Employee retention: Preventing a “great resignation” in your agency

What happens when there aren’t enough police officers to handle calls for service? Our citizens and the community suffer


This article originally appeared in the August 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see 13-step recruitment plan; How to prevent a 'great resignation' and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

In my last article, I explored turnover from the perspective of the individual employee. For this month’s article, I thought it appropriate to examine turnover from the agency’s perspective. By now, we’ve all heard about the “Great Resignation.” Articles and theories abound regarding this latest employment trend.

Since August 2021, over 4 million Americans have quit their jobs each and every month through April 2022. This trend is likely to continue as economists noted how there were roughly 65 unemployed workers for every 100 job openings around the end of 2021. Although these numbers are reflective of all industries, a Police Executive Research Forum special report noted a 5% decrease in hiring rates for police officers throughout the U.S. The same report also highlighted the double-digit percentage increase in both resignations and retirements for the same period.

Beyond a reduction in the labor force, turnover also comes with a big price tag for the agency. The Work Institute estimates turnover costs employers roughly $15,000 per employee. Turnover costs for U.S. employers during 2021 totaled over $700 billion. We know from experience that it costs much more to train and equip those working in public safety. For example, in Florida, costs to train a new police recruit range anywhere from $100,000 to $240,000. This makes employee retention in public safety even more critical.

Beyond a reduction in the labor force, turnover also comes with a big price tag for the agency.
Beyond a reduction in the labor force, turnover also comes with a big price tag for the agency. (Getty Images)

Why are employees throwing in the towel, and how can public safety leaders slow the exodus?

The COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 created challenges in every industry. In early 2020, rules and protocols changed for everyone, even though public safety agencies were still required to provide necessary services. How we delivered these services was significantly impacted, which took a toll on even our most tenured employees. Recruiting efforts in public safety are challenging anytime, but the pandemic made it even more difficult to onboard new employees.

Another factor involved people rethinking their values and priorities. Remote work and isolation created prime opportunities for self-reflection, which prompted tens of thousands of employees to leave their current positions or search for new careers outside of their current profession. Finally, stress and burnout took a toll on employees. According to Liz Farmer, a Future of Labor Research Center fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, nearly a third of those working in state and local government agencies “said working during the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs.” Vaccine mandates instituted by some local governments also had an impact on the separations that occurred in public safety.

Onboarding and career development

How new employees are introduced into an organization plays a big role in not only job satisfaction, but also retention. In a 2018 Gallop poll, only 12% of U.S. employees strongly agreed that their organizations did a good job onboarding new employees.

In public safety, bringing new personnel into the fold is a more formal and structured process. Much of this depends on agency policies regarding new hires, with an acknowledgment that some organizations use quick, informal processes to get boots on the ground. According to workplace consultant Robert Gabsa, successful onboarding should accomplish three key aspects:

  1. Employees need to learn what makes the organization unique. In other words, why should they take pride in wearing your uniform? Why should they even want to work for your organization, and what sets your agency apart from others?
  2. Employees need to understand how their specific job helps fulfill your agency’s mission. What is their potential for making an impact?
  3. Employees must experience the mission and values of the agency. This goes well beyond simply knowing your agency’s mission statement. Those are words on paper. Today’s employees need a clear understanding of how their role fulfills the agency’s mission. It’s equally important for them to know why they do what they do and how those efforts fit into the bigger picture.

In 2019, nearly 20% of employees reported leaving their jobs due to lacking career development opportunities. As such, it’s important to understand career development as it relates to employee retention. This includes making sure your personnel have access to different job tasks within the organization, enhancing their individual skillsets, expanding responsibilities within their current positions, and developing new skills that are geared toward or assist with their upward mobility.

Hilal and Litsey’s research substantiated the career development element and identified actors such as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement or growth as key motivators that reduce police turnover. Maio et al found that committed employees are likely to engage in spontaneous, innovative behaviors when the work is meaningful and fits between job requirements and an employee’s own ideals, values or standards. Although this comes naturally for most public safety personnel, once those values or standards are challenged, the employee’s dedication to the organization or even the job itself will diminish.

Management

There’s abundant research supporting the importance of management and supervision when it comes to employee retention. Simply put, if your agency suffers from toxic or ineffective leadership, your personnel will not stay. And those who decide to weather the storm likely won’t be happy or productive.

