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Back to Archives | Back to September 2003 Contents 

How to Reduce the Potential of Workplace Violence

Dick Grimes, Principal, Outsource LLC, Birmingham, Alabama

he special focus of this issue of the Police Chief is workplace violence in police departments. This article is designed to show you how to reduce the potential of it in your department.

What Is Workplace Violence?

Before we start, let us take a moment to look at all we mean by "workplace violence," because it is much more than the obvious fight between coworkers, threats of assault made by one against another, or wanton destruction of property.

It can also mean the unseen, one-on-one intimidation of one employee by another, the harassment of a newcomer by members of the "old guard" when the boss is not around, and the secret sabotage of departmental equipment, data, or records by a disgruntled employee. There is probably much more workplace violence occurring in police departments than anyone realizes when we count these relatively nonviolent, low-level situations as examples of workplace violence.

The biggest problem with these low-level examples is that their sources are typically found within the culture of the department, which makes them very difficult to identify and eradicate. The more overt behavior like fights and property damage can be stopped quickly because the culprits are obvious. It is not so simple with the subtle behavior.

How, then, can conscientious police chiefs reduce the potential of those nonviolent examples taking root in their departments? The answer is found by looking at some fundamentals of human behavior.

People who are satisfied with their work rarely sabotage their employer's property. Employees who enjoy positive relationships with their leaders rarely intimidate or harass other employees with whom they work. Likewise, they provide excellent customer service because they are happy with themselves, their future, their leader, and their organization. Your employees are people who have chosen a career in law enforcement. They are fundamentally no different than employees in any other organization. They have the same needs for personal and professional satisfaction, encouragement, and development as do people who work in banks, in automobile factories, on farms, or in any government agency.

Several distinct elements within an organization's culture contribute to an employee's morale. As we discuss these issues, please keep in mind that we are not talking about only your employees: we also mean you. Ask yourself how your leader treats you in these areas and the effect it has on your morale. If you will do that, it will become easier to understand how your employees feel.

Uncovering the Roots of Workplace Violence: 15 Questions

After you have asked yourself the following questions (and answered them to yourself as honestly as you can tolerate), ask your direct reports to ask themselves these questions, too. Finally, send these same questions downward though the management levels in your organization. The answers to these questions will help you find the sources of potential workplace violence within your department.

1. What incentive do you have to work in this department from a financial, professional, and personal development perspective?

2. Why do any of your employees want to work for you?

3. If there were a job available in this department that a friend of yours could do, would you recommend working here?

4. What are the measurable (in terms of how well, how many, and by when) goals this year of our police department?

5. What are the measurable goals of your unit in support of our overall department?

6. What are your measurable personal goals for this year in support of your unit's goals?

7. What are the top three things, in priority order, that you are paid to do today? What is your level of confidence that your leader will agree with your priorities?

8. What are the top three things, in priority order, that each of your direct reports are paid to do today? What is your level of confidence that each of them can repeat those three in that exact order if you ask them?

9. What traits did the best boss you ever had use when leading you at work? (Did he or she give you clear directions and leave you alone to work, for instance, or allow you to find your own answers, or give you help when you needed it but avoid micromanaging you?) What was the impact on you when your best boss did that? (Did it give you a sense of accomplishment, for example, or make you feel that the boss trusted you, or tell you that the boss was interested in your development?) What were your performance levels? (Did you "give 110 percent" as a way of thanking the boss, for instance, or did you make sure you never did anything to abuse that trust, or did you strive to do more than anyone else to show the boss how much you could do?)

10. What best-boss traits would your direct reports list about you? How would they describe the impact of those traits on them personally and on their work?

11. What kind of feedback about your performance do you get from your leader: bad news only, good news only, a balance of both, or none at all? How often do you get that feedback: on a regular basis, only when something negative happens, or never?

12. What kind of feedback do you give your direct reports about their performance for you: bad news only, good news only, a balance of both, or none at all? How often do you give them that feedback: on a regular basis, only when something negative happens, or never?

13. Which employees are your favorite and least favorite direct reports? Can you honestly say that you treat the favorite employee just as you would any other when he or she does something wrong? How about when he or she does something right? Do you look upon him or her as your favorite because of how they perform on the job or could it be that they perform favorably as a result of how you treat him or her? Do you look upon him or her as your least favorite because of how he or she performs on the job or could it be that he or she performs unfavorably as a result of how you treat him or her?

14. When problems occur at the lowest organizational level in your department, do you allow the employees at that level to help find a solution or does higher management step in to solve it and expect the employees to implement the "fix"?

15. When is the last time you asked your direct reports to identify the three or four things that they value most that you could give them as a reward for doing the best job they can? (If your answer is "never," what is keeping you from doing it? Here is a hint: they will probably mention more than just budgetary items.) When is the last time you told your direct reports that you want them asking their directs downward through the organization that same question?

