A reputation takes years to perfect but only seconds to destroy

  • Published
  • By Maj. Rob Rushakoff
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Staff Judge Advocate
My primary duty is to provide legal advice and counsel to base leadership. Sometimes, what I have to say on an issue may not be very popular but it's part of the job. So I'm starting this opinion using me as an example only, but this article is meant to apply to everyone. 

In my case, do I soften my guidance to better "fit in" and not upset the apple cart or do I give my honest professional opinion as requested? For me, the answer is obvious. I'm asked a question and then I give an honest answer based on my training and experience. I do this even though I know that in at least in some cases my opinion may upset some people in the process. 

Before I hit the dangerous "send" key when writing an email, for instance, I ask myself one question - Why am I not taking the easy route by doing a quick soft-step and riding the proverbial fence? Then it came to me - it is to protect what I hope is a positive reputation built over the course of my career by putting my integrity first. 

I know I cannot make everyone happy all of the time. If I did, I clearly would not be doing my job. So I hit that "send" key and hoped my reputation, as an honest counselor who is not afraid to do his job, stays intact. 

Now, I doubt one issue will make or break my reputation beyond repair. In the end, I try to keep my integrity first, put service before self, and provided excellence in what I do.
But what about when one error in judgment, the commission of a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or even a violation of the three core values damages a reputation beyond repair? Do you really want to be in that position? 

When your integrity is compromised, so is your reputation. In just a blink of an eye, your reputation can be permanently destroyed and career ended. Before that happens, I challenge you to take a moment and reflect. Think about what you are just about to do be it a phone call, email, letters of recommendations, etc., and then consider whether what you are about to do is how you want to be remembered by the people at the other end of your conduct. 

Although there are many ways a reputation can be severely damaged. Let us focus on just two that could apply to any one at Vance, regardless of rank or military status. 

The first one is the failure to take individual responsibility for one's own actions. Society as a whole has progressed towards what I call the "blame the victim" mentality. In other words, when someone commits a crime or does something wrong, instead of taking personal responsibility - which strengthens one's personal reputation while demonstrating integrity - they blame the "victim." 

When integrity is one of the cornerstones of what we do, blaming the victim is not an option. Once you blame someone else for your own actions, you sacrifice your reputation by compromising your integrity. Restoring that reputation could take years, if ever accomplished. 

When a service member fails to perform well at work, they sometimes claim that it was the fault of poor supervision. Sometimes that may be the case and poor supervision may be the rightful explanation. 

But what about when a member gets caught in a lie trying to avoid getting in trouble? What if they get caught clearly not doing their job or steals from the Base Exchange and then claims all of this was because they lacked a strong support system? 

That's when someone sells their reputation and integrity. Not only will the member be punished for the theft or for lying to his bosses, but now he has lost the respect of his peers and supervisors and seriously damaged or destroyed his reputation. I challenge anyone to argue that such a personal price was worth it in the end. 

A person can sell their reputation in just a matter of seconds by taking a position that goes against what we do in the Air Force and violates our core values. For example, the act of stealing by a career Air Force member and then lying about it to his commander or blaming the theft on a poor support system as justification. Such a failure to take responsibility for something that was clearly their responsibility can destroy one's reputation in a blink of an eye. 

When a retired Air Force master sergeant or an Army colonel provides character statements stating they believe a member like this one, as an example, is a trustworthy individual and chooses to believe that poor supervision caused the theft or the lie, they put their reputation on the line. Someone the steals from someone else or repeatedly lies to multiple supervisors is the poster child for dishonesty. 

What will be remembered about these individuals is that they allowed a member to avoid individual responsibility and to violate the first core value - integrity first. 

This same logic applies when someone is provided unequivocal evidence that a member did something wrong, to include criminal convictions, but chooses not to believe that cold-hard evidence and then stands by the culprit. Certainly, there are cases when someone is wrongfully accused and the evidence is misleading. But that is the exception to the rule. 

One example is when a random urinalysis comes back positive for marijuana. Then a second one comes back even higher. Then several people provide sworn statements that they saw the person smoking at a local club, but a supervisor stands by the Airman without wavering. 

You may be able to argue with a straight face that the first drug test was flawed. But to argue that both tests were wrong and all the witnesses are lying and the only one telling the truth is the Airman is selling your reputation. 

It may seem that I am making this stuff up, and I did create these "facts" for the sole purpose of this article. But I assure you that it happens quite often and at all levels. Don't fall into this trap and sell your reputation in the process. 

Take responsibility for your actions and stand by what you believe, even if it is not the popular view or the easy road to travel. Sometimes, it may even tighten some jaws. But in the end, your reputation will remain unharmed and your integrity will remain intact.