Management / The American View: Smoking Breaks

The American View: Smoking Breaks

Some organisations’ scope of authority extends far beyond the inside of their facilities. This can be traumatic (and career-limiting) for workers who have never experienced a work environment where the boss can regulate what you do outside of the office.

Dominion can be a tricky thing. As I argued in my previous column, organisational policy gets messy when an action being censured is taken at a time or in a place that might be considered outside of the organisation’s scope of authority. Can a supervisor punish a worker for actions taken in a place where the action itself is legal and socially accepted? What about in a space where the company’s rules don’t necessarily apply, like off of company property? Can an employee evade consequences for wilfully violating a policy or order? To what extent do managers’ feelings override regulations?

For discussion’s sake: back when I was a unit commander in the Air Force, I was required to enforce regulations that I philosophically disagreed with. One governed smoking: specifically, where and when Airmen could smoke. The USAF was highly opposed to people smoking at all, and had engineered rules to make it as annoyingly difficult as possible for Airmen to step outside and burn one. I understood HQ’s motivation; smoking can negatively impact fitness and health, thereby degrading a smoker’s ability to fight. Therefore, by making the process difficult, some smokers might be dissuaded. It’s not like nicotine is addictive or anything …

Harrumph. Anyway. One way the rules were stacked against our smokers was the requirement that Airmen were only allowed to smoke in ‘Designated Smoking Areas’ (or ‘DSAs’). These were specific patches of ground chosen by the installation commander (or, when delegated, by a subordinate unit commander) that were outside, well away from main entrances and exits to a government building. Most of the time, these were difficult-to-reach fire exits, making it especially burdensome for smokers to reach them, light up, and get back to work in the time allotted for a break.

Making things worse, lots of senior commanders (ours included) were sanctimonious health nuts who looked upon smoking as a deplorable personal vice. These bosses often limited the number of official DSAs near their buildings and refused to spend any money on making the DSAs liveable. In our building, the only official DSA had to be accessed though an emergency exit near our huge briefing chamber on the backside of the facility. It featured a sidewalk and a butt-can. No shade, no shelter, no seating.

To really add insult to injury, male Airmen were forbidden to hold or use umbrellas while in uniform. If it was raining outside, they either had to wait for it to let up, go without, or get soaked.  

One morning, while crossing the car park, I came across one of my Airmen smoking in her car. I stopped her and reminded her that she was limited by regulation to only using the official DSA. There was no smoking allowed in the car park. She got miffed. Not disrespectful, mind; she was a good trooper. She was just ticked at our stupid rules.

I empathized with her. All of my NCOs had smoked back with I was a young infantry medic. Most of the time, our DSA was simply the back of the building or the ramp on the APC. Sergeants and privates could hang out – smokers and non-smokers alike – and talk freely about their concerns. It was a great place to mentor young soldiers.

Nonetheless, the military had changed and the new rules, draconian as they were, couldn’t be ignored. I showed the base smoking regulation to my young sergeant and made it clear that there was no exemption for her being inside her personal vehicle. She could smoke in a DSA or she could not smoke at all. Pick one.

That’s when the emotions came into play. Not the smoker’s emptions; her Chief [1] and her supervisor both opined that the smoker’s personal vehicle constituted a protected personal space, and therefore couldn’t be regulated by USAF regulations. He reasoned that she could smoke freely inside her parked car so long as she didn’t get out of it.

‘The inside of this Camry is the sovereign territory of the nation of Smith! I have diplomatic immunity here for as long as I have petrol and the will to vape!’

I asked the Chief if he was allowed to smoke while standing in the car park. He said ‘no.’ I asked the Chief if he was allowed to smoke while sitting on the asphalt in the car park. He frowned and said ‘no.’ I asked the Chief if he was allowed to smoke while sitting on a folding chair in the car park. He glared at me and said ‘no.’ How then, I asked, does the addition of a ten-year old Toyota hatchback change the equation? You cannot smoke in the carpark. Not on a box, not with a fox, etc.

I admit, I was yanking the Chief’s chain a bit. Partially to make the point clear, and partially for the sheer joy of it. The Chief grew even grumpier and suggested that the Airman was still technically ‘at home’ in her personal space until she exited the vehicle.

I pointed out – as gently as I could – that his logic was utter nonsense. Every day, they passed huge signs at the base’s front gate warning entrants that the mere act of accessing the installation constituted consent to monitoring and search. Vehicles weren’t ‘private’ any more than any other space, location, or container on the base was ‘private.’ Everything could and would be searched or secured at any time. We’d all experienced (and, in some cases performed) invasive vehicle checkpoint drills, random anti-terrorism checks, contraband inspections, etc. Any act performed on the installation – inside a car or not – fell under the authority of the installation commander. No one’s vehicle was ever considered ‘private’ from the moment the driver crossed the perimeter.

