Soon, there will be no photos on packets sent to promotion boards, but that may just be the first step. The feeling now, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that all identifying information should be stripped from documents when boards consider troops for promotion.
Such “sterilization” of promotion packets removes unconscious and conscious bias, Army Gen. Mark Milley said Thursday during a live-streamed senior leader town hall.
“All the service secretaries think this is the way to go,” he said. “They made recommendations to the secretary of defense. And those actions are being implemented as well speak. And I fully support them. I think it’s the way to go.”
Earlier this summer, in the wake of nationwide protests against police brutality against Black people, which bred a larger discussion about the state of racism in the U.S., the Defense Department launched its own internal look at diversity and inclusion in the military.
One of the first suggestions, and the first implemented, was to remove promotion packet photos. Critics argued that bias, whether unconscious or conscious, could steer board members toward or away from a promotion candidate based on their race or ethnicity, perceived or otherwise.
“We’re a taking a very holistic look at the way that boards can look at packages, by virtue of merit, into promotion,” Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramon Colon-Lopez said during a July town hall. “I know that the secretary and the chairman can agree that we can do better on those boards.”
Once photos were out, the discussion of removing names and gender also came into play, to head off any bias against not only men or women, but in the racial or ethnic implications of a service member’s name.
Last year, three business professors at the University of Pennsylvania published a paper proposing a tool to help employers head of bias in reading resumes during the hiring process. Past studies have shown that, in general, people can tend to favor candidates based on their names.
“The actual promotion of a given file, I think that should be neutral, and done based on merit,” Milley said.
In the near-term, Air Force Secretary Barbara Bennett is heading up a department board on diversity and inclusion, along with Colon-Lopez. Part of that includes doing research, taking suggestions from service members and reviewing studies about bias going back to the 1940s, according to Colon-Lopez.
“To see if we need to rewrite policy," he said. “To see if we need to better identify what is being done by the department.”
They came up with nine action items back in July, including the removal of promotion packet photos. Five of those have been completed, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
The goal, senior leaders said, is to reinforce the military as a meritocracy, while incorporating as many backgrounds and perspectives as possible.
“So it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake,” Milley said. “It’s diversity to improve the system, improve the military, improve our problem-solving capabilities and improve our readiness in order to protect and defend the Constitution.”
The next step will be to stand up the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, which will be made up of members from outside DoD.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.