Dealing with Problem/Disgruntled Employees in the Law Enforcement Environment
Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D
John J. (Jack) Harris, M.Ed.
In law enforcement agencies across the country, it is ironic and sad to find that many rising stars of yesterday have become today's "Problem/Disgruntled Employees." These once hard-working, productive people have become angry, cynical malcontents who spend more time trying to undermine and sabotage administrative direction and supervision than just doing the job they are asked to do. Their days of being productive members of their departments are long gone. From their perspective, the fun has gone out of the job and they start to think ahead to retirement days, vowing not to let the door hit them in the rear-end on their way out -- even though retirement is 10 to 15 years away. In the meantime, supervisors and commanders, while often ill-equipped to deal with these employees and the problems they create, can look forward to devoting an inordinate amount of time trying to supervise and hold these employees accountable. In this article, the authors will: (1) examine and explain how the police culture sets into motion a series of events that leads to significant perceptual changes in new officers, changes that become the cornerstone of the problem/disgruntled employee; (2) offer a practical five-step process that supervisors can use to help them become more confident and effective when dealing with these employees; (3) offer some suggestions to help the employees themselves stay out of the trap of over-investment, a trap that has ruined far too many promising law enforcement careers and families.
It is almost a cliché to say that police supervisors spend 80% of their time with 20% of their employees dealing with problems or taking corrective actions. Unfortunately, this ratio appears to be much more than a cliché.
The authors have conducted interviews and surveys and presented seminars on the subject of the "Problem Employee" for 10 years. Their interviews and surveys support the accuracy of that cliché. More than 14,000 federal, state and local law enforcement supervisors from across the country have produced an amazingly consistent description of the problem employee. According to the supervisors descriptions, the problem employee most often resents authority, sabotages administrative direction, is negative, is unwilling to accept responsibility for his/her behavior, manipulates, becomes angry and over-aggressive, complains constantly, abuses equipment, resists change, is narrow minded, over-reacts, will not accept feedback, grows tactless, abuses alcohol or uses drugs, seems unhappy, develops a "you owe me" attitude, is insubordinate as well as untruthful, and, of course is a leave abuser.
Supervisors know this small percentage of officers will cause the greatest amount of turmoil over the longest period of time. While supervisors may paint a consistent and apparently accurate picture of the problem employee, they, at the same time, consistently report a feeling of helplessness and inability to deal effectively with these employees and the problems they cause. They offer a variety of explanations, such as: the employee does not do anything bad enough to be terminated, most of the problems are subjective, lack of administrative support, civil service or review boards will not back disciplinary action, lack of prior documentation, it takes too much time, fear of allegations of discrimination, it's easier just to tolerate the problem until the employee transfers to another supervisor, and, very significantly, "We don't know how."
There appears to be an almost helpless acceptance that the problem employee is a fixture in any law enforcement agency who has to be tolerated like other unavoidable hardships. While most supervisors blame "The System" as the main reason they are unable to address the problems, they clearly point out that the lack of previous supervisory documentation and failure to hold these employees accountable creates a personnel record that artificially indicates the problem employee is performing at acceptable levels or above. This artificial record opens the door for a problem employee to claim the problem is not one of substance, but rather a "personality conflict" -- or even the supervisor's own problem. When supervisors combine a few bad experiences in this area with a lack of know-how, they report spending more time trying to avoid having the problem employee on their shift rather than trying to solve the problem by taking appropriate corrective action.
More often than not, the problem employee of today was the potential shining star of yesterday. The authors have found that many of the same traits that produce the effective and functional police officer will, if not self-managed appropriately, produce an ineffective and dysfunctional officer who can be very destructive to the department.
Most people enjoy the luxury an "ignorance is bliss" mentality as they exist in the community. Police officers do not enjoy that same luxury. Police work requires young officers to learn a new way of interpreting the social environment in which they spend their working hours. Through training and street experience, officers quickly learn that their survival -- and the survival of their fellow officers -- requires them to be able to rapidly scan the environment and recognize potentially lethal or hazardous situations before they occur.
Early in their careers, effective street officers learn that the mind-set of office safety and street survival is a necessary tool of the trade. They begin to interpret the behavior of people and the outside world in general as potentially harmful to their safety and survival. This allows officers to interpret situations that most people would not even recognize as potentially dangerous. This newly developed perceptual mind-set, which the authors call "hyper vigilance," is the capacity to view the environment and realize that situations and people have the capacity to -- without warning -- become violent or create circumstances that threatens the officer's safety and survival.
