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Back to Archives | Back to September 2010 Contents 

The Right Fit: Choosing the Best People for Promotion and Special Assignments

By Jody Kasper, Sergeant, Northampton Police Department, Northampton, Massachusetts

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n the majority of police agencies, chiefs and other upper administrators are responsible for selecting employees for promotion and special assignments. This duty is critical and errors can have potentially fatal consequences for an organization as a whole. For that reason, great diligence and thought must be used in the selection process.

Depending on the size of the agency, promotions and special assignment opportunities may be rare. In some cases, officers may wait a decade before there is any chance to compete for a new position. As a result, officers keep a watchful eye on the selection process used to reassign or promote individuals.

When it comes to selection of personnel for special assignments such as detective teams, SWAT teams, community services units, or warrant apprehension units, there is often more flexibility than in the regimented promotional process. For administrators, it may be easier to base selections to special units on individual factors such as initiative, attitude, and technical skills. The promotional process is much different. Most agencies, whether they are civil service or not, have written guidelines for promotion. These guidelines were established with good reason in an effort to prevent leadership from unfairly promoting friends and relatives or fulfilling political favors. The guidelines are typically spelled out in a formal contract with a union or in an established policy agreed upon by all members of the department. The process usually involves a written test, a panel interview, and a practical exercise that then results in an overall numerical score for each candidate. An eligibility list is then created, and administrators can choose from the top three or four candidates on the list. This is a limiting process for those who are responsible for making selections, and it yields a small applicant pool, but it does allow some degree of flexibility once the field has been narrowed down to the top applicants.

When working within this discretionary area, police administrators should first review the job description. Every position should have an accompanying job description that outlines the specific duties associated with an assignment. These descriptions need to be updated periodically as duties can and should change over time. Ideally, selection to different positions should be based on the assessor’s belief that an individual has the right combination of technical abilities, personal characteristics, and personality traits that will best fit the job.

Any discussion of internal promotion should include two interesting principles regarding selection and promotion within an agency. These concepts are popular in the mainstream business sector, but are equally applicable to the world of policing.

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first identified in 1968 in a book by the same name, written by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. This theory suggests that organizations have a tendency to promote people to their highest level of incompetence. If employees excel in their positions, they are promoted. If they excel at their new positions, they are promoted again. This continues to occur until an employee fails to excel in the position, at which time the employee is not promoted and is left working in a position that is a poor competency match. This doesn’t work for the individual or for the agency as a whole. One interesting factor in this theory is that higher-ranking jobs are not necessarily harder to perform; instead, the positions that confound promoted employees are usually just jobs that require a different set of skills and personal characteristics to excel. The implication of the principle is that although it is important to consider success and initiative at an existing level, it is necessary and arguably more critical to evaluate the individual’s potential to succeed at the new position.

The Dilbert Principle

The Dilbert Principle was first identified by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams in the 1990s. This theory suggests that employees who fail to thrive, who are inept, and who may negatively affect the overall performance of an organization are sometimes promoted to positions where they will do less harm to the organization as a whole. These individuals often find themselves in middle management where they can do the least amount of harm. In one Dilbert cartoon written in 1995 that addresses this issue, the character Dogbert states, “. . . leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow.” Although Adams initially touched on this theory in a daily comic strip, the concept quickly caught on, and he went on to write a book, The Dilbert Principle: A Cubicle’s-Eye View of Bosses, Meetings, Management Fads & Other Workplace Afflictions, that has become popular in leadership and management curriculums at colleges and universities.

The good news, as illustrated by these well-known principles, is that police agencies are not the first, nor will they be the last, to assign personnel to positions for the wrong reasons. This is a common problem in the world of business and is the subject of many books, lectures, and trainings designed to help managers to better select and promote employees. One major difference between the private sector and the public sector, however, is the way in which individuals are selected and promoted. While major companies have the luxury of promoting based on job performance, education, company fit, and other factors, public sector jobs are often more restricted in how selections are made.

Overcoming Issues

Police administrators should work to avoid promoting and assigning employees based on the Peter Principle or the Dilbert Principle. Knowledge of these principles and familiarity with the best practices in employee assignment and promotion will help prevent these common pitfalls. Administrators should be aware of two aspects of the selection and promotion process: one set of factors relates to the department as a whole, and the others relate to the individual and that individual’s ability to perform the job.

First, there are several issues that pertain to the department as a whole. One of the major issues related to promotion and special assignment is fairness. Any selections need to comply with existing union contracts and departmental policies that outline the selection criteria. Selections that fail to comply with existing guidelines or “toe the line” can cause significant damage to the morale of individuals who were passed over and, consequently, to all personnel.

A second issue is the fact that promotions and special selections are usually considered a reward and a positive transition for the individual. It makes sense, then, that those who are selected for certain positions are 71 chosen based on their work style, effectiveness, initiative, attitude, and overall performance. Therefore, officers who want to move into new positions are likely to emulate the behaviors and the work styles of those who were selected so that they, too, can move upward within the agency. Administrators who reward poor performance and attitude with promotion should expect these traits to be present in other personnel.