Create a "Professional" Organization

It should be apparent by the nature of these questions why employee morale is a major factor in determining how much potential a department has for low-level workplace violence. Much of this "nonviolent" violence begins when employees become frustrated as they try to do a good job in the midst of vague or conflicting goals, face unreasonable or nonexistent performance expectations from management, witness real or perceived discrimination in rewards or punishment by management, or work under the thumb of a tyrant who treats them like nonthinking children and then is surprised when they lash out.

"A more professional organization wouldn't have those problems," you may think, and you would be right. But that brings up another question: "What does a 'professional organization' look like?"

Finally, we have gotten to the nut of the problem. If we can define what a professional organization should look like, we can start creating one and reducing the potential for workplace violence of any kind.

A police chief can start developing a professional organization by working with his or her direct reports plus a few high-potential officers from down through the ranks. There must be representation from across the force because they are the people who are doing the work. If the executives create their definition of a "professional organization" and impose it on the whole department without any chance for input, the situation will not improve. Actually, it will worsen, because the chief has deluded himself or herself into thinking that things will now get better and focus attention away from the internal problems that will still be there. Then, when they occur, they will be much worse because the inattention allowed them to grow bigger than before.

Start the development process by selecting someone from outside the department to act as facilitator for a series of meetings to collect input about creating a professional organization. The information gathered will help you identify the issues needing attention. The facilitator must be someone who is not influenced by the people in the room and, as chief, you must try to participate as one of the members, not as the first among equals who can influence the outcome.

These meetings can focus on getting answers for the questions asked earlier in this article. For example, the first question asked, "What incentive do you have to work in this department from a financial, professional, and personal development perspective?"

If the group can list several reasons from a financial perspective but very few from a professional or personal development perspective, it becomes clear the department must begin developing some professional and personal incentives that would make people apply to the department for careers and help retain those already there.

The second question asks in general why employees would want to work for their leaders. If there are no compelling reasons to work for leaders across the board in the police department, it means that training and development of leadership skills at all levels are needed.

"If there were a job available in our department that a friend of yours could do, would you recommend working here"? List all of the reasons given for "yes" or "no" and use that to stimulate action for improvement. Be sure to keeping reinforcing the reasons for "yes" and do everything you can to remedy the "no" reasons.

Questions 4-6 deal with clarity of communication through the ranks. If every member of the police force does not know the measurable goals of their employer, how can they help to achieve them? And, if they are not measurable in terms of how well, how many, and by when, how can they monitor their progress toward personal goals, and how can the chief monitor progress toward departmental goals?

Questions 7 and 8 are about the quality of communication one step up and one step down from each leader. Your department is in a constant state of change and evolution and the priorities change daily. The people upon whom you rely to carry out the mission of the department must be kept aware of them. If they have to guess, you are exposing the department to great risk in these days of constant litigation.

We need a word of clarification here. This frequent change does not mean your department is unstable and you are a poor leader; it only reflects the reality of your mission of service and protection to the community, which is anything but a stable and unchanging presence.

Questions 9 and 10 are a simple way for an employee to say to the boss, "Here are the buttons you should push with me to get the best performance I can offer." In other words, the employee is saying, "When the best boss I ever had gave me clear directions and left me alone to work, it made me feel she trusted me, which encouraged me to do my best work." All a smart leader has to do with this employee is give clear directions and leave them alone to get their best work. How hard is that?

The questions should be part of the leadership training for all levels starting at the top and going down. As chief, you should at least attend an overview of the training with your senior management staff for two reasons. The first is that it will give you an idea of what your management down through the ranks is learning so you can make sure you do nothing to contradict what is taught. The second reason tells the department that you thought it was important enough for you to attend, too. The worst morale killer is an attitude of "Do as I say, not as I do." If the department thinks it is not worth your time, then it must not be very important.

The art of coaching employees for performance underlies questions 11-13. Question 14 is about empowerment of employees. If you teach them how to analyze work processes, and then you listen to their recommendations for improvements, you will develop a more confident work force. There will be fewer problems and less conflict between employees because they are focused on improving the department, not looking for something to complain about.

The last question, number 15, is about one-on-one communication and a positive reinforcement system between leaders and the led. As you strengthen the ties between employees and their leaders at every level, the potential for workplace violence will decrease.

The next steps to reduce the potential for workplace violence in your department as much as possible are these:

1. If your answers to these questions made you uncomfortable, you must admit that your organization cannot keep on acting the way it has and expect different results.

2. You must realize that only when your employees get what they want, will you get what you want.

3. You must find an organizational development consultant who will work with your department to help you create a culture that will attract, retain, and produce the best law enforcement professionals possible.

4. You must share the best practices you develop in your department with other departments in the city. This way, your employees reinforce their skills by acting as mentors to others; your professional reputation continues to grow as a result of this model you have developed; and you create a legacy of good leadership that will remain long after you have left the office.■



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 9, September 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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