As young officers develop hyper vigilance they are regarded by older officers as "street cops," not rookies. Being told they are starting to think like a street cop is truly a reward: one of the greatest compliments and reinforcements new officers can receive from veteran officers. Hyper vigilance, although absolutely necessary for officer survival, is not without emotional consequences.
Hyper vigilance induces a heightened state of physical arousal. As the autonomic nervous system moves into the sympathetic response range when the officer goes on duty, an elevated sense of sensory experience is produced. The officer experiences a sense of exhilaration, an increased feeling of being alive, increased energy, involvement, and camaraderie with the people whom the officer shares the hyper vigilance experience. This is the universally understood feeling cops experience when they say, "Police work gets in your blood." Just as officers recognize and can relate to the "on duty" side of hyper vigilance, they also recognize and relate to the "off duty" side. It is the manner in which the officer adapts to the "off duty" side of the cycle that can help predict the long-term productive officer from the problem officer.
Homeostasis is the biological process that produces balance in our physiological functioning. Officers who feel involved, energetic and enthusiastic while on-duty become the tired, detached, apathetic, isolated and depressed officer off duty. The "biological roller coaster" allows the on-duty sympathetic response to be replaced by the off-duty parasympathetic response. After work, the involved, heat-seeking officer becomes the detached coach potato. It is the daily ride on the biological roller coaster that produces many of the well-known social and cultural phenomena of the police world. When officers get home and are removed from the element of risk, they no longer need to engage in the hyper vigilant perceptual mode. As hyper vigilance begins to shut off, the officer experiences a physical sense of exhaustion, isolation and detachment. He or she does not want to be spoken to, interacted with, or otherwise bothered. The television acts as a semi-hypnotic trance inducers that helps the officer become more isolated and avoid social interaction. Family, non-police friends and basically the entire non-police world are put on the back burner.
When officers experience one physical experience at work and another at home, their world soon becomes divided into two distinct physical/psychological experiences. On-duty they feel alive, energized, involved, talkative and sociable, and off-duty they become detached, isolated and apathetic. Although this division is experienced by almost all police officers, it is rarely understood. Young officers quickly learn they feel better at work. They find that conversations related to work or police topics vicariously produce the elevated physiological sensation, while non-police topics seem boring or inconsequential. At this point, the police role starts to become all consuming. Non-police related interests, activities and behaviors soon decrease and often disappear altogether. This is the point at which the problem employee usually begins to emerge. Future problem employees over-invest in their police roles and under-invest or totally ignore their personal life and non-police related activities.
Hyper vigilance produces highly motivated, over-invested individuals for whom the police role and experience become their lives. As they work hard they are recognized and rewarded for their efforts and productivity. In the short run, this over-investment appears to be a positive benefit. However, it also lays the foundation for long-term dissatisfaction and resentment. Officers who over-invest in their police roles are also officers who under-invest in their personal lives. "I am a cop" takes on a significant meaning to the problem officer. Left to its own devices, this daily roller coaster ride will take its toll and become a major factor in problem officers.
Supervisors should not confuse investment in the police role with productivity. At first glance, over-investment looks like pride, productivity and functional commitment. However, over-invested officers inadvertently develop a sense of singular identity by linking their sense of self-worth almost exclusively to their police role, a role over which they have very little control. Problem employees almost always are unable to distinguish what the department controls and what they control. These officers become hyper-sensitive to criticism or direction and personalize many of the day-to-day administrative decisions and directions. Strong resentment and resistance to anyone having control over their police role appears to be a universal descriptor of the problem employee. Some of those who start out as highly enthusiastic officers transform into resentful, resistant and vulnerable officers who want to fight and challenge supervisors and commanders who control or direct their police roles. This feeling of emotional susceptibility can reach such magnitude that it resembles paranoid victim-like qualities in problem officers. Supervisors and commanders legitimately control the officers professional roles, however problem employees have so over-invested in that role that they perceive a sense of personal victimization each time an administrative directive affects that role. As a result, problem employees become hyper-sensitive to and paranoid-like of the administration and believe management directives are personal assaults. The highly invested three-year officer all too frequently becomes the angry, sabotaging nine-year officer "waiting until I get my time in so I can get away from this damn place."
