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4 steps to fixing a broken police career

If your colleagues believe you are not trustworthy, your expertise will cease to matter


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Broken careers happen for a variety of reasons. Whether your career was hurt by committing an egregious act that nearly got you fired or you’ve simply had a protracted period of less-than-stellar performance, your career will suffer until you become highly proactive in repairing the damage. The good news is, in nearly all cases, you really can mend a broken career.

When it comes to careers, your reputation is more important than anything else you bring to the table. In fact, research has demonstrated that career success, power, and autonomy are all related to a person’s reputation.

This means that you can be the foremost expert in criminal law but if your colleagues believe you are not trustworthy, your expertise will cease to matter.

Let the mending begin

Reputations are a result of behavior and actions that have been displayed over a period of time. They are not – generally speaking – gained or lost overnight. This can be very good news or very bad news. The good news is that if you have consistently performed well and have proven yourself trustworthy, competent, and likable, one mess-up is unlikely to permanently damage all your years of good behavior. If, however, you have consistently performed poorly and have proven yourself to be less than trustworthy, competent, and likable, you will have a much tougher road to travel.

Mending your career can be broken down into four steps (or stages): the self-reflection stage, the repair stage, the work stage, and the maintenance stage. Each step is important and should be done in the order listed.

Step 1: The self-reflection stage – take the first (and most important) step.

There is little that you can effectively change until you take the time to reflect on what went wrong and why. As the saying goes, the most difficult analysis is a self-analysis. According to social psychology, the reason for the difficulty is our own self-serving biases which cause us to attribute all positive outcomes to ourselves and all negative outcomes to other external factors.

If you have a broken career, it won’t be beneficial to blame others. Critically and honestly evaluate your actions or behavior. This isn’t about beating yourself up. It’s simply a method of uncovering and recognizing what needs improvement. With this knowledge in hand, you can begin the work of mending your career.

Step 2: The repair stage – be completely forthcoming about your mistake(s).

You must confront the problem head-on. Hoping that people will eventually forget is one of the worst things you can do because people absolutely will not forget. They will always relate you to the behavior or performance unless you have an honest, heartfelt discussion about it. Believe it or not, most people are very forgiving because they have made mistakes too.

If you have had less than stellar performance, tell your boss and your co-workers that you believe you have not been performing well but that you care a great deal about your job and intend to turn it around. If you committed an egregious act, be honest and remorseful about your mistake. Ask for their forgiveness and a chance to show them you are worthy of their trust. Make a commitment to them that you will improve.

Step 3: The work stage – be the kind of employee that they would hire again.

While this stage is called ‘the work stage’ it really can be translated into ‘being a model employee’. Improve your work reputation by doing the following:

  • Build relationships. Make an effort to build relationships throughout the department. Increasing your likability factor can go a very long way in repairing your work reputation. People are more apt to forgive if they genuinely like someone. Schmoozing is not the goal since people will see it as a superficial attempt at being liked. Just be courteous and treat others how you would want them to treat your loved ones.
  • Arrive early. Nothing says ‘I don’t care’ as much as arriving one minute before your shift begins. In the military you are considered late if you aren’t at least 15 minutes early, so make that your goal and get to work at least 15 minutes early every single day.
  • Be a great team player. Like it or not, we rely on others to get the job done. Every spoke in the wheel is essential. No matter how much of a hot shot you are, you are still just one spoke among lots of other spokes. Recognize how important teamwork is and strive to be the poster child for team players.
  • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is contagious. Arriving to work with energy and a smile on your face will have a positive impact on your own psyche as well as those around you.
  • Know your job really well. Have you ever worked with a twenty-year officer and were appalled at how little he or she knew about law or policy? What did it tell you? It probably told you that the officer held little regard for their job. Do the opposite of that and others will see you as someone who has a high regard for their job.
  • Work, work, work. Whatever area you are assigned, go above and beyond. For instance, if you are a patrol officer, be highly proactive. If you are a detective, clear those cases with sound investigation. If you are a supervisor, your evaluations, supervisory skills, inspections, and monthly reports should be stellar. You get the idea – just work.

Step 4: The maintenance stage – ensure that all your hard work is not for naught.

Now that you’ve made the necessary changes to get your career back on track, it is equally important to keep that positive momentum going:

  • Maintain the improvements. We’ve all known people who make a decision to make an improvement in their life; lose weight, quit smoking, etc. They maintain it for a short while; people are nodding and applauding, and then they fizzle out. Do this enough times and people won’t care if you make a commitment to improve because they know you won’t stick to it. Honor your commitment to improve and stick with it.
  • Be patient. The process of mending your career will not happen overnight. In fact, it’s a rather lengthy process to win back the trust and confidence you have lost. But, if you are dedicated to this process, it will work.
  • Absolutely never mess up again due to your own negligence. We all know about the angry spouse that brings up something from years ago. The same will happen if you allow yourself to slip up. The years of progress can be wiped away in one swoop.

Be yourself, but be the best you all the time. Remind yourself why it is important to you – money, career, reputation, happiness, financial stability. Write it down and post it in a conspicuous area, if that helps. Don’t get discouraged. Believe in yourself and your ability to mend your career. You have the power and control to turn it around – all it takes is a commitment from you.

This article, originally published June 14, 2016, has been updated

Laura Samples has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience. She previously served as a police lieutenant in Texas. She is a graduate of the Leadership Command College from LEMIT at Sam Houston State University, a graduate of the Denver Paralegal Institute, and has earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management, from Fort Hays State University. She is also a veteran of the U.S. Army where she served as a Military Police Officer in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.