The Chief did not like this line of reasoning. He tried twisting the wording of the base regulation to create ‘grey areas’ and each of his attempts fell apart under a basic reading. The only authorized places to smoke on base were in the DSAs. There were no exceptions. Maybe it felt wrong. That was fine. Feelings weren’t relevant. We were stuck enforcing a rule we disagreed with and there was nothing that we could do about it.

‘Excuse me, sir … The burning of your filter cigarette is befouling the pristine natural beauty that is the unspoiled atmosphere of New York City.’

Things got much more interesting when the conversation shifted to what happened after an Airman left the base at the end of the duty day. Were they still bound to obey regulations? For example (I suggested), what if the commander ordered all smokers that they were not allowed to smoke in their personal vehicles at any time while they were in a duty status? Since most of the duty orders we published started and ended at midnight that meant that all military orders (like proper wear of the uniform) must be obeyed from the moment an Airman woke up until their duty period ended.

One of the young sergeants in the bay was aghast at this. ‘The Air Force can’t tell me what to do when I’m not on base!’ he argued. I got it. Emotionally, that made sense.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the regulations said. I retrieved my copy of the Air National Guard Commander’s Legal Deskbook and flipped to chapter 2-7: Sources of Commander’s Authority. I read aloud:

‘The Commander’s authority over military members extends to conduct of the members whether they are on or off the installation.

‘1.  Commanders exercise authority by virtue of their status as a superior commissioned officer.

‘2.  The member, whether enlisted or officer, took an oath upon enlistment or commissioning to obey the lawful orders of those appointed over the member.

‘3.  State Codes of Military Justice (similar to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], Articles 89, 90, and 92) may impose punishment upon those military members who fail or refuse to respect the Commander’s authority.

‘5.  Commanders need to be aware of the status of the member at the time of the alleged misconduct, and their status during duty (i.e., traditional, AGR, Air Guard Military Technician) to be able to take appropriate actions.’ [2]

On the one hand, ‘appropriate’ punishment for smoking out-of-bounds ought to be something like ‘drop and give me … five.’ On the other hand, a significant component of military discipline involves teaching squaddies to obey all the rules all the time, especially when they’re daft.

The room got quiet. The implications made people think. Perhaps some of their bad habits might get them into trouble someday. Possibly. If/when they got caught because their boss stopped for gas at the same petrol station on the way home …

I pointed out that if the Wing Commander ever ordered everyone under his command to not smoke in their vehicles while on any sort of official orders, then they were duty-bound to obey him. They wouldn’t be allowed to smoke while commuting to or from base. If they got caught ... Disobeying a lawful order was a quick way to lose stripes.

The Chief argued that the Big Guy would never give such an order. I argued back that he could any time that he wanted to. It might be dumb and hard to enforce, but he could. Moreover, he was a sanctimonious fellow who hated smoking, and had given similar orders before. Moreover, he wasn’t the forgiving sort. If he ordered such a thing, it would have to be obeyed. Therefore, the best thing to do in order to avoid a huge unnecessary mess was to never give him a reason to.

‘Smoking in the car park directly in front of the Wing Commander’s office was a bloody stupid risk,’ I said. ‘It’s almost like you’re wilfully provoking the Big Guy. Like you were daring him to hold you accountable. You might have righteousness on your side, but the Big Guy has dominion and unchecked power. It’s not a fight you can win.’

Know when you’re outmatched and withdraw in good order.

My young smoker looked peeved, but she nodded to signal that she’d comply.

‘As long as he sees everyone obeying his current anti-smoking policy,’ I continued, ‘he isn’t likely to take additional draconian steps to further discourage smoking. Yeah, it’s irritating to have to walk the fifty extra metres to the DSA. But it gets you out of sight of the man’s office and doesn’t run any risk of offending him. Besides, you’re not just protecting yourself from censure … You’re protecting everyone by not antagonizing the Big Guy into overreaching and making life more difficult. Do us all a favour, yeah?’

She grumbled, but agreed. She never smoked in our carpark again, either. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. Realistically, this was a valuable lesson for everyone on duty that day: how you feel about organisational rules doesn’t matter compared to the feelings of the person empowered to enforce those rules.


[1] In the USAF, a ‘Chief Master Sergeant’ is the equivalent of a Sergeant-Major in the other branches. Highest rank one can achieve in the enlisted tier.

[2] No, there was no paragraph 4. I’ve always wondered why that was.

Title Allusions: Sabaton, Smoking Snakes (2014 song from the album Heroes)


 

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