9 culture changes to fix your staffing shortage

Unprecedented times in police recruitment and retention call for new hiring, leadership approaches


If you’re trying to hire officers right now, your recruiting messaging probably looks something like:

We’re hiring!

  • Top pay
  • Hiring bonus
  • Regular training
  • 200 hours paid time off
  • Take-home cars

But is it working?

If you’re running an organization where your pay and benefits structure is competitive and you’re still bleeding people, I invite you to keep reading.

A SIMPLE FIX

If an agency wants to retain its officers and attract new ones, there is a very simple solution.

You must fix your culture.

In smaller communities, especially, law enforcement is often one of the better-paying professions. People become cops because the pay is attractive, benefits are guaranteed, and the work is steady and meaningful.

Over time, the weight of the job starts to hit. If they feel unsupported at work, these same officers will want out. However, they cannot leave their job for anything else that pays as well, and their family has grown reliant on the income. Born of this are employees who now feel like a hostage to their situation, become toxic, and begin infecting the rest of the team and the residents they serve.

In larger cities, these same officers may have more opportunities for well-paying jobs within and beyond law enforcement. If that is the case, as I probably don’t have to tell you, they will be gone.

You must fix your culture.

We all know law enforcement is a difficult profession. These men and women often experience scenarios that are emotionally and psychologically destructive. They work odd and long hours, resulting in missed holidays, their children’s ball games and countless meals with their family.

Officers hit the streets where there is much evil and darkness, only to return to their agency and face a different kind of darkness dressed as internal politics and interpersonal strife.

You must fix your culture.

Above all else, focus on becoming the best place in the world to work. When you transform the workplace into somewhere people feel cared for, seen, developed and part of the whole, loyalty and retention will follow.

When it comes to developing a department culture that can both attract and retain officers, here are nine approaches that just about anyone can implement:

1. DON’T TOLERATE BAD LEADERS

Let there be no hiding place for bad leaders. Inside the walls of your department should be the most comfortable and safe place an officer knows besides their own home. These people are your most precious and valuable asset. They should not come to work feeling fear, distrust, or betrayal.

Practical application: Consider seeking 360-degree feedback on both yourself and your leaders so that everyone within the organization knows their behavior matters. But also make sure your system holds space for positive truths, which should be celebrated and rewarded.

Don’t worry, your good leaders will be confident in their abilities with this system, and your bad leaders, well, they’ll be the ones coming to your office with complaints about the new system.

2. PROMOTE AND HIRE WISELY

The leaders in your organization will make or break you. Hire or promote right in the first place. Demote or separate when coaching is ineffective.

Practical application: Hire diverse leaders and those who have shown that they are committed to bettering their leadership skills before you promote them. Hire leaders who turn the mirror toward themselves when there is responsibility due and turn the mirror toward their team when there is credit. Hire leaders who lead by example both on- and off-duty. 

3. SEEK AND SHARE THE TRUTH

Find out the truth and be transparent in sharing it.

Practical application: Survey your ranks every quarter. Find out if they are engaged and if they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. Ask questions like “I feel like PD leadership cares about me as a person” and “I feel comfortable sharing my opinions at work.” Perhaps, “Is there anything that can be changed in the workplace that would help you enjoy your job more?” Follow through! Listen to what the men and women say instead of only listening to the leaders at the top.

Share the results. Asking your staff to complete a survey that gives them hope that something will change, and then never providing follow-up will torch your culture to the ground. Share the results – good, bad and ugly – every quarter. Focus your leadership values on improving those scores. Tell the department your goal as police chief is to always be improving those scores.

4. TRY A SOFTER APPROACH

Cops have been shot at, have had to shoot at people, been spit on, punched, had their family’s lives threatened, seen dead bodies, gruesome scenes, interviewed child victims of sexual abuse, and on and on. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.

The more your department makes it routine, “part of the job,” or adopts a “deal with it” attitude, the sooner people will leave.

Practical application: Normalize counseling, mental wellness and vulnerability. You need someone at the top who is willing to show vulnerability through emotions, who is willing to show their humanity, and who is willing to admit when they need help and share stories about getting there.

Put someone in a position of power who can build trust within your ranks through their vulnerability, and someone who is willing to lead a tireless crusade for the well-being of your people.