A 2021 Gallup workplace analysis found that 52% of exiting employees said their manager or the organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving. According to the Work Institute, 78% of employees said their departure could have been prevented by the employer. Only one-third of former employees said they even had a conversation with their manager about their dissatisfaction before they quit. Sadly, these statistics tell us that one of the biggest reasons employees decide to leave is simply because leadership wasn’t engaged in trying to keep them.

Motivation

What’s not surprising is that the aforementioned elements are all interdependent. Effective onboarding and career development require strong leadership and effective policies. Take away either element and motivation also goes away. Simply put, unhappy employees or those who aren’t challenged while on the job won’t be motivated to perform. And they won’t stay.

While examining ways to reduce turnover in law enforcement agencies, Hilal and Litsey’s research identified key variables that led to employee dissatisfaction and lacking motivation. These include supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relations and company policies. It’s no surprise that role ambiguity also plays an important role in employee motivation. If your employees don’t know what’s expected of them, they have no incentive to perform. Role ambiguity also comes with significant side effects, which include anxiety, depression, tension, anger, fear, decreased motivation and reduced job satisfaction.

As with most things, the burden to foster employee motivation rests with organizational leadership. If you aren’t engaged and don’t know your people, they will have little incentive to perform. Too often, many organizations focus on extrinsic motivational factors such as compensation. Contemporary research tells us that pay and benefits are only part of the equation. Employers who handsomely compensate employees but don’t invest in their well-being experience as much or more turnover than their lower-paying counterparts. Therefore, it’s essential for public safety organizations to understand and identify ways to leverage the intrinsic motivation in each employee, enhancing job satisfaction through the work itself.

What you can do

It’s no mystery that employee turnover comes with a big price tag. In public safety, the true costs are unmeasurable because of the adverse impact on the communities we serve. What happens when there aren’t enough police officers to handle calls for service? The simple answer: Our citizens and the community suffer. Therefore, it’s important for your organization to communicate with employees and ensure leadership is engaged 100% of the time.

Consider these five tips for enhancing retention in public safety agencies:

  1. Make sure you are connected and engaged: This only occurs when leaders know their people and have regular communication. Gallup’s 2021 analysis found that 43% of employees spoke to a coworker about their intent to leave, and 36% were actively looking for another job one or more months before leaving their current employer. This doesn’t just happen, and engaged leaders see the writing on the wall and will have a conversation with their personnel before the situation gets to critical mass.
  2. Be an empathetic leader: This means listening to problems, openly receiving employee feedback and adequately prioritizing your employees’ workload. People like to be heard and they need to feel like you have their backs. Listening and regular communication enhance employee satisfaction.
  3. Empower your people: Identify creative solutions to common problems, and personalize the workload in a manner that leverages employee strengths, while developing their weaknesses. This also means being an advocate for your people. This doesn’t mean acquiescing to every employee’s desire; however, it does require establishing trust and enhancing the rapport among your employees.
  4. Don’t forget about employee recognition: Encourage and inspire your people by recognizing their efforts and celebrating accomplishments. This doesn’t mean participation trophies for everyone, but it does require identification of efforts in such a way your people feel valued and empowered.
  5. Help struggling employees: By knowing your people and remaining engaged, you will also notice when they are not performing up to your expectations or are not happy while on the job. Take time to listen to their needs, while also taking time to focus on their career development aspirations. Although I realize that our policy often guides this process, policy isn’t personal. It takes human engagement to coach and motivate those under our charge. Coaching makes employees feel appreciated, valued and connected to the agency.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of public safety organizations lends itself to being anything but personal. Public safety agencies are policy-driven and require a great deal of structure to accomplish their mission, but it doesn’t mean we have to share that rigid mentality in this context. Recognize that people are the single biggest resource we have. We can’t stop all turnover, but excessive turnover comes with big costs to both the agency and the community. It’s important to establish policies that foster adequate onboarding and enhance career development opportunities.

Identifying appropriate personnel for leadership positions is also paramount. Today’s leaders must be personable, flexible, knowledgeable and engaged with their employees. It’s important we get it right from the first day we hire new personnel.

Motivate employees, invest in their development, and show them what’s expected. You can’t block the exits leaving your agency, but with some effort, you can slow the flow of people walking out the door.

NEXT: Promoters: An opportunity for police recruiters

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