of acceptable behavior in the Air Force and prejudices good order and discipline, discredits the armed services, or operates to the personal disgrace or dishonor of the officer involved."
Further, for Air Guard members, they must be aware of the custom that exists within the Air Force culture that prohibits inappropriate association between officers and enlisted Airmen. These customs include the widely understood prohibition against officers dating enlisted personnel, whether or not they are in a command or supervisory position.
It's important to also remember that there are actions by military members that do not constitute illegal fraternization but may still violate Air Force standards of conduct, regardless of the member's duty status.
"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," according to AFI 36-2909. "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 only one form of unprofessional relationships.
All service members must take care to avoid inappropriate familiarity with other service members, particularly of different ranks that can lead to inappropriate appearances that can detract from unit cohesion and morale. This applies to all unprofessional relationships, whether or not the persons are in the same chain of command or supervisory chain.
Examples of other unprofessional relationships include:
  • Dating or indebtedness between members of different grades or positions within an organization or chain of command; creates the appearance that the senior service member has influence over the junior service member's career.
  • Dating, courtships, close friendships and shared activities if they adversely affect morale, discipline or mission accomplishment, regardless of chain of command. Officers are not to date, share personal living quarters, or take personal vacations with enlisted members, regardless of the other service member's gender.
  • Any other relationship that may erode discipline or mission accomplishment: gambling, attending night clubs or bars, or theaters on a regular basis. 
    Marriage between officers and enlisted members, by itself, is not evidence of misconduct.
Marriage is permitted by civilians or enlisted members who are married to other enlisted members prior to receiving their commission, or by operation of law following force reductions and non-selection for promotion of officers with prior enlisted service.
However, when evidence of fraternization exists, marriage between an officer and enlisted Airmen does not preclude appropriate command action for the prior fraternization.
Commanders and supervisors are responsible for maintaining good order and discipline with their units, and may be held accountable for failing to act in appropriate cases. They should use the least severe action to correct the relationship, with particular consideration for their decision's impact on the unit.
Persistent relationships may require an order to both parties to cease the relationship. Violations of such an order would be subject to punitive actions under the TCMJ and UCMJ.
When TCMJ or UCMJ actions are not appropriate, commanders and supervisors may use alternate administrative actions to remedy the situation.
Education and awareness is the key to preventing fraternization and unprofessional relationships.
This commentary is part of the 149th Fighter Wing Legal Office's Preventative Law Series.