This transition from the over-invested, productive officer to the over-invested problem employee often times may be produced precipitously by a career disappointment or disciplinary action. As a result of under-investment in non-police roles the problem employees often have no other emotional foundation on which to fall back. They describe themselves almost exclusively as cops. The resentment towards administrative authority is highly disproportionate to the magnitude of the disappointment or discipline the officer experiences. This can be seen in the classic cases of officers left for prolonged periods of time in specialty assignments, such as narcotics, undercover, SWAT, motors, or K-9 and then transferred involuntarily back to uniform patrol. These officers, as in the case of most problem employees, see themselves as victims who "gave and gave and gave only to get screwed by the administration." While the involuntary transfer of the specialty officer is more easily understood, the dynamics producing the resentment and hostility towards authority is the same.
For officers who did not need a non-police life during the first years of their career, over-investment in the police role often serves them well in the short run. However, as the novelty of the job wears off, stress takes its toll. These over-invested officers have no where to turn for relief -- no other well developed emotional roles or ways of defining themselves besides being officers. When interviewing problem employees, the authors have had them go into great detail with these kinds of observations: "I used to lead this department in arrests; I was one of the most motivated cops in this department or unit; you check the record, I used to never put in for overtime, I was always there when I was needed," etc.
Paradoxically, these problem employees remain over-invested in the police role. However, their over-investment switches from a positive, almost recreational experience to a very negative, angry, paranoid-like sense of all-consuming victimization. While these officers often are written off and regarded as "not caring" anymore, nothing could be further from the truth. People do not fixate, ruminate and litigate about things they do not care about. Supervisors should not make the mistake of assuming that problem employees do not care about their jobs. In reality, they probably care about their job significantly more than productive officers or supervisors; they just happen to express it negatively and dysfunctionally.
The authors have developed a two-pronged approach for dealing with problem employees; working with the supervisors and with the problem employees themselves. Supervisors require information and insight into the dynamics of hyper vigilance and the biological roller coaster. However, information and insight are not enough to implement change. Supervisors need to learn how to effectively with these employees in practical, real-life terms. The authors offer a five-step model that is designed to help supervisors become more confident and deal more effectively with these employees. This model is based on professional assertive communication patterns and sound management practices that require supervisors to focus on behaviors and hold problem employees accountable.
The keys to dealing with "Problem Employees" are a supervisor's willingness and ability to communicate, give effective verbal and written feedback, follow up, and hold employees accountable. Most supervisors say they have attended schools, read books and watched other supervisors do the job. However, most agree never have learned the practical skills required to do their job effectively. Most law enforcement training programs require students to demonstrate a level of practical proficiency before they are allowed to graduate from the academy, work a police dog, become a SWAT team member, fly a helicopter, etc. Yet, supervisory training programs typically emphasize the theoretical aspects and ignore the skill development and the proficiency needed to do the job properly. Agencies never would expect an officer to safely handle and accurately fire a weapon after classroom training alone; yet they expect supervisors to effectively manage a squad of people without giving them the practical training and skill development that is required to do the job.
The five-step model teaches supervisors how to communicate, give feedback, follow through and hold people accountable. It is a practical template that can be used effectively in a variety of actual work situations, ranging from the most simple to the most complex. The beauty of this template is that it can be integrated into each supervisor's personal style of management as well as his/her organization's polices, procedures and regulations. To use this template one does not have to change any existing forms, polices, procedures, etc..
The first step requires the supervisor to identify the problem in clear, specific and objective terms. It usually is easier for supervisors to discuss how they feel about the problem or describe it in general, non-specific terms. Until the problem can be clearly defined, it is a waste to time trying to find solutions. When this step is not done well, or is ignored, supervisors spend a lot of time trying to implement solutions for problems they do not fully understand. Describing problems in terms of poor attitude, unprofessionalism, arrogance, rudeness, not being a team player, poor officer safety, etc., are not descriptions of what the real problems are. Talk about problems in these terms leads to misunderstandings, unnecessary conflicts, arguments and non-productive discussion between supervisors and employees.
In order to do their job well, supervisors must learn to separate their personal feelings and issues from job performance and behaviors. Supervisors who do not define problems in clear, specific, objective terms find it virtually impossible to separate business from personal issues. Meshing business and personal issues together leads to heated discussions and disagreements that complicate, rather than solve, the original problem. When supervisors do not ensure this step is done well, they usually fail to get their point across to the employee. This can become very frustrating to both the supervisor and the employee, and under these circumstances it is unrealistic for supervisors to expect the employee to implement the requested changes. Supervisors who are able to describe problems in clear, specific, objective terms are in a better position to focus on the facts and real issues and separate the personal feelings from the business concerns. Obviously, problem identification alone is not enough. It is, however, an essential step that supervisors cannot afford to be overlook or ignore if they want to effectively deal with problem officers.
