Tailhook Scandal of the US Navy and the Marine Corps

The Tailhook scandal is an incident that involved many employees of the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. The event was significant as it revealed the flaws in the policies and perceptions that the Navy’s departments showed concerning sexual assault. This paper provides an in-depth analysis of the case, discussing its highlights and outcomes. The report offers information about the Navy, its branches, and the organizational systems within them. It analyzes the departments as human and natural systems and reveals the problem of oversight. The paper concludes that the personnel’s actions were illegal and the organization should have responded to the scandal differently.

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Introduction and Case Highlights

The Tailhook scandal is a series of incidents that involve cases of sexual assault and harassment. The scandal took place during the U.S. Navy’s Tailhook Association Symposium in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 5-7, 1991 (Rafferty, 2019). U.S. Navy and Marine Corps defense contractors and officers were reportedly engaged in improper conduct and assaults. Kempster (1993) stated that the event affected more than 80 women. Females were forced to pass the corridor where Navy and Marine aviators were waiting for them to harass them sexually; some men’s genitalia were exposed (McMichael, 1997).

Besides, some cases of assault happened in private rooms. Many women reported that the participants of the scandal wrenched their clothes in addition to touching their body parts (Kempster, 1993). As a result of the scandal, many Navy and Marine employees involved in it had to resign or experience significant damage to their careers due to their inappropriate behavior. Disciplinary actions were ordered against seventy individuals (Rafferty, 2019). The event was later used in different elements of the popular culture, including the She stood alone: The Tailhook scandal (1995) film and various episodes of TV series.

It is possible to say that the incident is an example of poor leadership and management failure. The Tailhook scandal is worth studying as this case illustrates how even large institutions and departments, such as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, may show significant problems in establishing appropriate policies and values for their employees. The incident would not have occurred if the organizations had developed strategies aimed at increasing employees’ understanding of improper conduct, harassment, and assault.

The departments needed to promote respectful behavior among their staff and establish punitive measures for cases of non-compliance. Besides, it is possible to conclude that military women had not been provided with an opportunity to advocate for their rights as the event motivated them to discuss other cases of abuse that had occurred since the active recruitment (Rafferty, 2019). This point is also an example of poor leadership because it shows that the military establishment may present significant gender inequality. To summarize, the Tailhook scandal reveals the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps need to analyze their policies and develop strategies aimed at eliminating sexual assault and harassment within their ranks.

Organizational Functions, Structures, and Administrative Policies

The U.S. Navy was founded in 1775 in Philadelphia; it is one of the seven uniformed services of the country (“Birthplace of the U.S. Navy,” 2019). The Navy has more than 333,000 staff members on active duty and around 101,000 individuals in reserve along with almost 275,000 civilian employees (“The U.S. Navy,” n.d.). The Marine Corps was also found in 1977 (Augustyn, 2019). In 2016, the department had approximately 186,000 active duty members and around 38,500 individuals were in reserve (U.S. Department of Defense, 2016). Both the United States Navy and the Marine Corps are under the Department of the Navy, which, in turn, is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense. The organizations’ headquarters are located in the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia.

The cabinet post of secretary and defense along with civilian officials and their subordinates are responsible for policy direction and performance of the agencies. The forces of the Navy and the Marine Corps are under unified combat commands, which are organized on a functional or geographical basis (Ray, 2019). It is possible to say that the mentioned officials did not play a role in the incident directly.

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However, Healy (1992) reports that the Defense Department did not perform a thorough investigation of the case into assault allegations; its representatives doubted that affected women belonged in the military. As mentioned above, as a response measure to the incident, several admirals, commanders, and judge advocate generals had to resign. Nevertheless, there were no records of the military’s measures aimed at eliminating sexual violence following the Tailhook scandal (Goldstein, 2013). For instance, in 2006, almost 3,000 new sexual assault incidents were reported within the organization.

The Marine Corps’ strategic principles outlined in official documents include being flexible and versatile, maintaining high standards of readiness and being ready to respond to a crisis, being adaptable, and taking care of each other (“Marine Corps vision,” n.d.). The Navy’s main strategical principles include to protect the country from attacks and destroy enemies at possible costs. It is possible to say that these principles did not define how organizations’ members saw themselves and operated. On the contrary, it seems that the principles illustrate the official image of the department’s project to the public. This point can be supported by the analysis of the Navy’s and the Marine Corps’ vision, values, and ethical codes.

