Military Ethics and Conflicts of Interest

Standards of Ethical Conduct

American Female Soldier saluting in front of American Flags
DoDD 5500.7, Standards of Conduct, provides guidance to military personnel on standards of conduct and ethics. Mie Ahmt / Getty Images

DoDD 5500.7, Standards of Conduct, provides guidance to military personnel on standards of conduct and ethics. Violations of the punitive provisions by military personnel can result in prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Violations of the punitive provisions by civilian personnel may result in disciplinary action without regard to the issue of criminal liability. Military members and civilian employees who violate these standards, even if such violations do not constitute criminal misconduct, are subject to administrative actions, such as reprimands.

The use of the term "DoD Employee" in this article includes civilian employees and military members.

Ethical Values

Ethics are standards by which one should act based on values. Values are core beliefs such as duty, honor, and integrity that motivate attitudes and actions. Not all values are ethical values (integrity is; happiness is not). Ethical values relate to what is right and wrong and thus, take precedence over nonethical values when making ethical decisions. DoD employees should carefully consider ethical values when making decisions as part of official duties. Primary ethical values include:

Honesty. Being truthful, straightforward, and candid are aspects of honesty.

Truthfulness is required. Deceptions are usually easily uncovered. Lies erode credibility and undermine public confidence. Untruths told for seemingly altruistic reasons (to prevent hurt feelings, to promote good will, etc.) are nonetheless resented by the recipients.

Straightforwardness adds frankness to truthfulness and is usually necessary to promote public confidence and to ensure effective, efficient conduct of operations. Truths presented in such a way as to lead recipients to confusion, misinterpretation, or inaccurate conclusions are not productive. Such indirect deceptions can promote ill-will and erode openness, especially when there is an expectation of frankness.

Candor is the forthright offering of unrequested information. It is necessary according to the gravity of the situation and the nature of the relationships. Candor is required when a reasonable person would feel betrayed if the information were withheld. In some circumstances, silence is dishonest; yet in other circumstances, disclosing information would be wrong and perhaps unlawful.

Integrity. Being faithful to one’s convictions is part of integrity. Following principles, acting with honor, maintaining independent judgment, and performing duties with impartiality help to maintain integrity and avoid conflicts of interest and hypocrisy.

Loyalty. Fidelity, faithfulness, allegiance, and devotion are all synonyms for loyalty. Loyalty is the bond that holds the nation and the Federal Government together and the balm against dissension and conflict. It is not blind obedience or unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. Loyalty requires careful balancing of various interests, values, and institutions in the interest of harmony and cohesion.

Accountability. DoD employees are required to accept responsibility for their decisions and the resulting consequences. This includes avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Accountability promotes careful, well-thought-out decision-making and limits thoughtless action.

Fairness. Open-mindedness and impartiality are important aspects of fairness. DoD employees must be committed to justice in the performance of their official duties. Decisions must not be arbitrary, capricious, or biased. Individuals must be treated equally and with tolerance.

Caring. Compassion is an essential element of good government. Courtesy and kindness, both to those we serve and to those we work with, help to ensure individuals are not treated solely as a means to an end. Caring for others is the counterbalance against the temptation to pursue the mission at any cost.

Respect. To treat people with dignity, to honor privacy, and to allow self-determination are critical in a government of diverse people. Lack of respect leads to a breakdown of loyalty and honesty within a government and brings chaos to the international community.

Promise keeping. No government can function for long if its commitments are not kept. DoD employees are obligated to keep their promises in order to promote trust and cooperation. Because of the importance of promise keeping, DoD employees must only make commitments within their authority.

Responsible Citizenship. It is the civic duty of every citizen, and especially DoD employees, to exercise discretion. Public servants are expected to engage (employ) personal judgment in the performance of official duties within the limits of their authority so that the will of the people is respected according to democratic principles. Justice must be pursued and injustice must be challenged through accepted means.

Pursuit of Excellence. In public service, competence is only the starting point. DoD employees are expected to set an example of superior diligence and commitment. They are expected to be all they can be and to strive beyond mediocrity.

Ethics and Conflict of Interest Prohibitions

DoD policy is that a single, uniform source of standards on ethical conduct and ethics guidance be maintained within DoD. Each DoD agency will implement and administer a comprehensive ethics program to ensure compliance.

