The Marginal Employee: When Good Isn't Good Enough

Most law enforcement employees work hard for their entire careers, from when they pin on their badges until they retire.  A small number are not suited for the profession, drifting around in an unhappy state, and leaving early.  Still others start strong and for whatever reasons, begin to coast.  Maybe they didn’t get the promotion or assignment they wanted.  Perhaps they were not well-supervised by one or more bosses.  Or their exposure to traumatic events and similar negative experiences in the field have led them to feel burned out.


It’s easy for people in so-called “helping professions” - physicians, nurses, mental health clinicians, social workers, paramedics, firefighters, and especially police to develop feelings of counter-transference.  In this state they can lose perspective about their career, because at its worst stages, they either care too much or not enough.  The former is rare, like the cop who marries the rape victim he meets at the hospital.  The latter, where absolutely everybody is on the officer’s “Bug List,” is much more prevalent.


From this jaded perspective, which can arrive as early as five years but usually rises up at the 20 to 25-year mark, officers can start to see everyone - victims, suspects, bosses, administrators, and even their partners and colleagues - as a potential candidate to get on their very last nerve.  As a result, they start mailing it in when it comes to the quality of their work. 


They dodge radio calls, talk victims out of reports they know they should write, avoid self-initiated activity, and do just enough to get by every shift.  They spend a lot of time complaining to whomever will listen about “how The Job has changed” or that “they miss the Old Days” or “police work today is not what it used to be.”


As a supervisor, it can be easy to rationalize this behavior in certain officers because while their performance is lacking, their colleagues rarely complain to the bosses about it.  But in the worst case, these employees can put other officers‘ lives at risk with their apathy.  And at a minimum, we aren’t getting a full day’s work out of these officers.


Some HR professionals label them as so-called “marginal employees,” because they are trapped in a phase of mediocrity.  They aren’t problem employees or rising stars either.  They only do what is asked of them, and then just barely, in terms of quality, enthusiasm, or working as a team member.  They have shown they can work hard in their careers, but they lack the motivation to do so. 


In short, they need a wakeup call. What follows is a list of potential “career rescue” alternatives, that can help these officers get back in the game and devote their full attention to doing safe, productive, useful police work.                 

  • Try putting them with a new partner.  If they always work with a partner, ask if they would prefer to work alone for three to six months. 
  • Give them specific, project-oriented goals in the field.  Put them in charge of something that is important and meaningful. 
  • Put them on a new squad, with different work hours or beats. 
  • Ask if they want to transfer to a new division or to work for a new supervisor, who they align with better. 
  • Ask if they want to move to an administrative assignment and get out of the field for awhile. 
  • Make a confidential EAP referral if you suspect an off-the-job issue. 
  • Ask them what will make them happier in their current career situations.

All motivation is self-motivation.  Supervisors can only provide opportunities and set expectations.  Any changes needed to move out of Marginal Employee territory will have to come from that employee. New, more interesting duties or new scenery out of the patrol car window may do them good in a time when they may need it most.

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover, Streetwork, Surviving Street Patrol, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2012

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