The mission of the U.S. Navy is to maintain, train, and equip combat-ready forces capable of winning wars, preserving freedom of the seas, and deterring aggression (“U.S. Navy’s values,” 2019). It is similar to the Marine Corps’ mission, which is to provide Fleet Marine Force with combined arms, expand peacetime components to meet wartime needs, and provide detachments and organizations for service on armed vessels. The goals of the departments are to protect the security of the nation, strengthen their naval power, prevent potential wars, and implement innovative approaches into their operations.

The core values of the Navy and the Marine Corps include honor, courage, and commitment (“The United States Navy,” 2009). The values state that the personnel of the department should conduct themselves ethically in the relationships with peers and other colleagues, be honest, willing to make and accept honest recommendations, and take responsibility for their actions. Besides, they are expected to adhere to a high standard of personal conduct and decency, care for the safety and well-being of other people, show respect towards all individuals, and treat them with dignity (“The United States Navy,” 2009). Finally, the values dictate that all representatives of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps should show the highest degree of moral character and work as a team.

The departments’ ethical codes include placing loyalty to the Constitution and the ethical principles above personal gain, acting impartially to all individuals, fulfill obligations and citizens, and provide equal opportunities to all people (“Navy code of ethics,” 2009). Notably, the code of ethics states that employees should not take actions that are unethical or illegal. The Tailhook scandal shows that Navy and Marine aviators’ actions contravened with the principles and vision the departments follow.

Alleged individuals did not take care of women’s safety but did the opposite, harming their well-being. Moreover, they did not show ethical conduct and decency, as well as seemed to have no respect for their female colleagues. Finally, as the Department of Defense did not perform a thorough investigation of the incident, it is possible to say that the institution did not take responsibility for its actions fully.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as Human and Natural Systems

The U.S. Navy is an example of the military organizational structure. Command and control are executed through a rank system and several units are managed by commanders of different ranks; officers must obey superiors’ commands. The United States Navy encompasses four main bodies, including the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Shore Establishment, the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the operating forces, such as the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command. The Marine Corps, in their turn, are a separate branch of the Navy. The structure within the department is similar to the one present in the U.S. Navy. It is necessary to mention that although the Marine Corps represents a branch of the Navy, its officers do not report to Navy ones.

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The relationships within the departments prohibit fraternization. While an appropriate social interaction between officers and enlisted members is encouraged, intimate personal relationships between them are not allowed (“Fraternization,” n.d.). It is possible to say that the Navy and its branch strives to perceive the respect for authority, which is considered an integral part of its ability to achieve the military mission. Preferential treatment and favoritism are also prohibited; officers and enlisted members are advised to maintain solely senior-subordinate relationships (“Fraternization,” n.d.). Seniors are expected to identify and prevent inappropriate relationships.

Considering the incident that happened in 1991, it is possible to say that the departments’ working relations and the policies associated with them did not have an impact on defense contractors’ and officers’ actions. The employees were not concerned about the purposes of the organization and its values while assaulting individuals. The scandal’s participants tried to pursue their goals without showing respect to others; the beliefs they followed were observably different from the Navy’s and the Marine Corps’ values presented in official documents. Moreover, in that situation, management did not aim to set the organization on a different path.

As mentioned above, the Department of Defense took action to reduce the indignation of the public by dismissing some of the participants of the scandal. However, there were no measures taken to improve employees’ attitudes and enhance their understanding of appropriate and inappropriate conduct (Goldstein, 2013). The idea of failures related to aligning the interests of management and employees with customers’ ones may be considered inapplicable to the situation that arose.

It is possible to say that the organization’s culture impacted the departments’ responses to the incident. It is clear from the perspectives of the U.S. Navy’s vision and ethical codes that the institution strives not to engage in inappropriate activities and prohibits unethical and improper conduct of its employees. Thus, the organization had to ensure that people involved in the incident were punished for their actions. At the same time, as stated above, there was no proper investigation of the case and the Navy’s authorities questioned the details related to it (Healy, 1992). It means that although the organization took action to eliminate the harm it caused to the victims of assaults, it did not take responsibility for its actions, which contradicts its public image.