Bribery and Graft. All DoD employees are directly or indirectly prohibited from giving, offering, promising, demanding, seeking, receiving, accepting, or agreeing to receive anything of value to influence any official act. They are prohibited from influencing the commission of fraud on the United States, inducing commitment or omission of any act in violation of a lawful duty, or from influencing testimony given. They are prohibited from accepting anything of value for, or because of, any official act performed or to be performed. These prohibitions do not apply to the payment of witness fees authorized by law or certain travel and subsistence expenses.

Compensation from Other Sources. All DoD employees are prohibited from receiving pay or allowance or supplements of pay or benefits from any source other than the United States for the performance of official service or duties unless specifically authorized by law. A task or job performed outside normal working hours does not necessarily allow employees to accept payment for performing it. If the undertaking is part of one’s official duties, pay for its performance may not be accepted from any source other than the United States regardless of when it was performed.

Additional Pay or Allowance. DoD employees may not receive additional pay or allowance for disbursement of public money or for the performance of any other service or duty unless specifically authorized by law. Subject to certain limitations, civilian DoD employees may hold two distinctly different Federal Government positions and receive salaries of both if the duties of each are performed. Absent specific authority, however, military members may not do so because any arrangement by a military member for rendering services to the Federal Government in another position is incompatible with the military member’s actual or potential military duties. The fact that a military member may have leisure hours during which no official duty is performed does not alter the result.

Commercial Dealings Involving DoD Employees. On or off duty, a DoD employee shall not knowingly solicit or make solicited sales to DoD personnel who are junior in rank, grade, or position, or to the family members of such personnel. In the absence of coercion or intimidation, this does not prohibit the sale or lease of a DoD employee’s non-commercial personal or real property or commercial sales solicited and made in a retail establishment during off-duty employment. This prohibition includes the solicited sale of insurance, stocksmutual funds, real estate, cosmetics, household supplies, vitamins, and other goods or services. Solicited sales by the spouse or  another household member of a senior-ranking person to a junior person are not specifically prohibited but may give the appearance that the DoD employee is using public office for personal gain. If in doubt, consult an ethics counselor. Several related prohibitions in this area include:

  • Holding conflicting financial interests.
  • Engaging in off-duty employment or outside activities that detract from readiness or pose a security risk, as determined by the member’s commander or supervisor.
  • Engaging in outside employment or activities that conflict with official duties.
  • Receiving honoraria for performing official duties or for speaking, teaching, or writing that relates to one’s official duties.
  • Misusing an official position, such as improper endorsements or improper use of nonpublic information.
  • Certain post-government service employment. See DoD 5500.7-R, Joint Ethics Regulation (JER), for specific guidance.

Gifts from Foreign Governments. DoD policy requires all military and civilian personnel, as well as their dependents, to report gifts from foreign governments if the gift, or combination of gifts at one presentation, exceeds a US retail value of $285. This requirement also includes gifts recipients desire to retain for official use or display. Failure to report gifts valued in excess of $285 could result in a penalty in any amount, not to exceed the retail value of the gift plus $5,000.

Contributions or Presents to Superiors. On an occasional basis, including any occasion on which gifts are traditionally given or exchanged, the following may be given to an official supervisor by a subordinate or other employees receiving less pay.

  • Items, other than cash, with an aggregate market value of $10 or less.
  • Items such as food and refreshments to be shared in the office among several employees.
  • Personal hospitality provided at a residence and items given in connection with personal hospitality, which is of a type and value customarily provided by the employee to personal friends.

A gift appropriate to the occasion may be given to recognize special, infrequent occasions of personal significance, such as marriage, illness, or the birth or adoption of a child. It is also permissible upon occasions that terminate a subordinate-official supervisor relationship, such as retirement, separation, or reassignment. Regardless of the number of employees contributing, the market value of the gift cannot exceed $300. Even though contributions are voluntary, the maximum contribution one DoD employee may solicit from another cannot exceed $10.

