The purpose of the Marine Corps’ promotion system is to select the “best and fully qualified” individuals for promotion and command. Marines are expected to perform in every position and then are selected, based on this performance, by an anonymous board of officers for promotion to the next rank, education programs, and the opportunity to command operational units. The Marine Corps is the nation’s premier warfighting institution and, as such, relies on its institutional selection mechanisms for a fair and unbiased evaluation of a Marine’s potential to perform at the next rank or in a position of command. Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger stated, “only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality, and prejudice can we . . . serve as the elite warfighting organization America requires and expects us to be.” He also stated, “anything which divides us, anything which threatens team cohesion, must be addressed head-on.”
On 14 July, the Secretary of Defense directed the department to remove photographs from promotion boards to ensure that a candidate’s demographic information is not available to board members during deliberations. He directed the Under Secretary for Defense for Personnel and Readiness (USD(P&R)) to develop policy guidance implementing this direction no later than 1 September 2020.
Ensuring that all Marines have equal opportunity for promotion and education by preventing selection boards from knowing the race or gender of candidates will prevent conscious or unconscious bias affecting the selection of the most talented Marines. The next war will not be fought with the presumptive air and sea control that the United States has enjoyed for almost the last century and so it is all the more vital to remove any structural barriers that prevent selection of the most talented service members for future responsibility.
Role of Boards in a Marine Corps Career
The progression of a Marine’s career is almost totally determined by board assessments of his or her performance and potential for future responsibility. Typically, within his or her first 20 years in uniform, an officer will go “on the board” for promotion to each rank between O-3 and O-5, selection for educational programs, as well as selection to command a battalion or squadron.
Failure to be selected by the promotion boards is considered career killer; although the possibility exists for promotion on the second appearance before a board, it is rare that a Marine is selected if he or she has been passed over previously. Likewise for the command slating board: Although not a statutory requirement for promotion to colonel, battalion or squadron command is considered the pinnacle of a Marine’s career and, as such, only in rare cases is an individual selected for colonel who has not held command as a lieutenant colonel.
Educational opportunities also are adjudicated through the board process. Officers are selected for programs such as the Naval Postgraduate School, where they receive full pay and allowances while studying for a taxpayer-funded master’s degree, as a result of the Commandant’s Career Level Education Board. This board also selects Marines for resident versions of the military schools required for promotion. Officers not selected to attend the nine-month resident Expeditionary Warfare School, for example, are expected to devote at least 200 hours of personal time outside their regular work responsibilities if they wish to be promoted. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the board selection process in a Marine’s career.
Fitness Report and Board Processes
As a result of their importance, the Marine Corps has taken great pains to ensure the anonymity and independence of selection boards. A board is made up of Marines selected to create a representative sample of the Marine Corps occupational field specialties so that certain communities do not dominate the selection process. These boards are structured to ensure that their members are not swayed by any outside influence. Before convening, board members swear to keep all deliberations secret to enable an honest discussion and fair evaluation of a Marine’s potential for future responsibility. Their evaluation is based on the candidate’s performance record.
Marines’ performance is documented annually or semiannually (depending on rank) in a series of fitness reports (FitReps) written by his or her immediate supervisor and another officer, usually the supervisor’s supervisor. These reports contain a quantitative evaluation (sections A through H), in which the supervisor evaluates the extent to which a Marine exemplifies attributes such as courage, effectiveness under stress, and initiative. These quantitative rankings are compared to the supervisor’s overall average: If the evaluator’s historical average is 2.5, for example, and he or she ranks a Marine as a 2.7, this indicates that the officer has, in the eyes of the evaluator, outperformed his or her peers. The FitRep also includes three qualitative sections in which the Marine reported on lists his or her accomplishments during the reporting period, the supervisor describes the Marine’s performance, and the supervisor’s supervisor also comments on the performance. The report is submitted to headquarters and, together with all other fitness reports, creates a formal record of the Marine’s performance. If a Marine feels they have been unfairly evaluated, mechanisms exist to dispute the evaluation and remove it from the record. While no performance evaluation process is perfect, this system is as fair as any other.1
Fitness reports, along with an official photograph of the Marine considered by the board and other information, such as their rifle qualification score, military decorations, education, height and weight, and martial arts belt, are collected and summarized for the board in a document called the Master Brief Sheet. A board member is assigned to brief the board a summary of each officer considered for promotion. Board members often are seated in rows of desks facing a projector screen on which an official photograph of the candidate for promotion is projected. The board sifts through the candidate’s package, including their Master Brief Sheet, during the briefing. Once the briefer has finished summarizing the individual’s performance, the board votes. Throughout this process, every member of the board is aware of the candidate’s race and gender. All in all, the board system is an independent evaluation of a Marine’s potential for future responsibility, but the system depends on the judgment and reliability of the board members.2
Recommendations for Action
The Marine Corps has struggled in recent years as embarrassing sexist and racist online behavior of active-duty and former Marines has surfaced into public view. Although the Marines United scandal was met with nothing but condemnation at all levels of the Marine Corps and resulted in new servicewide policies such as the Marine Corps Order on Prohibited Activities and Conduct, the fact remains that some actively serving members of the organization harbored perceptions of racial and/or gender superiority. A more thorough study of the Marine Corps, conducted by the Marine Corps’ Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL), revealed the perception of pervasive gender bias across the force. The study described the perception that female Marines need to outperform their peers for promotion as a result of gender bias.
