Commentary: The joy of giving

Scenario: The joy of giving

In the Joy of giving scenario, Capt Smith is put in a difficult position when appointed by her section head, LCol Brown, as the lead for selecting, sourcing and purchasing a departure gift for popular leader, Col Jones. As readers of the scenario will recall, the end result was LCol Brown’s intervention seemingly to endorse the second gift option (overriding Capt Smith’s judgment based on her own survey) and, as a result, significant out-of-pocket costs to Capt Smith and her immediate supervisor, Maj Philpott.

Some readers believe that non-mandatory social gestures are a matter of social etiquette more than ethics in an organization. Customs and how they are handled, however, are very much integral to military life, because they have a significant influence in a team’s morale and sense of identity; these are an important part of the common good. Loyalty is a Defence Team value that comes to mind here: the loyalty that should be reciprocal between commanding officer and subordinates, as a basic sense of concern for, belonging with and belief in the larger whole, something that goes beyond obedience to lawful orders, and that can be embodied in a ritual such as a public show of appreciation (apparently earned in the case of this “popular leader,” the Colonel). A farewell gift is meant to reflect the importance placed on esprit de corps. The idea of publicly honouring the departing officer is reinforced by giving something representing the whole unit. Of course, there may be other, even better ways in which these ideas could be reinforced. So, if this custom works, it has positive value, but if it is not working, it will undermine the organization.

As readers acknowledged, the practice of fairly costly farewell gifts for senior officers is not only an enduring tradition, but seems to be routine to the point that its absence would now be more unusual. The relevant Canadian Forces Administrative Order 19-13, Testimonials and Gifts (not yet replaced by a DAOD) states that “The presentation of testimonials or gifts by officers or men to other officers is permissible. However, considering the financial burden that could be imposed on a member, the presentation of a gift or testimonial should be reserved for special cases and remain the exception rather than the rule.” The final paragraph of the CFAO states, “Commanding officers shall ensure that the practice of presenting testimonials or gifts is carefully watched and controlled.” What is troubling is that a number of readers also suggested that this process is rarely “watched closely”, just as it was not in the scenario.

Several readers blamed LCol Brown directly, writing that his conduct exemplifies what is sometimes wrong with military culture and leadership. LCol Brown had a duty under both the CFAO and more broadly, the DND CAF Code of Values and Ethics (“ensure fair treatment…of personnel”) and the standard of common decency to be more engaged throughout the process, considering the more limited financial means of junior ranks. Given LCol Brown’s “dislike of internal communications” and his failure to offer any plan as to how he would help subsidize the cost, it is no surprise that Capt Smith felt ill at ease explaining the difficulty.

As some readers noted, Capt Smith could have taken more initiative to seek assistance with her predicament. Another unwise move on her part was to purchase the gift before collecting the funds. She cannot however, be held to the same level of account as her Commander for what is really his self-imposed obligation. Capt Smith might also have tried raising her concerns with her immediate superior, Maj Philpott, who could then serve as a go-between before things went south.

Some readers suggested that the only recourse for Capt Smith was to accept the financial loss and consider this a ‘lesson learned’. One would hope that someone – perhaps the Major – will find a way to ensure that LCol Brown learns a lesson from this experience as well, so that in future he is more mindful of the welfare of subordinates and recognizes the cost of not communicating well in the workplace. It would be premature to assume the LCol would be indifferent to the financial burden on Capt Smith and her supervisor Maj Philpott (if he realized his error) just because he was oblivious to it. One way to enlighten the LCol would be (as was suggested) a department-wide email sent either by Capt Smith or Maj Philpott, identifying the financial shortfall and once again soliciting donations. Of course, a still better outcome, as others noted, would be for LCol Brown to realise his mistake and step up without prompting.

Finally, several readers commented that perhaps now is the time to rethink the (for some) “archaic practice” of departure gifts, suggesting that it fosters elitism within the CAF, as fund raising efforts and subsequent departure gifts are rarely (if ever?) bestowed upon junior CAF members upon a posting. Having begun this commentary by acknowledging the importance of tradition, perhaps we could offer that the way this custom is actually practiced needs some thought. While military institutions have never been democratic, customs are not so timely when they have come to undermine their own original intent.

Thank you to everyone who shared their ideas and contributed to the commentary for this scenario. As always, both your suggestions for scenarios and your feedback on scenarios are appreciated.


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