Perverse Impacts of Well-Intentioned Organization Structures and Policies

It is possible to say that some routines of the Navy and its departments had led to the scandal. For instance, as mentioned in module eight, the Navy had had a history of discrimination within its systems because it was implemented in its songs, materials, and personal assets. It is possible to conclude that the organization had not had appropriate policies aimed at addressing sexual harassment and improper sexual conduct in general before the scandal took place.

For example, McMichael (1997) reports that the aviation community was largely affected by traditional gender roles. The presence of females in combat aircraft was perceived as a social experiment rather than a norm. Such a perception of women and their rights could lead to such a scandal because there was a significant lack of respect for female employees.

Another possible routine that had led to the incident was the difference between the organization’s public image and the real processes within the organization. As mentioned in the second module, the Navy and its departments promote ethical behavior, decency, and honesty. The employees are expected to show respect to peers and care for their well-being. However, the management of the organization seems to lack tools aimed at encouraging these values.

The incident shows that the offenders acted in breach of the values and goals of the organization. The possible reason for it was that the leadership of the Navy and the Marine Corps had not used strategies aimed at enhancing individuals’ understanding of the problem of sexual assault, as well as had not tried to eliminate organization-wide discrimination.

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The Tailhook scandal can be considered a case of oversight accidents. O’Hara (2012) states that the first type of accidents occurs when supervision staff fails to address organizational conditions that depart from the norm significantly. The incident of 1991 shows that the Navy and its departments had not considered the issues related to sexual assaults and harassment and had not implemented strategies that could have prevented offenders’ conduct. It is necessary to outline that the organization had not addressed significant problems within its standards and guidelines too as even the participants of the scandal that we’re not responsible for the actions directly did not report them.

Several “taken for granted” factors can also be outlined. For instance, the organization seemed to perceive its hierarchal dynamics as a factor that can lead to its effectiveness. The incident shows that executives were not able to manage the situation and its consequences productively. This point can be illustrated by the fact that, as a result of the scandal, the careers of many innocent individuals were harmed significantly, while offenders that committed the most serious assaults were not punished (McMichael, 1997).

The primary reason for it is poor hierarchal management and perceptions that imply that superior personnel’s reputation should not be damaged. Another factor that can be presented is the organizational culture. The Navy’s and its departments’ public images represent reliable institutions formed on the principles of honesty. Such corporate culture may be perceived as effective because it seems to be able to manage potential conflicts and crises. However, as the incident shows, the departments were not fully aware of the problematic issues in their cultures and systems.

Quality Control and Oversight

As mentioned in the previous module, it is possible to say that oversight played a significant role in the scandal. It is clear that the incident was not authorized by the management staff; there is a possibility that the regulations aimed at preventing such situations had not been developed as well. O’Hara (2012) notes that police oversight may be related to failures to identify organizational conditions that can lead to poor outcomes and cannot be considered appropriate. The Tailhook scandal shows that the commanders and superiors had not addressed the issues related to sexual harassment or used ineffective methods.

The Department of Defense’s response to the incident revealed possible factors that had led to its occurrence. For example, the organization admitted that its employees’ behaviors were inappropriate but only performed a poorly coordinated investigation of the case (Healy, 1992). The report presented by the Navy Secretary stated that three naval officers were responsible for overseeing the issue and concerning the organization’s reputation explicitly.

However, the authorities did not accept the resignations of all three individuals because they had “complete confidence” in some of them (Healy, 1992). This attitude towards the problem reveals that there were inaccuracies and distortions in the organization’s perspectives on the scandal. The Navy failed to provide a comprehensive analysis of the situation and showed a lack of sympathy and respect to the victims (Healy, 1992). These facts reveal one of the most significant issues that had led to the scandal.

The inability to conduct detailed research shows that the organization might have been not interested in revealing the flaws in its management systems and the internal culture. Several staff members denied that they witnessed the cases of misconduct while naval investigators seemed to conceal significant details about the scandal (Healy, 1992). One of the major causes of oversight was that the Navy did not intend to identify and eliminate inappropriate behavior of its employees because its reputation was considered a more significant issue. It is possible to suggest that the departments were unprepared to manage problems related to sexual assault as there were no systems aimed at determining such cases and preventing them.