Federal Government Resources. Federal Government resources, including personnel, equipment, and property, shall be used by DoD employees for official purposes only. Agencies may, however, permit employees to make limited personal use of resources other than personnel, such as a computer, calculators, libraries, etc., if the use:

  • Does not adversely affect the performance of official duties by the employee or other employees.
  • Is of reasonable duration and frequency and is made during the employee’s personal time, such as after duty hours or during lunch periods.
  • Serves a legitimate public interest, such as supporting local charities or volunteer services to the community.
  • Does not reflect adversely on the DoD.
  • Creates no significant additional cost to the DoD or Government agency.

Communication Systems. Federal Government communication systems and equipment including telephones, fax machines, electronic mail, and Internet systems shall be used for official use and authorized purposes only. Official use includes emergency communications and when approved by commanders in the interest of morale and welfare, may include communications by DoD employees deployed for extended periods away from home on official DoD business. Authorized purposes include brief communication made by DoD employees while traveling on Government business to notify family members of official transportation or schedule changes. Also authorized are personal communications from the DoD employee’s usual workplace that are most reasonably made while in the workplace, such as checking in with a spouse or minor children; scheduling doctor, auto, or home repair appointments; brief Internet searches; and emailing directions to visiting relatives when the agency designee permits. Many restrictions do, however, apply. Consult DoD 5500.7-R for additional guidance and then consult the organizational point of contact.

Gambling, Betting, and Lotteries. While on federally owned or leased property or while on duty, a DoD employee shall not participate in any gambling activity except:

  • Activities by organizations composed primarily of DoD employees or their dependents for the benefit of welfare funds for their own members or for the benefit of other DoD employees or their dependents, subject to local law and DoD 5500.7-R.
  • Private wagers among DoD employees if based on a personal relationship and transacted entirely within assigned Government living quarters and subject to local laws.
  • Lotteries authorized by any state from licensed vendors.

Dissident and Protest Activities

Military commanders have the inherent authority and responsibility to take action to ensure the mission is performed and to maintain good order and discipline. This authority and responsibility include placing lawful restriction on dissident and protest activities. Military commanders must preserve the service member’s right of expression to the maximum extent possible, consistent with good order, discipline, and national security. To properly balance these interests, commanders must exercise calm and prudent judgment and should consult with their SJAs.

Possessing or Distributing Printed Materials. Military members may not distribute or post any printed or written material other than publications of an official Government agency or base-related activity within any Military installation without permission of the installation commander or that commander’s designee. Members who violate this prohibition are subject to disciplinary action under Article 92 of the UCMJ.

Writing for Publications. Military members may not write for unofficial publications during duty hours. An unofficial publication, such as an “underground newspaper,” may not be produced using Government or unappropriated fund property or supplies. Any publication that contains language, the utterance of which is punishable by the UCMJ or other Federal laws, may subject a person involved in its printing, publishing, or distribution to prosecution or other disciplinary action.

Off-limits Action. Action may be initiated under AFJI 31-213Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Boards and Off-Installation Liaison and Operations, to place certain establishments off limits. An establishment runs the risk of being placed off limits if its activities include counseling service members to refuse to perform their duties or to desert, or when it is involved in acts with a significant adverse effect on health, welfare, or morale of military members.

Prohibited Activities. Military personnel must reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes; attempt to create illegal discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, or national origin; advocate the use of force or violence, or otherwise engage in the effort to deprive individuals of their civil rights. Active participation, such as publicly demonstrating or rallying, fundraising, recruiting and training members, organizing or leading such organizations, or otherwise engaging in activities the commander finds to be detrimental to good order, discipline, or mission accomplishment, is incompatible with military service and prohibited. Members who violate this prohibition are subject to disciplinary action under Article 92 of the UCMJ.

Demonstrations and Similar Activities. Demonstrations or other activities within an Air Force installation that could result in interfering with or preventing of the orderly accomplishment of a mission of the installation or which present a clear danger to loyalty, discipline, or morale of members of the Armed Forces are prohibited and are punishable under Article 92 of the UCMJ. Military members are prohibited from participating in demonstrations when they are on duty, when they are in a foreign country, when they are in uniform, when their activities constitute a breach of law and order, or when violence is likely to result. activities constitute a breach of law and order, or when violence is likely to result.

Above information derived from AFPAM36-2241V1

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