Obligatory Volunteerism: a Curse Upon the Air Force or No Big Deal?

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Airmen working in a soup kitchen. The service has created powerful incentives around activity like this, arguably undercutting the prominence of duty performance in the evaluation and promotion processes.

No one can say when it happened exactly, but at some point in the past generation, the Air Force’s supervisory system became obsessed with something called the “whole person concept.” This is the idea that being great at your job is fine and dandy, but if you really want to impress the chain of command and earn the highest marks, you must also improve yourself through various off-duty activities while also contributing to your local community.

It’s that last part that has been driving a wedge between airmen for some time now, as those with the best duty performance are too often overlooked for awards and promotions because they’ve spent too little time working in soup kitchens, organizing bake sales, or prepping care packages.

It’s an odd notion when you step back and think about it. Of course it’s a great idea to encourage community service, but at the end of the day, the Air Force should be grading people on their mission-related performance. To the extent community activity enhances an airman’s capability, this should be evident in the results of duty performance. But instead of focusing on results, the service has taken to grading how airmen spend their off-duty time. It’s all more than a little chauvinistic, especially consider every active duty airman is already a volunteer. It has given rise to an onslaught of critiques in the past few years.

This graphic, shared recently on the JQP Facebook feed, gathered more than 1,000 likes, 170 shares, and a slew of comments denouncing obligatory volunteerism:

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This gem, posted recently at the “Air Force amn/nco/snco” Facebook page, seems to more vividly capture how airmen feel about the “whole person concept.”

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But perhaps the most vitriolic of anti-volunteerism bile can be found by digging through a Reddit hangout frequented by airmen. There, over the course of the last several months, resistance to the notion of “voluntoldism” has simmered to an occasional boil, with inflammatory rants getting masses of upvotes. It seems to be a place airmen go to vent when their chain of command won’t listen.

As the service’s new evaluation and promotion system is rolled out in excruciating slow motion, with official guidance and evaluation forms obscured behind a veil of secrecy, airmen are getting anxious that the new process will only serve to exacerbate the warping of the current process. Combining new quotas for promotion ratings and stratification with the existing preference for community service, so the argument goes, could kick eyewash efforts by lesser performers into overdrive, deepening the already gaping maw between what matters to the mission and what is valued by the promotion system.

Amid the anxiety, one Redditor with the handle SilentD took it upon himself to play a soothing role. Here’s an excerpt from his post, which has amassed quite a number of approvers.

The EPR system (current or future) is not perfect but it’s not going to strangle the life out of the Air Force.

Not every “professional volunteer” is going to get promoted over everyone else. Not everyone that volunteers are terrible at their jobs. A lot of them are great at their jobs, and they happily go above and beyond because they want to make their base or community better, or maybe they just want to check more boxes.

And to speak of volunteering and the whole person concept, it’s really not that hard. People here make it sound like you’re expected to go out to the soup kitchen every weekend or you’ll never be promoted or win an award. That’s simply not true. You don’t have to volunteer, you don’t have to check those boxes.

But if you do want to, simply do a volunteer activity that you’re really interested in every quarter. That’s four times a year. It’s not a lot to ask. And if you do something you enjoy, it’s usually pretty fun as well. That’s plenty to pad out an EPR. If you want to win awards, wait for a time when you’re doing some pretty awesome stuff at work, then for that quarter do a volunteer activity per month. That’ll give you plenty to fill out an award nomination form.

Some things I’ve gotten to do as a volunteer activity:

  • Box up tons of candy and goodies for deployed troops. Was actually fun because we were doing it for a good cause and with a lot of other people.
  • Pull out a giant flag at a baseball game, got free tickets to the game afterwards and got to meet Charles Barkley, neat!
  • Serve drinks at a Denver Broncos game. Free tickets – cool!
  • Provide security at a concert venue, free tickets, got to stand by the stage at a rock show, great!
  • March in a parade, cheered on by lots of people, felt proud, yay!
  • Helped build a house for some poor people, great cause!
  • Make web sites for non-profit organizations – something I enjoy and is a unique skill that not a lot of people can’t do.
  • Made a couple of videos for base award ceremonies, got to do some of it at work, coming up with ridiculous stories and making jokes at work, fun!
  • Designed logos for various organizations on base – making everyone look better!
  • Filed people’s tax returns – spent a week with the IRS learning about taxes, that benefited me greatly and was even self-improvement as well.

You might not think all of those things are fun, but guess what, you don’t have to do them, they are volunteer activities. If you think something else is fun, find a way for that to benefit your community or the base and turn it into a volunteer activity. Don’t just volunteer to pick up trash on the highway or pick up drunk people for AADD if you’re not really interested in that. Find something that’s unique for you, come up with something new, create and lead an event yourself. It even looks better to come up with your own thing rather than just volunteering for someone else’s event.

The Air Force isn’t perfect, far from it. I get annoyed at all the bureaucracy and decisions that I consider silly as well. But, I don’t let it take over my life. I’ll usually make fun of it, then go on with my day.

But, if I was in maintenance or a cop I’d probably bitch too. Those don’t sound like fun jobs.

His message seems to be that one needn’t volunteer in order to advance (which is a questionable claim), but that one should just go along and do it anyway … and that it can be enjoyable if you’re smart about it. The argument is wrapped in the comfortable garb of obvious love for the Air Force, which betrays a species of subjectivity that helps explains why there are nearly as many opinions about this issue as there are airmen with varying experiences. What’s missing is the threshold question of whether and why an employer should concern itself so intently with the community service activities of its employees.

Also notably absent from this screed is any mention of primary duty performance. As is often the case when obligatory volunteerism is sold as something airmen should just accept, discussion of the demands of primary duty performance is sublimated, embedding in the debate an assumption that airmen are more or less equally skilled and valuable at their jobs. A twin assumption is that all jobs are more or less equally demanding (though this poster unwittingly calls into question that assumption when he points to the demands of other career fields, unfavorably contrasting them with his own more palatable vocation). 

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This is all deeply flawed thinking that leaves top performers undervalued and the value of merely satisfactory or mediocre performers overstated. The more the system takes duty performance for granted, the stronger the incentive to differentiate via non-duty-related box checking becomes. Over time, this blurs the lines between what is and is not job related, especially when airmen are encouraged to wear uniforms during community service and perform it during duty hours.

All of this has led to a careerist force. It has also transformed the idea that airmen should have to spend their downtime doing subjectively constructive things with themselves from a disfavored exhibit of infantilization into an accepted fact of Air Force life. Many believe shifting the presumption back … such that supervisors presume airmen know best how to spend their own time when they’re not working … is essential to restoring a combat focused force.

I agree with them. We need to get back into the business of caring about results and out of the business of micromanaging how people develop themselves to generate those results. Encouraging and even championing community service is one thing. Requiring it is another. The former is constructive and inspiring, while the latter is coercive.

Here’s part of a response I left for SilentD:

Obligatory volunteerism is a garbage idea that needs to die in a fire. Making airpower excellent is a full-time job all by itself, leaving too little already for family and fitness. Civilian corporations couldn’t get away with rewarding stuff other than performance. Wrong incentives = wrong promotions, and there’s about 60 years worth of HR literature backing me up on this. Encourage people to be active in the community, yes. Let them get an edge by doing it … abso-freakin-lutely not.

Strong opinions on the subject are only intensifying while the Air Staff drags its feet in fielding the new evaluation system

What’s your opinion? Does this stuff have any place in the formal evaluation process, or does allowing it into that process at all guarantee it’ll gain too much prominence?

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