Although the organizations intended to promote respect and trust-based relationships among their employees, the commanders had not implemented strategies that could enhance these values. Thus, the oversight had taken place before the incident occurred as the Navy’s and its branches’ policies had lacked the consideration of the equality among employees and the elimination of harassment and sexual assaults within the corps. Module eight addresses this problem and discusses the measures taken to improve the state of affairs.

The Environment of the Organization

As mentioned above, the scandal took place at the Tailhook Association Symposium. The participants of the event included the personnel of the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps along; the Tailhook Association hosted the meeting. It is possible to say that the network in which the departments were placed during the event did not aggravate the scandal. The symposium did not involve outsider organizations and the setting did not promote harassment and inappropriate conduct.

However, the potential significant factor that affected individuals’ behavior in the situation was the support of their peers. Multiple reports state that there were individuals who did not participate in the cases of assault directly but witnessed improper conduct and did not take action to stop their colleagues (Kempster, 1993; McMichael, 1997). Besides, the same investigations show that many participants were under the influence of alcohol, which could have a significant impact on their actions and perceptions.

It is possible to say that the environmental pressure, including peers’ actions, made the departments less able to manage the situation and show decency. However, this factor cannot be considered a justification for individuals’ inappropriate behavior.

Institutionalization could have been one of the most crucial issues related to the scandal. O’Hara (2012) states that this phenomenon occurs in an organization when it bases its approach on the preference of the employees. Besides, institutionalization can be determined as the establishment of particular behaviors as a norm within a company (Keman, 2017). In the case of the Tailhook scandal, sexual assault seemed to be perceived as an appropriate behavior; the participants of the incident acted according to their desires and did not consider other individuals’ comfort. This factor reveals that the departments’ policies towards encouraged and punishable employees’ actions about sexual harassment were unclear or ineffective.

Besides, presented issues could potentially affect the organization’s ability to address the problem later. As such actions were perceived as relatively appropriate, the Department of Defense decided not to perform a thorough investigation (Healy, 1992). The changes in the organizational environment that have occurred within the following decades were the factor that contributed to the necessary transformation of the Navy’s perception of the problem.

The Legal Bottom Line

Several legal implications of the Tailhook scandal can be presented. Chema (1993) notes that the incident clearly showed the cases of sexual harassment and discrimination outlined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines and the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These legal documents state that sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances and other types of inappropriate sexual conduct performed without consent, which means that the scandal involved illegal behavior. Besides, as some individuals were aware of their peers’ improper actions but failed to stop them, they were subject to punishment too.

Chema (1993) states that employees have a full right not to work in an environment that presents discriminatory intimidation and insult. In the cases of such types of assault, plaintiffs should show that the employers should have known of the harassment and failed to take remedial action. The conduct of the harasser should be unwelcome and undesirable. It is necessary to mention that the law prosecution for sexual harassment in the military is only offered to civilian employees and not the uniformed members (Chema, 1993). This fact reveals a significant disadvantage of the legislation related to the issue.

The primary reason for excluding uniformed personnel from the remedy is based on the assumption that suing military-based employees would disrupt unique military missions (Chema, 1993). It means that although a civilian member of staff can file a lawsuit against a uniformed member, the latter cannot sue the military for a similar case of sexual harassment. As a result, the victims of such incidents usually do not receive a direct remedy, which may affect their mental and physical health and decrease their dedication to working in the Navy. These findings show that sexual harassment and its criminalization in the military remain acute topics that should be addressed.

Rape is considered a capital offense and is associated with corresponding punitive measures (Chema, 1993). Other less serious cases of sexual assault, such as assault with no intent to commit rape and indecent assault, impose sanctions too but these are usually less significant. Currently, several penalties can be imposed in cases of sexual harassment. They include compensatory damages, punitive damages, legal fees along with payments of lost wages, and job reinstatement if the abuse occurred in the workplace (“What are the penalties,” 2019).

