Calibrating the organization's moral compass

Don’t underestimate the power of one — on either side of the ethical equation

Editor’s Note: The following article by PoliceOne Columnist Jim Glennon is a follow-up Hitler’s back porch, posted back in December 2009. Both articles draw from Jim’s observations during his 29-years as a cop, 18 years as supervisor, as well as from the lessons he teaches in his leadership and management course, Finding the Leader in You. If you’d like to learn more about this excellent training program, please contact Slavka Younger at 1-800-323-0037 or e-mail her at

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

Here is an undoubtedly stupid question: Why is it that of all the articles I write, I get more e-mails, phone calls, emotional responses, and heartfelt stories sent to me when the articles are about line / management relationships?

Why is that a stupid question? Because if you have been in law enforcement for more than 20 minutes you know that to most cops, the relationship between line and management winds up being the biggest stressor in their entire career. Is that true for all? No. But I gotta believe it is for the majority.

Last month I wrote an article called Hitler’s back porch and the problem of ethics. In it I talked about ethics from an administrative corruption perspective rather than line cops getting caught taking a free cup of coffee. My view was — and quite frankly, is — that we too often look to the line to root out corruption issues while ignoring the culture that is fertile ground for corrupt behavior. Obviously, that fertile ground is established, maintained, encouraged, and enabled by the behaviors of management.

I received dozens of e-mails — and even took five or six phone calls — from readers. While some of the respondents were line employees, I’d say that 75 percent were from supervisors who represented federal, state, county, and local agencies.

I had one retiring chief of a very large department write: “I just forwarded your article to all of my (subordinate command staff) to reinforce their responsibility in making ethical decisions — always. In my opinion, every organization has within it those individuals and elements that can mutate into the corruption we all fear, whether it’s a shift, a bureau, or a division. It is all of our responsibility, through fairness and vigilance, to prevent that from occurring.”

Excellent point.

A federal agent wrote: “I have seen some of my supervisors’ moral compasses so skewed that we are always headed in the wrong direction. I have seen supervisors treat me and others as if I were guilty until proven innocent when a citizen or even another supervisor filed a complaint. I was once told by my chief that it was discussed at a supervisory meeting that I had 'great integrity.' In the next breath he said, 'But I have to side with your supervisor because supervisors stick together.' I still have a little faith that things will change but my faith is waning. Thanks for writing about supervisory ethics. Maybe it will make some people think twice before stabbing that knife in someone’s back just to get promoted.”

I received several communications that were similar to that story.

Several officers wrote and told me they quit rather than work for unethical bosses. Others told me how Sheriffs and Chiefs destroyed their organizations because of their unethical behavior and though eventually imprisoned, their behavior still drove out great officers and destroyed the organizational culture to the point of collapse. It is amazing how much damage one supervisor can do if left unchecked by those who purport to be ethical.

One officer I talked to, and known to me personally, said that two of his chiefs travel the country teaching ethics but are the most unethical people in the entire department. He went on to say that their ethical violations didn’t involve taking bribes or receiving free stuff, but rather in the way they treated their employees and their focus on finding ethical violations for the sole purpose of using them as examples of their high ethical standards.

“They care more about their own careers as ethics instructors and reputations among the ‘Chiefs club’ than their positions in our department.”

My friend — who is a supervisor by the way — went on to say, “They practice cronyism, protect their friends, and work on their ethical presentations while getting paid by the city. Meanwhile our morale gets lower and lower though they won’t address it because, according to them, morale doesn’t actually exist. The general belief among the officers is: ‘Don’t do anything. That way you can’t get in trouble.’ These two guys are the reason almost everyone here hates coming to work.”

Chief Tim Goergen and I have been teaching management for well over a decade. Several years ago we were asked to present our course to nursing supervisors in a children’s hospital. When the hospital administrator contacted me I asked why he wanted us. He told me that people were leaving and morale was low. They were hoping to reset the perspective of the nursing staff by delving into leadership skills and ethics discussions.

So Tim and I spent a couple of days with the nursing supervisors. The class went so well we were asked to come back and teach the administrative staff. That also went well and several weeks later I got another call.

“We want you to come back.”

“Why? We’ve taught everybody.”

“No, not everybody. We want the doctors to sit through the class. There are two dozen of them.”

The very short version of this long story is this: they paid us all that money, took all that time, had all of those people sit through our classes because of one guy!

Tim and I recognized it the very first few minutes of the very first class. Everyone was unhappy, morale was tanking, people were quitting because of the Chief of Staff’s treatment of others. He treated doctors poorly, they treated nurses poorly, the communal spirit of the organization was toxic, and everyone knew why but no one did anything about it. The people who had an ethical obligation to care for those who were caring for children did nothing about that one person who had his own ethical failings.

The result? Chaos ...for years.

A Captain from a large agency in California summed it up best: “I agree [unethical behavior among management] is the one element of corruption that can cripple an organization and have lasting effects even after the offenders are gone. In fact, the actions of the administration don’t even need to be severe to undermine the organization and kill morale. It seems to be more of a perception of the overall mindset of the bosses that is the destructive force.”

Face it: If you’re a supervisor and your career is more important than both the mission and those charged with accomplishing it, then you are, by definition, unethical. If you’re a line officer and you don’t at least try to create positive change when you see unethical behavior — even if that’s just by talking about it with somebody — then you’re going to have a hard time pointing fingers later.

Don’t underestimate the power of one — on either side of the ethical equation.

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