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Coping with Discipline Hearings or Litigation

Written by Steve Albrecht

        Despite your best intentions, your time, as well as tools and talents as a leader, some personnel issues are going to end up in court, in a deposition, in front of an arbitrator, or in an administrative, grievance, last-chance, or termination hearing. It’s easy to take these events personally, as if you have somehow failed your organization or failed the employee. It’s certainly possible that you made some mistakes along the discipline highway, and now there is big crash at the end of the ramp that you have to deal with.

        Or just as likely, you have done everything correctly, followed your organization’s policies and procedures, stayed within your agency’s MOU with the union, and did your absolute best to be firm, fair and consistent. You attempted to address performance and behavior problems early, using coaching first, and then progressive discipline when those conversations no longer worked.

        Sometimes it’s not about you. It’s just a part of the employment spectrum – some employees are going to use the administrative or legal processes that are within their rights to answer back to you or your agency’s attempt at changing their employment relationship.

        Many of these procedures will involve union or labor law attorneys, who have but one function: win big for their clients. You can’t take this personally either; it’s just business, even when they try to attack your experience, credibility, methods, decisions or results.

        Most police administrators see the deposition process as a multi-hour shin-kicking contest, a battle of wills, and an examination of the minutiae, i.e., “As you review your notes from your meeting with my client last year, did you write, `Officer Jones is fine’ or ‘Officer Jones is a fink’”? Depos really serve as your platform to discuss what you said or did, where you can go into more detail than you would be allowed during your court case testimony.

        For deposition or administrative hearing success, preparation, a thorough review of your documents, and knowing the timeline can help make the process bearable. It may also help to spend an hour “future pacing.” This is a visualization technique used by top athletes to put themselves into their event and picture themselves performing absolutely perfectly. They see themselves being successful at every step.

        You can use the same approach, taking some quiet time to visualize what the hearing room might look like, imagine yourself sitting in the chair across from an attorney or arbitrator, and anticipating every single question – no matter how goofy or unrelated it might be.

        The purpose of this technique is to convince your mind and body that you will answer accurately, honestly and easily, because you’ve “done this before.” Future pacing helps you create that “déjà vu” feeling. Because you’ve anticipated the potential questions, when you do actually hear them it’s not a surprise.

        As you already know from your courtroom experiences for criminal cases, many attorneys like to paint complicated hypothetical scenarios or try to pin you into a corner by changing the facts to suit their needs. You must keep your cool, not rise to their baits, don’t over-answer their questions, call them on it when they ask you to speculate, and stick to what you know you did and said.

        It’s easy to view these stressful and often tense encounters as a contest of wills, to see who is smarter. You can sidestep a lot of that drama by staying calm, waiting to answer until you’ve taken the time to craft your response, and by slowing down your breathing.

        Many eyes are upon you in these types of events. True professionalism means you can perform successfully and not lose your temper, your train of thought, or your perspective. You already know that when the aggrieved employee’s representatives shout, “This is a search for justice!” it’s more often about money, pride, or trying for a symbolic victory. Stay above the shouting match.

        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 steve@contactandcover.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2012

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