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Written by Robert Roy Johnson
Effective leaders foster personal relationships with their officers that are based on mutual trust and respect. As a matter of course, these relationships are established within the workplace. However, this concept of personal relationships, when taken outside the workplace, raises the thorny matter of fraternization. Fraternization policies in the military are quite restrictive. However, police organizations are generally considered semi-military. Thus, what constitutes appropriate fraternization is often unclear.
Fraternization outside the workplace, in and of itself, is not necessarily harmful to department operations, but it can be fraught with danger. Chiefs should endeavor to establish fraternization policy for their departments. For chiefs shaping such policy, and for supervisors making their own decisions regarding fraternization in the absence of policy, there are some caveats when considering to what degree supervisors will fraternize with their officers.
First and, arguably, foremost, fraternization outside the workplace can lead to genuine romantic entanglements or, when alcohol is involved, an evening’s indiscretion regretted the morning after. These situations, while they do develop in the workplace as well, are more likely to occur when there is fraternization outside the work environment.
The supervisor should be aware of all of the ramifications of supervisor / subordinate liaisons. While many successful unions have resulted from workplace romance, the supervisor must be wary. Potential problems would include, if the affair sours, sexual harassment allegations, EEOC complaints, and quite frankly, the enormous difficulty and strain of continuing a supervisory relationship with a former, now defunct, love interest.
Also to be considered when socializing after work with your people is that, in many cases, not everyone participates. It can be expected that a few officers will choose not to socialize. In such instances, the supervisor inevitably will be establishing closer relationships with some officers, but not others. This could incline the supervisors to favor those officers with whom they socialize.
And, even if the supervisors do not show favoritism, they will probably be perceived by those not participating in the social gatherings outside the workplace as playing favorites anyway. Objectionable tasks given to officers who do not socialize, whether just or not, will have those officers wondering whether or not they were assigned fairly.
Supervisors need to ask themselves if they are capable of meting out necessary correction or discipline to close, personal friends. In critical situations calling for quick, decisive supervisory action involving officers who may have acted improperly, can these supervisors act fairly and impartially when a friendship is involved?
The workplace relationship is based on, among other things, mutual respect. While we conduct ourselves in a respectable professional manner in the workplace, when fraternizing in social situations, particularly those that involve adult beverages, we expose an altered persona to our officers that is often, at best, less than professional. Words and behavior that probably would not be uttered or engaged in within the work environment might come easier in a more relaxed milieu. An impulsive indiscretion, ill-advised physical contact, or inappropriate joke or comment may tarnish the professional image you have worked so diligently to establish in your department. Chiefs and captains who choose to fraternize and establish friendly relationships with officers in social situations run the risk of eroding the chain of command.
Finally, if called upon, will you be able to supervise outside of the workplace? Social gatherings are pregnant with situations that might require you to assume your role as a supervisor. Officers who exchange harsh words or come to blows, have too much to drink, or make inappropriate remarks to another off-duty officer or a civilian, are just a few of the circumstances where a socializing supervisor may have to step back into the role of supervisor. This type of supervisory intervention takes on an entirely different dimension outside the workplace.
So, while supervisor / subordinate relationships with the rank and file within the work environment that are based on mutual respect and trust are desirable, all supervisors need to examine the implications and consequences of fraternization outside the workplace. An informed decision on a case-by-case basis or clearly delineated department policy will minimize potential problems and ensure appropriate, efficient, productive departmental relationships.
Robert Roy Johnson is a 37-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of captain. A management consultant and speaker, Johnson is an adjunct professor in the Law Enforcement Management Program at Calumet College of Saint Joseph. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Feb 2008
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