Besides, potential penalties in the situation may include mandatory counseling and training, reductions in salary, terminations or suspensions, and reprimands. As mentioned above, in the case of the Tailhook scandal, the majority of participants had to resign and experience significant damage to their careers; however, not all of them encountered such consequences (Rafferty, 2019). A significant problem related to the incidents of assault that can be outlined is that sexual harassment may be prosecuted as another offense leading to a lesser maximum punishment (Chema, 1993). Unfortunately, such an issue provides perpetrators with an opportunity to escape the penalty.

The concept of resource diversion is inapplicable to the scandal as the incident did not involve the use of organizational resources for other that indented purposes, as well as illicit schemes (O’Hara, 2012). As mentioned above, the scandal presents the case of an oversight accident as the organizational policies and conditions departed from the norm significantly and did not address the importance of appropriate conduct.

Current State of Affairs – Organizational Reforms, Quality Improvements

The current state of affairs in the organization shows that there is still a significant need for improvement. For instance, the report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2013) reveals that sexual assault and sexual discrimination remain acute problems in the U.S. military. The report shows that female service members, who constitute almost 15% of the military population, are more than five times more likely to be exposed to harassment compared to their male counterparts.

The cases of sexual assault in the military forces continue to impair military readiness and disrupt the cohesion of its units. The number of reported incidents grows continuously too; in 2004, there were 1,700 such cases, while in 2012, the estimated number was around 3,400 (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013). Male employees of the Navy experience harassment as well but they are exposed to it relatively rarely. These facts allow for the conclusion that the organization did not take enough action to improve the situation or the efforts were ineffective. However, some important changes, including training sessions, have been implemented.

The first step the organization has taken to address the problem of sexual assault is prevention training known as “bystander intervention training” (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013). The current aim of the U.S. Navy is to eliminate the climate within its structures that may facilitate or conceal the cases of sexual harassment. Training sessions are based on individuals’ understanding that the majority of cases that involve assault occurs between acquaintances and usually starts in a social setting (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013).

The primary goal of the harassment prevention program is to enhance the military community’s awareness about sexual violence and teach the participants how to identify places and times where such incidents occur. Besides, during training sessions, individuals have an opportunity to learn how to manage high-risk situations using appropriate skills. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2013) reports that the intervention has shown a high level of effectiveness. Individuals have started to demonstrate long-term improvements in behavioral intention, victim empathy, related knowledge, skills, and confidence in them. Such a step aims to initiate a transformation of the military culture and prevent sexual assault.

Another step the U.S. Navy and its branches, including the Marine Corps, have taken to improve the state of affairs is command training. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2013) notes that commanders are responsible for the environments within their units and for creating an atmosphere that will not foster sexual harassment or assault. It means that they should receive additional mandatory training aimed at preventing incidents of inappropriate behavior among the Navy’s employees.

The programs for commanders were designed following their leadership and responsibilities. Besides, annual unit climate assessment surveys were implemented to evaluate how commanders prevent and respond to the cases of sexual assaults within their units.

The role of the new leadership is to eliminate harassment and discrimination within the U.S. Navy departments. Besides, the leadership aims to remove sexist and sexual materials from the military workplace. In 2012, the organization removed all military songbooks that had offensive lyrics, pornographic materials, and other personal assets containing images demeaning to women (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013).

The emphasis on quality and enhancing the Navy’s employees’ understanding of the issue played a significant role in the organization’s improvement as it presented the measures that can eliminate sexual assaults and harassment in the future completely. However, the statistical data presented above shows that additional strategies are needed to provide a full transformation of the existing system.


The Tailhook scandal of 1991 revealed that the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps had significant issues within their systems and cultures. Some of the most significant problems they showed were discrimination and the lack of attention to the employees’ behaviors.

In general, oversight can be considered one of the major factors that had led to the incident. Although the personnel was engaged in improper conduct, the Department of Defense did not respond to the situation adequately by performing a poorly organized investigation and denying some of the facts. Currently, the Navy and its branches are working towards establishing more appropriate policies and minimizing sexual harassment by implementing training sessions and unit climate assessment surveys. These measures have not eliminated the problem but can show a reduction of cases related to sexual assaults in the future.


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"Tailhook Scandal of the US Navy and the Marine Corps." StudyCorgi, 29 Dec. 2020, studycorgi.com/tailhook-scandal-of-the-us-navy-and-the-marine-corps/.

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