Finally, employees who are promoted up the hierarchical levels within a police department set the tone for the department overall. Those people that are optimistic, supportive of the overall mission of the agency, hardworking, respectful, and generally positive will pass those attributes on to the rest of the department. Conversely, those individuals who are always negative, who constantly complain, who are disrespectful to peers and supervisors, and who are RODs (retired on duty) will pass on those attitudes.

Outside of the consideration of the department as a whole, the chief or other administrator in charge of selection and promotion must then focus on the individual. There are businesses that exist for the sole intent of facilitating employee testing and promotion. For a price, formal tests that will measure an individual’s job fit, company fit, integrity, honesty, or emotional intelligence quotient are available to employers. Although these tests have proven to have some validity and may be good predictors of future leaders and managers, they are an expensive luxury that most police agencies cannot afford. Police administrators must use more conventional promotional methods and will instead base their opinions on a number of other factors in the decision-making process.

Significant Indicators

Commonly used and significant items are the employee’s performance evaluations. Most departments have six-month or yearly reviews that rate employees in a wide range of categories. These performance evaluations reveal areas of strength and weakness and may identify areas in need of improvement. They may also contain recommendations for special assignments and promotion. Performance evaluations are an invaluable tool in the selection process because they are completed on a consistent basis throughout an employee’s career and are often written by the employee’s immediate supervisor. Because of these attributes, they identify strengths and weaknesses over the long term by those who work most directly with the employee.

Another interesting statistic to review is the use of sick time. It is recommended that this information be used cautiously, as it would be unfair to punish people who have taken extended periods of time off for the birth of a child, child care, surgery, or a major illness. However, identifiable patterns of calling out sick could be a sign of an apathetic employee and one that could negatively contribute to the overall environment of the workplace.

Another important area of focus is that of self-initiated activity. For police officers, this is often measured in obvious statistics such as the number of arrests or the number of motor vehicle citations written. These numbers certainly will highlight the patrol officers who occupy themselves with general duties, but other areas of self-initiated activity can also be measured. Officers who approach supervisors and administrators with new ideas and then follow through on those ideas should be given special attention. Officers who are able to identify a problem, design a solution, implement that solution, and follow through with it are shining examples of problem solvers put into action. Creative problem solvers who display initiative should be given special consideration when reviewing candidates for promotions.

Similar to the creative problem solver, employees who have made significant contributions to the department should be recognized. Officers who bring new programs, training curriculums, policies, or equipment to the department show a certain level of commitment to the future of the agency. Attention to new technologies, training strategies, and developments in the law enforcement field are critical for any progressive and successful police administrator. These types of skills are illustrative of an administrative perspective because they demonstrate an ability to contribute to the agency as a whole and to its future.

It is also important to obtain recommendations from supervisors and other officers. Administrators commonly become removed from street-level operations and investigations. The people who work closest with an individual are in the best position to assess that individual’s skills and potential abilities. Checking in with first-line supervisors and other employees can provide a wealth of knowledge about an individual that may not be reflected on paper. Using this strategy has the dual benefit of making supervisors feel empowered and valued. Valuing and seeking out employee input from supervisors can greatly contribute to positive morale.

The aforementioned information can be gathered through records and informal interviews. With gathered information in hand, one should then contemplate the general personalities of the candidates. They should have demonstrated abilities to take responsibility for their actions. They should also have histories of making good decisions and standing by those decisions. They should have excellent interpersonal and communication skills. They should also have demonstrated superior job skills at their current levels, although their abilities to accomplish anticipated tasks at their new level should be estimated. An employee should also have a demonstrated sense of loyalty and commitment to the department as a whole and to the field of law enforcement.

Integrity versus Seniority

Dee Hock, founding CEO of Visa International and an expert in the area of leadership and management, recommends the following: “Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience.” 1 Hock goes on to explain that each area builds on the next. His statement is inconsistent with the historical police practice of promotion and selection for special assignment based on years of service. Police agencies are notorious for placing heavy emphasis on seniority, as illustrated by badge numbers, hash marks, years of service bars, and seniority used in shift selection and signing up for vacation. The fact is seniority should be the last thing considered when reviewing candidates for positions. The best practice regarding years of service is to use it as a deciding factor if all other factors are equal. It may be difficult to move away from this practice of emphasis on years of service, but using other standards will result in a stronger command staff with better leadership abilities.

When considering a candidate for a new position, there will be many temptations to promote certain individuals for the wrong reasons. Police administrators should move forward cautiously and consider all of the various factors involved in selection for a position. Once it is established that basic rules and policies have been adhered to and documents have been gathered regarding the employee’s work history, the focus should be on the attitude of the individual, demonstrated ability to work toward departmental goals, experience in problem solving and program development, and anticipated fit for the job vacancy. Is this the person who exemplifies the best employee and who will be able to develop into a future leader of an agency? This is the essential question. ■


1Ed Michaels et al., The War for Talent (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001), 83.

Please cite as:

Jody Kasper, "The Right Fit: Choosing the Best People for Promotion and Special Assignments," The Police Chief 77 (September 2010): 70–71, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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