Moving Beyond “Check the Block”: Halting Sexual Misconduct
Editor’s note: You will see both the word climate and culture used in this paper: Our author uses both appropriately. The ideas of climate and culture, as defined by Edgar Schein in Organizational Culture and Climate, vary on a variety of factors, and was best summed up by the following quote: “A climate can be locally created by what leaders do, what circumstances apply, and what environments afford. A culture can evolve only out of mutual experience and shared learning.”
Represented by the recent FY2020 data, the reported number of sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the military and specifically the Army has continued to increase (1, p. 6). This upward trend in reports could signify a greater trust in the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program (SHARP), or could indicate a malignant problem that is continuing to grow inside of the Army. Either way, the estimated number of cases remains too high and the onus of responsibility for minimizing, and hopefully eliminating sexual misconduct in the Army, rests with every Soldier in the force– regardless of their rank or gender. As a force, we must create a culture that encourages intervention and that communicates that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. With that in mind, I offer the following three ideas to help individuals to continue to grow as SHARP conscious leaders.
Create a Respectful Climate
Creating a respectful leadership climate is easy an easy thing to say, but it is a complex challenge to accomplish. With suicide, sexual misconduct, and racism/radicalism eroding the trust in our organizations, leaders are faced with more challenges every day. One way to combat these diverse and destructive conditions is to develop the whole of the Soldier. This means creating an environment where Soldiers are instructed on how to grow as people other than the mandatory yearly PowerPoint presentation of SHARP and Equal Opportunity (EO). This can be accomplished through more advanced and interactive SHARP training, an increase in mentorship, and leaders teaching a wider range of life skills in Soldier Focused Classes. Training Soldiers about life skills that are beyond the Mission Essential Tasks (MET) will show leaders are invested in them as people and can create a climate of collaboration. In addition, leaders need to establish and maintain a climate of equal opportunity and zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. This can be completed in three steps (3).
1) Model the expected standard with others – Simply put, doing the right thing
2) Communicate the group standards and expectations – This is more than signing the same policy letters the last commander had. This means having candid conversations with your subordinates about zero tolerance on a frequent basis.
3) Enforce the group standards and expectations – Holding yourself and others in your organization accountable. Trust is very easy to lose as a leader, but it is very challenging to earn. Not acting when an event occurs in an organization will destroy the trust of the organization and make it very challenging to work together in future scenarios.
Lastly, leaders need to ask for feedback. This can be sensing sessions or the yearly Defense Organizational Climate Survey (DEOCs) surveys, but leaders gathering feedback needs to be mandatory. The results of the feedback need to be used to identify and act on areas identified as problematic. The feedback currently given is either rarely actioned on, so the problems are never completely fixed (2, p. 23-24), or leadership doesn’t consistently follow up after the feedback is given. This creates an adversarial climate in organizations where individuals don’t feel their input matters and the team suffers. One of the six reasons Soldiers don’t report sexual misconduct is lack of faith in the chain of command (3). The culture created by multiple leaders over successive years failing to obtain, act on, and follow up on feedback directly affects reporting and negatively impacts the perception of a climate of zero tolerance in an organization.
Prioritize SHARP Education
As a way to create a better climate and develop the whole person, SHARP education can take a lot of forms. First, leaders need to plan and execute SHARP training other than the mandatory yearly training. This means using their SHARP-trained individuals to create and give valuable, non-PowerPoint driven, classes and courses such as intervention-focused classes or SHARP 360 training offered at some military installations (7). There needs to be a fundamental switch in the way SHARP training is taught from PowerPoints to interactive, intervention/prevention-focused classes. This change of training is needed to improve Soldiers’ understanding of basic intervention methods, reporting methods, and their rights such as a special victims counsel (2, p. 24). SHARP-trained Soldiers are the greatest asset units have to create and execute valuable SHARP, but units SHARP professionals across the Army have been understaffed, undertrained, and under-resourced (2, p. 34). To help mitigate this across the Army, leaders need to send their trustworthy leaders to the SHARP Foundations Course. This course gives leaders the ability and knowledge to be a Victim Advocate (VA). Leaders prioritizing this training add value to units by creating a cadre of trained personnel who can carry the messages of the SHARP program. In addition, building this education requirement through the ranks creates an expectation that this knowledge is essential to creating respectful unit climates and will codify what behaviors are expected of high-performing Soldiers. This focus on SHARP must be present in all aspects of the Soldier’s life-long professional development. Though having more VAs is good, it mainly addresses response and not prevention. Additionally, the training is only open to the E-6 and above population (6). To help prevent sexual misconduct and to have SHARP-trained Soldiers intervene, training enlisted Soldiers to be SHARP Representatives must occur at all ranks. Once this becomes expected, then Soldiers will be more familiar with the resources available and will be more empowered to intervene.
