"When it is time to go"
Humane Terminations Using Benevolent Severance
By: Steve Albrecht
Sometimes, despite your best intentions and your supervisors’ efforts to provide support, direction, feedback, coaching, performance improvement plans, and healthy doses of discipline, one of your employees gets fired. A sworn officer or a civilian employee either can’t or won’t make the changes necessary to save his/her career and gets canned. The reasons could be for poor performance, problematic behaviors, a lousy attitude, uneven attendance, poor customer service, or bad officer safety.
Maybe the employee violated a significant department policy for the first or final time or even broke the law. Maybe he/she got bad advice from co-workers, union reps, or association attorneys. Maybe he/she thought he/she could ride out the storm and that his/her agency wouldn’t really, actually fire him/her. He/she guessed wrong. The discipline hearings, arbitration meetings, or court appearances are over and now the employee is on the way out.
So is that it? He/she packs his/her locker, cleans out his/her desk, turn in his/her gear, surrender his/her IDs, and leave the building? The sum total of his/her career working as a law enforcement officer or in a civilian support position has come to a crashing end? Can we back up a bit, not to try to save the employee’s career from going over the cliff—it is too late for that—but to help him/her ease his/her transitions, from being an employee to a former employee?
We already know most sworn officers don’t see their work as a job or a career, but as a calling (at least the older ones). It is not what they do; it is who they are. Leaving via a termination is humiliating and it suddenly reminds them that they may have few other aptitudes or no other job skills that transfer well to another position in the non-cop world. To say some terminated officers are at risk of suicide is understating it. They feel like their lives are over. The job they worked so hard to get is gone.
Now is the time to spend some money, and to use new and outside-the-box severance protocols, to show your agency is a humane one, by deciding to treat the departing employee with dignity, respect and empathy. If this were a game show, they would leave with some “lovely parting gifts.”
You may need to convince your personnel director to use the concept of “benevolent severance.” This could include providing immediate access to outplacement services, i.e., literally in the next room after the termination. This allows the employee to file for unemployment; letting the employee resign in lieu of termination; giving continued access to medical benefits and/or an Employee Assistance Program for a span of time; providing a letter that verifies dates of employment and position; agreements on reference or background check calls by potential new (non-police-related) employers; help with transferring or cashing out IRA, 401k, and similar retirement accounts.
Saying, “But that’s not how we do things here” or, “We’ve never done it that way in my city or county” doesn’t mean it’s not possible and it can never be done. Providing benevolent severance to a terminated employee is not a new idea; it may just be new to your agency. You may have to have a lot of meetings about this idea, it may be a meet-and-confer issue with your Association, or it may take many months or even years to actually implement. But it can be done and if other cities or counties in your area have created such a concept, then model yours after theirs.
This support can minimize hostility during and after the termination process, lower the emotional temperature for the employee who has been let go, and create an atmosphere where they actually leave with something tangible (money, letters, benefits, mental health services, etc.) rather than just a box of belongings. Benevolent severance should be seen as a way to ease the transition from what is always a highly difficult event.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include
Contact & Cover (C.C. Thomas);
Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; and
Tactical Perfection for Street Cops (all for Paladin Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.