As some of you know I am a member of the US Coast Guard. During our monthly “all hands” at Station Seattle I was witness to a remarkable development. In the previous month there had been a physical confrontation between two members. People may know that the Coast Guard is not that different from many military branches, in that we have a masculine sarcastic culture. I would characterize it as a culture with low emotional intelligence. It is something that we don’t do but generally doesn’t interfere with our missions. Yet, sometimes it does interfere. In this case a physical altercation resulted from continued verbal sarcasm/jokes (harassment). The two members wanted to leave it at that, an unresolved physical conflict… they didn’t realize the greater impact of their actions.
The impact: a young female shipmate witnessed this altercation as did many other members. This newer member was unsure what to do. What she witnessed concerned her, not only for herself but for other member and the two involved in the conflict. She was brave and took her concerns to the Command.
What was of note was how the Commanding Officer (CO) decided to handle the situation. Traditional discipline measures would be formal documentation of behavior that contradicts our core values (Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty). This documentation is called a “page 7,” (as this is the document number). If this were a serious offense the members could have been “Masted,” (a Captain’s Mast) which is a formal hearing by the CO. There are no lawyers or burden of proof (similar to a principal’s freedom). The members could be confined to the base, they could be sanctioned pay, and/or they could be demoted. A Court Marital is for serious offences the range of consequences are more severe and it acts in many ways like a traditional court of law.
The Command decided to take an additional approach. After having several conversations with his staff and the members involved, both those in the altercation and the members who witnessed it, he assigned an apology letter and a learning opportunity to the members. One member wrote about the impact of his unprofessional behavior in context of the impact on the junior shipmate. “What kind of example am I setting,” he wrote. The other member read and reread the 1999 Commandant’s “Workplace Violence and Harassment Policy.” He also read our Command’s policy on workplace harassment, which addresses the negative impact of harassment on Station Seattle. Both members wrote these the week prior to the “all hands.”
What I find remarkable is the next step. The Commanding Officer asked both members to read their work in front of the whole Station.
Take a minute and understand the gravity of this change and the benefit of this approach. I sat with the Commanding Officer and discussed the impact on the members and the Station for nearly an hour. I came away with three pieces:
- The opportunity of reflection
- The intentionality of the discipline
- The participation of the entire Station
The Opportunity for Reflection, the Commanding Officer said that this is something that we don’t have the time and space to do with our ever present missions. “How do our actions impact other Coast Guard members,” is a difficult question to ask when we are running to the boat in order to de-water a sinking vessel. There is little space for this question when we are boarding Seattle boaters in order to ensure safety and enforce federal law. The Commanding Officer felt that requiring these members to reflect on their choices and the impact of their choices would be a valuable experience for all.
The Intentionality of the discipline and policy choices, the Commanding Officer asked himself “what outcome do I want from this situation?” Given a poor situation (members in physical conflict) what is the best outcome that he could hope for? Ideally members have the skills and understanding that violence is not tolerated in the Coast Guard and that it doesn’t get you what you want! Providing an opportunity to reflect on the harassment policy was a relevant learning opportunity. The policy covers two major points the negative impacts and that the Coast Guard will not tolerate violence. Personal understanding as well as sharing this with the Station creates an atmosphere of support, this is the desired outcome of the “punishment.”
The whole Station was a part of this situation. Violence is never between just two individuals it affects the greater community. The forethought of the CO in “airing the dirty laundry” creates an atmosphere of not only accountability but one of support. The reflection on the Harassment policy was shared with everyone. The apology for the negative impact of harassment on junior member was shared. These experience weren’t shared by the CO… they were shared by peers. This creates a much more meaningful experience for Station Seattle.
There is much more to this story details on how it played out, lessons learned, and constraints on the system. The Coast Guard, like all military branches and companies, invests significant funds in personnel development. It would be counterproductive to “kick members out” over teachable moments, it would be a significant human capital and financial loss. Why is it that the US school system finds it necessary to reduce school hours, suspend, and expel youth who are struggling? I would like everyone interested in implementing Restorative Justice to know that if the United States Coast Guard can implement RJ practices then YOU CAN.