Punishment Without Punishing

Leadership-MattersIn the early 1990’s, a directive came out of Headquarters, Marine Corps stating the single male and female Marines who lived in the barracks should be allowed to visit each other in their rooms since this was their “home”. Commands were required to write an order that allowed for this practice but would ensure that the highest values of respect and moral character were maintained. I was the Executive Officer (XO) of an enlisted Marine training Command at the time where we had five different courses of instruction. After discussion with the Commanding Officer (CO), an updated Barracks Order was written which allowed male and females Marines to visit each other’s rooms until 10:00 pm, the official time of “lights out”. At 9:55 pm, the Fire Watches were to knock on all the doors to the rooms and announce a five minute warning to ensure “mistakes” were prevented. Sounds simple, right? But alas, the hearts of young Marines can throw a wrench into the most well thought out plans.

One night, at 10:05, a female Lance Corporal (LCpl) came to the Sergeant on duty in the barracks and told him that she was walking outside and through the windows she noticed that a female Private First Class (PFC) had a male Marine in her room after lights out. The Sergeant went and knocked on the door to the room and two very sleepy Marines came to the door. The Sergeant advised them that they had violated the barracks order concerning visitations and took them to the duty office to fill out the report of the violation. He then ordered them to return to their individual rooms and to report to him in the morning. He marched them to the First Sergeant’s office in the morning and provided a report of the incident.

Upon investigating, it was discovered that the female LCpl and the female PFC both liked the same male PFC. He liked the female PFC much to the dismay of the LCpl. That night, while the two PFC’s were studying in the female PFC’s room for a test, they fell asleep – one at the desk and one in a chair. The LCpl happen to be walking by the room and saw that they were asleep at 9:50 pm. She quickly went to the female Marine wing of the barracks and told the Fire Watch not to announce the five minute warning because she was there and she would do it for him. He took her at her word and went off to announce the warning in the other wings of the barracks. The LCpl never made the announcement and then reported them to the Sergeant on duty.

So, we have two Marines who absolutely violated our barracks order. However, they were set up! However, if they were to get away with the “we fell asleep” defense, it would soon become the defense for all the other Marines so they could get away with the same offense. How would you punish these Marines in a manner that would send a message to all the other Marines that there are no excuses for violating orders but the punishment would also be fair considering all the circumstances surrounding the violation?

While you think about how you would have handled this situation, let me share the things that should be considered when you have a difficult situation to handle that involves the personal feelings of your employees so that you can ensure you are fair to all parties concerned but also ensures the “drama” ends and work resumes.

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  • Know what the policies say. Since I was privy to the policy discussion and had helped review the rewritten barracks order, I knew the history of the order, the logic behind the content of the order, and the conduct that needed to happen that would constitute a violation of the order. This would be absolutely important to the final outcome and is a must for any leader.
  • Thoroughly investigate. If you have more than one child, you know that when they get into an argument, there is “his” story, “her” story, and somewhere in between, the truth. Treat every investigation in the same manner. Ask questions and seek answers based upon your knowledge of the policies. Don’t stop until you are thoroughly satisfied you can logically answer the questions as to who, what, where, when, and how. You have to be assured in the end that those who are responsible are held accountable for any infraction but that you were also fair in your judgment.
  • Know your options. Once you have determined that an infraction of policies has been committed, that those responsible knew they were violating established policies, and that corrective action must be taken, you need to know what you may do to correct the problem without overstepping your authority.
  • Ensure the punishment also provides a lesson learned. When we punish our children, we try to ensure they learn a lesson from their mistake. So, when we put them in time out, we will ask them to tell us why they ended up there and what they should have done to not be punished. Approach difficult and sensitive errors in judgement the same way.[/message][su_spacer]

So, what would you have done with the above real life situation? Our CO was so unsure of what he needed to do that he scheduled a Friday off and told me to handle this situation before he returned the following Monday. I spoke with the First Sergeant and Administrative Officer to get their input and they let me know that they were stomped as to what should be done to ensure there would be no breakdown in the good order and discipline of our Command. I felt absolutely alone but I knew I had to get this right. Here is what I did.

Punishment for minor offenses in the Marine Corps are accomplished at legal proceedings called “Office Hours”. As a Captain, I had the authority to reduce these Marines by one rank and fine them two thirds of their pay for up to two months and restrict them to the barracks for up to 30 days. I could combine these punishments in any manner I saw fit and could vary the length of any fine or restriction. I could also impose punishment and then suspend all or a portion of the punishment for up to 6 months if I so desired so that the Marine had to “toe the line” for a while. In other words, these Marines were facing serious consequences for their “naps”.