5. MAKE WORK HEALTHY (IF NOT FUN)

I know the work is serious. People’s lives are at stake, and the agency should be regarded as professional and sound. But the culture can still be healthy and fun. Lightheartedness is not a weakness. Laughter should be encouraged. Every leader should be approachable.

Practical application: Consider piloting a group of ambassadors responsible for a fun onboarding process and other employee engagement activities like off-duty social events. Utilize this group for finding solutions to issues that arise through your employee engagement surveys or otherwise.

Instead of the onus landing on your shoulders, implement solutions groups to find ways to fix culture issues. These ideas will be more grassroots, more honest, and they will actually work. Stop trying to make everything a secret. Chances are those secrets are not as solid as you think anyway. Obviously, some things must be confidential in any workplace but ask yourself if secrecy is being built in for the command staff’s ego and self-importance

When building your crews, consider personality type; ensuring that there is, as often as possible, a gregarious and fun-loving person on each team

6. CULTIVATE AUTHENTICITY

Find ways for your people to comfortably be themselves. One of the fastest ways of eradicating an inviting and safe space at work is sending the message that who a person is outside of work has no place inside of work. It isn’t realistic and it rarely lasts.

This means you celebrate the differences. You focus on diversity and inclusion. Not just as buzz words, but as actions. Sometimes people assume that all law enforcement officers fit the same mold; male, buzz cut, clean shave, polished boots, and macho.

We know that we must approach this differently by being intentionally inclusive of team members who look or behave differently from whatever stereotype fits the majority of your ranks.

Practical application: Ask team members who may be otherwise marginalized for their contributions in staff meetings, acknowledge those contributions and lift them up to the group as a whole. The power of a team is in its differences; a sea of sameness is not only dangerous but detrimental to the overall performance of your agency.

Look at your diversity statistics. How many BIPOC (Black, indigenous, person of color) staff do you have within the department? How many in leadership? Look at the same statistics for women. Study diversity in age. Report these statistics to your team and then work on changing them if they are not representative of the community you serve.

7. DEVELOP PEOPLE

Career development and advancement are regularly ranked as more valuable to workers than things like pay and benefits packages.

Practical application: Find new and ever-evolving ways to develop the careers and skill sets of your team. We know budgets are tight for law enforcement agencies across the country. You might have to get creative – call in favors and search your contact list for someone to be a guest speaker on an important or educational topic to address your department.

Bonus points if you develop people according to their career goals and aspirations; providing choices in the type of (non-mandatory) training they receive. Implement an internal mentorship program. Find ways to promote more people. Make your organization wider, not taller.

8. GO WHERE THEY ARE

There’s always the argument that the administration doesn’t have time to be present with the ranks in the day-to-day. Instead, I would argue that you can’t afford not to spend time with people who are on the front line. It gives you perspective and a realistic view of the things they are seeing and experiencing. It will make you a better leader, and it will go miles in building trust and belief in your administration.

Practical application: Nightshift. Weekends. Your presence and the presence of the brass matter. Ride with officers, have lunch with your investigators, spend time in evidence. A lot can be gained from a closed mouth and open ears and eyes.

9. HAVE A BACKBONE

Make sure your officers see you going to bat for them with your boss and elected officials.

Practical application: Fight for pay, benefits and anything else that is important to your people. Don’t pit your stakeholders against each other or take something crappy from above and try to “sell” it to your people. Again, I remind you. Your employees are cops. They are paid to detect BS for a living. The worst thing a leader can do is be the one slinging it.

You should encourage this type of pushback among your direct reports as well. They should feel comfortable challenging you and fighting for the people who report to them.

IN CONCLUSION

Keeping these principles in mind, it’s possible you could create a new more engaging recruiting messaging:

Come work for a department where:

  • We’ve got your six: Leaders genuinely care about you. Our employee feedback is collected and valued.
  • You’re Code 4: People are developed and promoted. We promote mental wellness, and our officers are encouraged to be themselves.
  • We’re Frank Union Nora (FUN): We have fun at work.
  • Oh, and we have great pay, benefits and take-home cars too!

If you want to fill your open positions, prevent attrition and build institutional knowledge within your department, create a healthy, fun and inviting work environment. Most of these changes won’t cost the agency anything, but the payoff will be invaluable and long-lasting.

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