Increase focus on SHARP related components of Officers and NCOs in evaluations
The need for increased focus on SHARP-related components in the evaluations of Officers and NCOs is strongly reflected in the Report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee (2, p. 125). Officers and NCOs who are ambivalent towards or against the SHARP programs employed in the Army need to have substantive repercussions against their future progression in the Army and opportunity for leadership positions. Currently, in OERs and NCOERs, the SHARP and EO section is at the beginning and mostly a check the block comment. Leaders need to take more time to evaluate their subordinate leaders on if they are creating a conducive environment to developing a respectful and inclusive Soldier. The environment they create shouldn’t just influence the SHARP and EO section, but all other sections in the evaluation report. One way to jump-start this change would be to change the OER/NCOER forms to focus more on the climate they create as leaders. OERs and NCOERs are ineffective at measuring the climate created by a leader. The focus of these evaluations are quantitative measurements and as a result, they gloss over the actual climate created and should be redesigned. Another way to create change would be to have a third party evaluate leaders. Since the Fort Hood Report, there have been changes in the SHARP program such as assigning accountability of SHARP related cases and investigations to a third party out of the chain of command (5). If leaders are unable to be unbiased in investigations, we cannot expect leaders to be unbiased in their evaluations of the climates that their subordinate leaders create. As a result, leaders being evaluated by a third party will attempt to eliminate the nepotism that creates climates that do not support intervention and prevention of sexual misconduct. Until we can make massive changes such as overhauling the OER/NCOER forms or being evaluated from a non-biased third party, we need to change how leaders write and interpret comments on evaluations. The current mentality is if a leader hasn’t been formally punished for sexual misconduct, they are given a magic bullet where they have “demonstrated a strict adherence to the SHARP, EO, and EEO programs, exhibiting a level of professionalism that was above reproach” (4). Broad bullets statements don’t specify the climate characteristics created by the leader. Leaders need to seriously analyze the climates their subordinate leaders create and write more holistic and substantive bullets. In addition, leaders who are on selection boards need to read bullets like the one above and interpret it as a band-aid showing this leader is ambivalent to the SHARP and EO programs and possibly reconsidered their promotion or position. An increase in accountability for officers and NCOs will help stop leaders who don’t value inclusion and respect which will create more environments where sexual misconduct is unacceptable.
Sexual misconduct is destructive to the Army mission and our personnel. Inconsistencies in the application of training and solutions needed to eliminate sexual misconduct are prolonging the negative effects on our units and personnel and continue to create long-term impacts that detract from the health and readiness of the Army. Leaders can do more to create a better Army environment for current and future Soldiers.
1LT Kevin Wolgast is a graduate of the SHARP Foundations Course, a D-SAACP (NOVA) certified Victim Advocate (VA), and an advocate for systematic change. He is a 2022 Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.
- Department of Defense. (2020). Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. https://www.sapr.mil/sites/default/files/DOD_Annual_Report_on_Sexual_Assault_in_the_Military_FY2020.pdf
- Fort Hood Independent Review Committee. (2020). Report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee https://www.army.mil/e2/downloads/rv7/forthoodreview/2020-12-03_FHIRC_report_redacted.pdf
- S. Army SHARP Academy. (2021). Army SHARP Academy Foundations Course Student Book. U.S. Army Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth.
- Army Writer. (2022, March) Character NCOER Bullet Comments. http://www.armywriter.com/NCOER/bullets/character.shtml
- S. Army Public Affairs. (2021, May). Army Announces CID Restructure and SHARP Policy Improvements. https://www.army.mil/article/246054/army_announces_cid_restructure_and_sharp_policy_improvements
- United States Army Combined Arms Center. (2021, July). Course Descriptions: SHARP Foundation Course/Special Information. https://usacac.army.mil/schools-and-centers/sharp-academy/crsdescription#:~:text=The%20SHARP%20Foundation%20Course%20is,SLB)%20as%20required%2Fneeded.
- Cruz, B. (2019, April). Sexual Harassment /Assault Prevention Month: Intervention Key to Prevention. http://www.forthoodsentinel.com/living/intervention-key-to-prevention/article_4f066b16-555c-11e9-851a-63b12fec7957.html
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