This article does not argue that racist or sexist views are shared by more than a tiny minority in the Corps, and my experience is that the overwhelming majority of Marines are firmly committed to the principles of equality and equal opportunity. This does not mean, however, that the Marine Corps should be inactive—instead, it must proactively improve its culture and remove structural barriers that could preclude selection of the most talented members.
A Marine denied promotion or unfairly selected for promotion or education is a travesty because it means that America’s sons and daughters will go into combat with a leader who is not the best person for the job. Thus, given the independence of promotion and education boards, the lack of transparency regarding their deliberations, and the magnitude of their decisions, it is vital to ensure that racial or gender bias has no way of affecting board decisions. This could be achieved through minor alterations to the Marine Corps Order that governs fitness reports, the removal of the official photograph as recently mandated, and use of a unique identifier for each candidate to anonymize the individuals considered by the board. Making these changes would be well in line with the Commandant’s Planning Guidance to attract and retain the most talented Marines.
Removing gendered pronouns, such as “his” or “her,” from fitness reports would prevent board members from identifying the gender of the individual considered for promotion. Anecdotally, many supervisors already do this by using terms such as “marine reported on (MRO)” or “said named marine (SNM).” A minor change to the Performance Evaluation System Manual (MCO 1610.7A), Chapter 4, paragraph 12. e. (9) (b) from, “Limit references to gender pronouns,” to “References indicating the gender or ethnicity of the subject of the report shall not be included,” would formalize this norm. The performance evaluation software used to submit reports (APES) includes a feature that automatically rejects words deemed inappropriate, and so any update to the order could be accompanied by adding gendered pronouns and references to ethnicity to the software’s list.
Removing the individual’s name through the use of a unique anonymous identifier would prevent board members from guessing the candidate’s gender. This could be accomplished by using the subject’s Department of Defense identification number on all documentation that the board reviews before voting. As the Master Brief Sheets already are automatically compiled from the candidate’s military record, it would not be particularly challenging to replace the individual’s name as part of this process. Removing the name would keep board members from judging the subject by anything besides the performance record. This would prevent selection decisions from being based on previous working relationships, the individual’s reputation within his or her occupational community, or prominent family members.
Removing the photograph from the consideration of the board, as Secretary Esper directed, will prevent board members from knowing the gender or ethnicity of the subject of consideration. Although visualizing candidates humanizes the decision, this benefit must be weighed against the disadvantages of possible racial or gender bias. The best argument for the photograph is that it allows board members to determine the individual’s military appearance. However, policing individual appearance and height/weight standards is best handled at the unit level. If a Marine meets the Marine Corps standards as judged by his or her commanding officer, why should the board deny them a promotion? Height and weight compliance is already reported elsewhere. The purpose of the board process is to select the best candidates for future responsibility based on previous performance. The individual’s appearance is irrelevant.
Making these changes would be budget neutral and could even create manpower savings. Because every officer is required to get a photograph each year, the combat camera detachments at each base maintain picture studios manned by Marines. Removing the photograph requirement would eliminate the demand for photographs (besides official command portraits, etc.), and the Marine Corps likely could allocate some of these billets elsewhere.
The Secretary of Defense has instructed the department to develop guidance on removing photographs and demographic information from promotion and selection boards. The Marine Corps has led the services in implementing policies for diversity and inclusion over the last several months. Preventing the possibility of discrimination in our promotion and education selection processes will ensure that the best Marines are not overlooked as a result of bias and will destroy the perception that some Marines have to outperform their peers to receive the same opportunities.
General Berger directed any sources of division to be eliminated so that the Marine Corps will continue to be the most elite warfighting organization in the world. If Corps is willing remove unnecessary masculine pronouns from its publications and direct the removal of Confederate paraphernalia from its bases, surely the service can perform the far more crucial task of ensuring institutional selection processes are structured to select the best Marines for the job by preventing the possibility of discrimination. The Marine Corps can continue to lead the Department of Defense by promptly implementing policies that achieve the guidance passed by the Secretary and Commandant.
When I next deploy, I want to be led by the most qualified and competent Marines. Removing gender and race from the consideration of selection boards is the right thing to do and, frankly, long overdue.
1 A more complete explanation of the fitness report process is outlined in Marine Corps Personnel Evaluation System Manual, MCO 1610.
2 The board procedures are more fully detailed in MCO P1400.31C w/ CH 1.