Choose Your Words Carefully With Employees
Sticks and Stones…but Words…
By: Steve Albrecht
Over the span of your supervisory career, you will have thousands of conversations with your employees. Many are routine, and even mundane. Most are normal, about work issues and the need to get things done. Some are serious, affecting an employee’s career.
You may not recall the details of most of the usual conversations, since you have so many, so often. But on occasion, you may have raised your voice and used sharp tones with certain employees. This comes from your frustration that they did not do their jobs. In those encounters, it can be easy to lose your temper, lash out, and dress the employee down. You can say things you regret later, when you are back under control.
Real leaders don’t put themselves into positions where they lose professional control when they reprimand an employee. They know the difference between using praise in public and when to pull the employee aside in the field or behind closed doors to address performance or behavior issues. There are exceptions in police work. In emergency field situations, your orders have to come out loud and clear and preventing hurt feelings is not your first concern.
Some command-level and first-line supervisors describe themselves as “old school” and gripe with their colleagues that their sworn and civilian employees are too sensitive. “We are living in kindler, gentler, politically correct times, where we have to watch what we say, and how and why and where we say it.”
This is both true sometimes and not changeable. We are not going back to the so-called good old days, where a supervisor could roast an employee in front of his/her peers. Employees require professional supervision. They should expect praise for high performance and consequences for its absence.
Three examples of what not to do: I watched a field supervisor shout at an officer in the station parking lot, saying, “You’re just as stupid and lazy and worthless as that guy over there,” as he pointed to another cop who was walking toward them. When it comes to embarrassing employees, this is known as picking up the seven-10 split, knocking down both pins (two cops), with one ball.
One of my partners transferred to a new division. We drove to the new station so he could get a key and a locker. We met his new lieutenant in the hallway. After some polite chat, the LT noticed my buddy’s key chain clipped to his duty belt, which had a red metal shark attached to it. (My pal is a big shark fan.) The lieutenant said, “We don’t carry that kind of crap here. I advise you to get rid of that stupid thing. It’s unprofessional.” To this day, when I mention the LT’s name to my friend, he says, “That’s the jerk who hated my shark.”
I saw a field supervisor screaming at an employee over some issue. His face was red, his voice was loud, and he was poking the employee in the chest with a bony finger. When his five-minute rant was done, he took a deep breath and stomped away. As the officer stood there red-faced in front of his peers wondering what to do, the supervisor came back, stuck out his hand and said, “OK. We’re good now, right?” He shook the employee’s hand and walked away, satisfied that his not-really apology smoothed the waters. It didn’t.
This scene demonstrates flawed thinking: “If I yell and scream and embarrass the employee, I can make it all better by shaking hands.” He may have thought so, but the employee and the bystanders did not. Supposed closure for the boss; an open wound for the employee.
You can be firm and fair as you lead. Cop work is not running a puppy store. Employees need orders, structure, and course corrections. But remember what you say when you’re angry has meaning to them, and it lasts.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.