It often seemed to me like the Army was full of rules and regulations. They didn’t always make sense (see also 5 Monkeys vs the Army) but at least you could reference them, verify whether people were just making stuff up and use the rules to get things done. In fact, there were so many laws, policies, procedures, manuals, directives, standing orders and standing instructions that it seemed like there was no room for unwritten rules. But of course there were, and there was one occasion where not following one (that I didn’t even know about) almost got me charged.

It all came about when the Signals Corps made some changes to the way we advanced (both technically and in rank) through our individual trades. The changes themselves weren’t bad but the rules required that the detachment commander (with a rank of corporal) needed to sign off before signallers (the lowest rank, equivalent to a private) could advance to the next pay grade, etc. I knew this would be a problem for the soldiers in my detachment because there was a serious shortage of geek (the nickname for our trade) corporals at the time. In fact, I had ended up as the acting detachment commander, despite being the same rank as everyone else.

Our “Career Manager” from SCMA1 at the time (who was supposed to be a geek warrant officer but came from another trade because there was a shortage of geeks at the sergeant and warrant officer level too) came to visit our unit as part of a roadshow to introduce and explain the new system. During the Q&A section at the end of the roadshow I got brave and asked if the requirement was for sign-off by a corporal, the detachment commander or someone who was both (an impossibility for us). The unambiguous response came back that if someone had been entrusted with the role of detachment commander, then they could sign off on it.

I got brave again and chanced a second, carefully worded, question (unwritten rule 1: tread very carefully when questioning people who rank more highly than you, particularly when doing so in front of others). I asked if it would be possible to have the instructions amended to state that acting detachment commanders were authorised to sign, given that written instructions carried more weight than hearsay. To the Career Manager’s credit, he didn’t get upset with my impertinence but he reiterated the intent of the instructions and said we could take it up with him if we had problems (unwritten rule 2: “take it up with me” actually means “take it up with me through your chain of command”).

A few months later I was trying to get some of the younger guys in my detachment qualified. We dutifully filled out all the paperwork, multiple times in order to get it past various bureaucratic hurdles. Eventually it was all in order so we submitted it to the senior geek in our regiment for final sign off. After all that effort he rejected it based on the written instructions from SCMA stating that it had to be signed by a corporal (he chose to focus on the “corporal” requirement, rather than the “detachment commander” requirement)2.

I explained to him what our Career Manager had said during the open day (as the sergeant had been away) but rather than checking with SCMA he stood by his own interpretation of what he had in writing. As predicted, the written word carried more weight than hearsay.

I wanted our Career Manager to weigh in but my technical chain of command lead through the person I was having an issue with. The Army’s official grievance management policy clearly stated that in the unlikely event your grievance was against someone in your chain of command, you were well within your rights to bypass them in those cases. I figured the same principle applied here so I wrote a long email directly to the Career Manager. Soon after, sparks started flying.

First I got hauled in front of the SSM (senior soldier in our squadron) who was ready to blow his stack. He had clearly been told that I had “shouted at the Career Manager” but he soon calmed down and had lots of questions about the who, what and why. He later explained that some people consider bold text in an email to be shouting, even though I had been using it to emphasise part of a quote.

I was later summoned to the office of the OC (senior officer in our squadron) who was a lot calmer. He told me that because my intentions were good there was no need to do anything more about the matter. When I asked him what I had down wrong the best he could do was tell me that all correspondence out of the unit needs to go through HQ. That’s an old (written) rule which I didn’t know about because I joined the Army in the age of email. It turns out that unwritten rule 3 is that the “all correspondence” rule only applies to “official” correspondence. That being said, my OC couldn’t really tell me when an email becomes official correspondence. All in all this was a much more friendly chat and I got the impression that it was mostly for show (presumably so they could tell a grumpy sergeant that I had been disciplined by no less than the OC).

To this day I still don’t exactly know what went wrong. I didn’t have anyone else in my technical chain of command (due to all the vacancies and shortages) so even though I went straight to the top I really only bypassed one person. I suspect my email out of the blue to SCMA must have got the sergeant I bypassed in trouble (someone who worked with him later told me the sergeant had pushed very hard to have me charged). As they say in the Army, “S*&% runs down hill” so I suspect he just wanted me to get in trouble too. I don’t think he had a leg to stand on but during my time I saw others get charged (and found guilty) for even more trivial things after angering someone senior. I suspect my actual chain of command (as opposed to my technical chain of command) closed ranks and protected me. If so I’m very grateful to them!

Unwritten rule 4: watch out for the unwritten rules.

  1. SCMA (pronounced “schema” for you database nerds) stands for Soldier Career Management Agency. In theory there was a warrant officer from every corps and trade posted to SCMA in Canberra who was responsible for the careers of everyone in the same trade. They were the ones ultimately responsible for postings to different units every two years and making sure promotions, etc were happening as needed. 

  2. As I wrote this I belatedly realised the irony of his requirement: he himself was actually only a sergeant from our sister squadron… the warrant officer geek position for our regiment was vacant due to - you guessed it - a shortage of geeks. Based on his logic, the thing that excluded me from signing off on my section of the paperwork should have also excluded him from signing his section. 🤦