I had the First Sergeant schedule the Office Hours for that Friday. I told him I wanted the following groups assembled. The two Marines being charged. The LCpl who reported the incident and the Marine who was the Fire Watch at the time of the incident would be gathered as official witnesses. Told him the Office Hours would be held in the conference room and that I wanted the five Senior Marines in charge of each of our courses there, the Sergeant who was on duty that night, and I wanted one Marine from every class we had in session and one Marine from the barracks detail who was waiting to “class up” to be in the conference room as official observers to the Office Hours.

At exactly 2:00 pm, I marched into the conference room where about 20 Marines had been assembled and took my place behind a podium. They snapped to attention. I gave the command, “At ease” and I told the First Sergeant to call the Marines being charged. They reported in front of the podium and stood at attention as I began reading the charges against them and reading the approved script that ensures that all legal requirements are followed during the proceedings. When I got to the part where I ask those charged were there any mitigating circumstances that caused them to disobey the visitation orders, they stated that they had fallen asleep.

I looked bewildered. “First Sergeant, isn’t the Fire Watch supposed to knock on doors and announce a 5 minute warning? It appears this did not happen. Get the Marine who was walking Fire Watch in here now.”

The Fire Watch explained that he had been instructed not to provide the announcement in the woman Marine’s wing because the LCpl stated she would do it for him. “First Sergeant, get the LCpl in here.”

I had already official counseled the LCpl for her part in this situation and she was now about to face her punishment. She had to stand before the assembly and admit that she had set up the two Marines to get in trouble and that she did so with malicious intent. The looks they gave her were far worse than any punishment I could have handed down to her. She knew that she had lost the trust of these Marines. From this point until her graduation, she would not be seen as a leader among her fellow Marines.

I announced I was suspending the proceedings and asked the two Marines facing charges to step outside. “I have a real problem with what I have heard. Basically, this is equivalent to giving these two Marines brand new rifles and sending them out to defeat an enemy position without giving them any ammunition. They were set up to die. My job is to maintain the good order and discipline of this unit by ensuring that those who violate orders are properly punished. But how can I ensure the message is sent to all of my Marines that all my barracks regulations must be followed without exception. If I do not administer punishment for their violation of my orders then the order becomes worthless – good order and discipline then go out the window. But the system put in place to ensure this kind of excuse would not be acceptable failed due to malicious intent. What am I as the leader to do?”

Now the fun began. I walked in front of each of the Marines in the room and looked them in the eye and asked, “What am I to do as the leader to ensure my Marines understand the importance of following all legal orders without question while still dispensing justice in this case?” As you can guess, no one had an answer for me. I was about to give them the answer.

I had the two Marines report back to me and I pronounced my judgment. “I am suspending these proceedings in total. You will not be receiving any formal punishment for violating my barracks orders. (A look of instance relief spread across their faces.) However, that does not mean you will not be punished. (Now another surprised look and the faces of the observers were glued to me.) This weekend, each of you will write me a 1,000 word essay on the importance of observing my barracks regulations. The essays will be presented to me in my office by 8 o’clock Monday morning. These essays will be typed – no signs of corrections on any page and not one misspelled word. Your instructor will ensure you have access to a type writer, plenty of paper, and a dictionary for your weekend assignment. These essays must be good. After I read them and approve them, they will be placed on the “Must Read” bulletin board in the barracks that contains all the instructions and information newly arriving Marines to our Command must read. You will be ensuring that future Marines know that there will be no tolerance for disobeying my orders whether I am still here or have moved on in my career. Do you understand? (A quick “Yes, Sir”)

Then I looked at the gallery. “So, Marines, when you go back to your rooms, what will you tell your fellow Marines? Will you let them know that these two Marines got away with violating my orders or will you tell them that today, you saw that you can trust your Marine leaders to administer justice in a way that punishment is not punishing? I hope you learned the right lesson today.” As I turned to walk from the room, the First Sergeant gave the expected “Attention on deck” and my Marines snapped to attention.

I knew before I even entered the room exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to draw the observers in so that they would understand the gravity of being a leader. I wanted them to understand that leadership is about caring for your people in a manner that they learn from mistakes and grow in the process while ensuring the good order and discipline of the unit. The essays that were written were really good and were properly placed on the “Must Read” bulletin board. The Command experienced a surge in pride as every Marine learned the facts surrounding the final judgement and gained a better understanding of the difficult decisions that face those in a position of leadership.

If you are going to be an exceptional leader, you must be willing to face difficult situations and decisions with a thorough understanding of all the facts and then provide a solution that demonstrates fairness, justice, and compassion.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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    • Thanks, John. And I hope that it helps those in a leadership position know that even when faced with having to make very difficult decisions, it can be done with justice and in a manner that teaches.