Once identified, the problem must be carefully analyzed. In any disciplinary matter, the supervisor is clearly responsible for gathering all the facts and completing a thorough, objective investigation. After the facts are gathered, the supervisor can determine how serious the problem is and what needs to be done. Since it is impossible for a supervisor to devote equal time to all issues and problems, he/she must decide how much of a priority this issue is and how much time he/she is going to devote to it. The analysis stage is complete when the supervisor determines what are the appropriate consequences if the problem continues and determines what he/she is willing and able to do.
Supervisors are obligated to consider the formal consequences that are described in their department rules or personnel polices (typically, a continuum ranging from verbal counseling to termination). However, they must not overlook the logical consequences they have at their disposal. While formal consequences are usually clearly defined by department rules, they are limited and are often ineffective when dealing with these employees. On the other hand, logical consequences are not well defined and are limited by the supervisor's imagination. When used properly they can be very effective. One of the key reasons logical consequences are such an effective tool is the amount of direct control supervisors have over using them. Formal consequences often require approval from levels above. In many cases, supervisors say it takes "an act of congress" to get their recommendations through the system. Meanwhile, the problem employee sits back and watches the ineffective system grind away.
After considering what consequences are available, the supervisor must ask, "What am I willing and able to do if the problem continues?" The willing part can always be answered by the supervisor, must decide if he/she is willing to carry out the discipline, make the appropriate recommendations, document the problem, etc. To answer the able part, the supervisor may have to seek help from other resources, such as the department legal advisor, human resource people, or mangers up the chain-of-command. At this point, the supervisor must find out what the organization will allow in terms of formal disciplinary action. It is pointless for a supervisor to threaten an employee with disciplinary action if that supervisor is either unwilling or unable to carry out the discipline in question. Using such tactics as a "bluff" or a means to get the employee's attention is guaranteed to backfire and exacerbate the problem rather than help to solve it.
After the first two steps are completed, the supervisor has developed a plan and it is time to have a discussion with the employee. This is where supervisors traditionally report a tremendous amount of discomfort and, in many cases, avoid doing this unless there is no alternative. The goal of the discussion stage is to make sure the employee has a clear understanding of what the problem is, what he/she is expected to do differently and what the consequences are if the problem continues. Supervisors understand they cannot control whether or not an employee will change his/her behavior. When supervisors effectively communicate their message, it becomes the employee's responsibility to make the required change(s) or face the consequences or disciplinary action.
A template to help supervisors conduct the discussion and keep it on track is taught. The supervisor begins the discussion by describing the problem in clear, specific and objective terms. The supervisor then asks for the employee's side of the story. It is important to remember that, up to this point, the supervisor has collected all of the information except the employee's side. It is imperative to get the employee's side before continuing. If the employee offers an explanation for the problem, the supervisor can consider it before moving forward. When the supervisor decides to move forward after hearing the employee's input, he/she makes it clear what the employee is expected to do differently in the future. The supervisor needs to articulate his/her expectations in clear, specific terms to avoid giving the employee the opportunity to claim, "I didn't know that is what you meant." The supervisor then describes the consequences or disciplinary action that will occur if the problem continues, again in clear, specific terms to avoid any misunderstanding. Finally, the supervisor must ensure that the employee has a clear understanding of the conversation. Here, the supervisor asks the employee to repeat the information he/she has heard. It is imperative that the employee repeat the information in the same terms the supervisors used.
During the seminar, a considerable amount of time is spent role playing and demonstrating how to close the communication loop so the supervisor can be guaranteed that mutual understanding has taken place. Even if the supervisor does a perfect job, the employee may not agree with -- or like -- what was said and may not even follow the directions. However, by using this template, supervisors can be guaranteed that mutual understanding has taken place. Supervisors must also learn how to respond to traps that employees might use in an attempt to divert the focus of the conversation to other employees, project blame on others, make accusations against other people, verbally attack the supervisor, or otherwise try to get the supervisor off track.
After the discussion, not before, the supervisor must complete the documentation; whether it be a formal report, a supervisory note, or an entry in the employee's file. Proper documentation is essential if supervisors hope to successfully deal with problems. Without proper documentation, supervisors find themselves beginning all over again each time a problem resurfaces or a new problem arises. The concept of progressive discipline depends heavily on having documentation that addresses problems right from the beginning.
