When people make it clear that they have no intention of reenlisting, we tend to treat them differently. There are plenty of pragmatic reasons for this— ostensibly, we no longer have anything to gain by investing in them. There are a limited number of awards and “Early Promote” evaluations to go around. There are a limited number of leadership opportunities to go around. You have limited political capital, and plenty of people you’d like to see at the top of the rankings—why would you fight for a Sailor on their way out over one that hopes to stay in and promote?
Well, if they’re the better Sailor, it’s because they’re the better Sailor.
Some matters are best kept simple. Awards should go to the people most deserving of awards. “Early Promote” recommendations should go to the people most deserving of early promotion. The top rankings should go to the top Sailors. Intentions with respect to reenlistment should have nothing to do with it. I try to live by this policy: Treat every Sailor as if they intend to make the Navy a 30-year career.
Honesty and fairness are great and all, but there are also pragmatic reasons for taking up this policy. For one: Morale. If you want to cultivate a poisonous atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust, then penalize Sailors who are forthright about their long-term plans. Remember that nobody owes the Navy one second of time beyond what they’ve already committed to—that’s how a commitment works. A Sailor who serves out their commitment honorably is a hero and a patriot.
Here’s another reason: People change their minds all the time. Everyone that got out thought that they would stay in at some point. Everyone that stayed in thought that they would get out at some point. It’s largely a matter of timing– a marriage, divorce, pregnancy, or change in the economy can shift the equation. If the command stops developing a Sailor who has expressed interest in leaving the Navy, but then the Sailor changes their mind, then the Navy will get an underdeveloped mid-level Sailor harboring feelings of betrayal. If instead the command gives them the recognition and opportunities that they deserve, it might be just the boost that puts them back over the fence to stay on for another tour.
Now, I am not suggesting that attitude problems should be ignored. There’s a difference between planning to move on and constantly badmouthing the organization. As Sailors move into positions with greater leadership responsibility, their attitudes become increasingly contagious, and therefore increasingly important. A technical wizard with a consistently bitchy attitude is not Chief material.
Sailors shouldn’t have to hide their career plans
Pragmatism aside, treating every Sailor like a potential “lifer” is simply the right thing to do. Sailors shouldn’t have to hide their career plans or be ashamed of them. The rationalization of “strategic personnel management” is a siren’s song; if it’s leading you give preferential treatment to certain people or to commit (explicit or implicit) untruths to paper, then it is simply wrong, to say nothing of its destructive long-term consequences.
When your Sailors intend to decline reenlistment: Be a good leader and help them out. Congratulate them for a commitment well fulfilled, and ask about their plans. Are they going to college? Where, and what do they intend to study? Have they applied yet? Are they going straight into the job market? Maybe you can help them with a resume; at the very least help them set up an attractive LinkedIn account.
The point is that this is one area where your four years of college can actually be of use to your people. You may really be surprised at how little coaching or support these guys get for their life after the Navy. It happens all the time that highly-trained veterans with educational benefits squander years of their lives simply for lack of a plan. If you signed up looking for a place where you can make a positive long-term impact, this is it.