Supervisors must learn to write their objective observations about job performance and job-related behaviors, rather than their personal commentary about motivation, perceptions and other subjective matters. They have to write so the ultimate reader (who in most cases does not have a clear understating or knowledge of the problem and might not be from within the organization) can develop a clear understating as to what is being said. Just as in a criminal report, the writer will need that information months -- and even years -- later to refresh his/her memory. The authors have reviewed numerous disciplinary packages where the documentation made perfect sense to the writer at the time it was written; however, months later during the appeal, the supervisor as well as the civil service commission or judge were equally confused by what was written. The documentation becomes a relatively simple task if the first two steps are done well.
Regardless of how well a supervisor completes the first four steps of this process, the entire procedure becomes a waste of time if the supervisor does not follow up and follow through. Follow up means checking to see if the employee is doing as he/she has been instructed. Follow though means implementing consequences that were laid out during the discussion. Simply put, a supervisor's actions will always speak louder than his/her words. Supervisors who do not complete the last step, are part of the problem rather than the solution. Lack of follow though virtually ensures that the employee will continue to engage in the unacceptable behavior and will discount the supervisor's future attempts to deal with the problem.
Supervisors inform the authors that following through is often the toughest part because of the camaraderie between law enforcement officers, past friendships, feeling very uncomfortable, believing it is easier just to give another warning, or hoping that the problem will just go away. At the same time, these supervisors become very frustrated when the problems continue or get worse. Supervisors who are reluctant to take immediate action usually act only when they have "had enough" or can not longer "put it off." This in itself leads to verbally explosive confrontations because putting it off has made it very difficult to separate personal emotions from job-related issues. Supervisors who fail to follow though can be found in every problem employee's career. Supervisors who avoid problems and hope they will just go away are only fooling themselves. Ignoring problems simply postpones the inevitable and makes the problems that much more difficult to deal with.
A frequent reaction to this model: "It sounds good, but it will take too much time." Yes, it does take time, but supervisors and organizations are faced with a very real choice, "Pay now or pay later." The time spent dealing with problems in the early stages is insignificant compared to the countless number of hours spent dealing with escalating problems over and over again during an employee's 20-or-more-year career. While supervisors express concern about the time it might take to follow this template, they are in total agreement that, if someone had taken the time with a problem employee at the beginning of his/her career, many of the long-term problems could have been prevented or dealt with effectively. In many cases, supervisors point to officers whose careers might have been saved had they not been allowed to drift so far a field. While this process does take time, the real question is, "If we take the time to do the job well now, how much time and how many careers could be saved?"
The second prong of the intervention deals with working with the problem officer in an educational/informational group process. It has been the authors' experience that many times police administrators correctly identify the problem employee, but do not take action until the employee engages in behavior significant enough to warrant direct discipline (which is sometimes quite rare). Problem officers are often sent to the department psychologist for a "Fitness for Duty" evaluation. While this is motivated by the administration's awareness that the officer is displaying inappropriate work-related attitudes and behavior, traditional psychological diagnostic assessment does not effectively address the issue. In addition, a referral to the psychologist does not take the place of effective management intervention. Problem officers are usually found fit for duty and a general feeling of frustration is experienced by all parties.
The authors have conducted group educational interventions for officers selected by their respective departments. The officers learn about hyper vigilance, the biological roller coaster and how these elements lead to behavior deficits in their personal, non-police lives. Employees learn about the dynamics of anger and how to assume personal responsibility for their own emotional reactions. The goal of this training is to help the officer divide his/her life into police and non-police roles and recognize the degree of under-investment that has occurred in his/her non-police role.
Paradoxically, when officers are able to invest less in their police role, productivity increases and resentment towards administrative direction loses the paranoid-like interpretations.
After this training, many officers have commented, "I don't run the department, but I do run my own life. It's time I start doing some of the things I used to do." The authors provide the negative, cynical and self perceived victimized problem officer with a sense of control over his/her sense of self worth by addressing the down-side of the biological roller coaster, as opposed to taking control of the events at the top by engaging in negative, sabotaging and defeatist behavior patterns.
Law enforcement agencies do not have to sit helplessness and accept or tolerate problem employees. The key to solving this problem can be found in supervisory training programs that combine theoretical knowledge with practical skills and require students to demonstrate proficiency in the essential management skills. Departments can utilize either prong of the authors' intervention process, either together or separately. Clearly, the most successful results will occur when the department addresses this issue from both perspective.