The Human Capital Consideration of Recruitment and Retention

Jan. 2, 2019
Younger workers are less likely to think long-term when it comes to jobs and if a position doesn’t hold their attention or loyalty, they’ll be gone.

This is the second article on the challenges law enforcement faces recruiting and retaining quality candidates as a result of cultural and demographic changes.  If you have not yet read it, please see our first (“The Present and Coming Recruitment and Retention Crisis”) for background and context for what is to come.

As the pool of potential police officers shrinks – first, by the mere fact of a smaller generational cohort from which to draw, and then because of shifting workplace expectations and demographics of that generation – agencies will need to be creative and strategic to meet the needs of their communities.  Stubborn adherence to old ways of doing business are unlikely to meet the need for the high quality officers our society will need moving forward.  Lawmakers who set hiring standards, which determine and affect the types of candidates who are recruited and hired, may need to reexamine them to ensure they are realistic for the demands of modern day policing.  Hiring boards and police administrators will need to reexamine their strategies for recruitment. And all of them may need to become inventive to draw good candidates to places that are bleeding young talent to more desirous locales at crisis levels.

Although this will hardly be exhaustive, or come near the level of detail and discussion needed, we offer the following solutions to the specific challenges:

Understand and (as far as is possible) try to meet reasonable expectations and foster job satisfaction

This is not a call to undermine the role and discipline of policing, but for bosses to reasonable adapt to the expectations of those beneath them.  That the latest generation of police officers, drawn from the cohort known as the Millennials, were different from those who came before them – not better or worse, just different – is well known and documented.  In many respects these differences were and remain net pluses.  It is to be expected the coming generation will share many of the same traits and possess some unique to themselves, and the older generation of leaders would do well to understand them and shape a supportive culture they will want to work and embrace.

Let’s be honest.  Some departments’ and administrators’ policies and practice do little to inspire either confidence or morale, and the rampant burnout and dissatisfaction we see in the profession has as much or more to do this want of intelligent leadership than anything they experience on the streets.  There are remarkably talented and emotionally intelligent police administrators and line supervisors out there, to be sure, followed by motivated and satisfied cops.  If you’ve ever worked for one you know the difference they make.  They know their people and how to motivate them. 

We’re going to need their juice for the emerging generation of cops. 

Understanding the research into the Millennials and those behind them leads to five conclusions for retaining the talent we do recruit:

1. Respect their desire for a work/life balance

The days that cops routinely sacrificed home and personal life have largely come to an end. External family and friend circles are valued to the younger generations of officers and work/life is a goal.  Finding ways to not just encourage that desire but facilitate it will keep increase commitment.

2. Foster a sense of purpose

Jobs are more than a paycheck, benefits, and setup to a comfortable retirement.  Enforcing laws for their own sake and without concrete values to back their enforcement soon feels cold and automatic.  High value people demand purpose and the feeling they are invested in something bigger than themselves, that their work has meaning and value, and that putting on the uniform each day is important.  Leadership and guidance from purpose-driven supervisors or peers drives engagement.

3. Provide varied and impactful opportunities, and encourage cops to create their own

In agencies where specialty assignments are doled out infrequently, given only to certain “golden children,” or are a virtual lifetime appointment freezing out others from fresh opportunities, frustration leads to resentment and burnout.  For even high performing officers this can create a sense of “I’ll never move up, or get a chance to do anything besides chase the radio” and undermine their motivation to keep up good work.  Specialty assignments are often highly competitive – with good reason – but opportunities to learn and practice complex skill sets and branch out from the routine can and should be devised by creative and enterprising supervisors.  Temporary assignments with specialized divisions allows an officer to practice and demonstrate what they are capable of, stay engaged and have a little fun, while letting permanently assigned officers get to know younger officers’ work ethic and potential.  Allowing officers the opportunity to creatively tap into their unique aptitudes and interests by applying them to the job makes the day-to-day richer and more interesting. 

4. Provide recognition as a matter of course

Millennials are often criticized as the “participation trophy” generation, sometimes even by themselves and with some validity, but the value of regular recognition is unmistakable.

Good leaders know that praising past and current successes is the best way to predict and shape future behavior. People who have been praised for performing well will usually continue whatever activity got them the praise.  And the recognition does not need to be formal or complex; a word of recognition, gift card to a favorite coffee shop, or department commendation publicly presented usually does the trick.  

Here’s the secret:  People generally will like someone who praises them, and want to do things to continue pleasing someone they like.  It’s largely subconscious and defies resistance. 

5. Build a foundation of advocacy and trust

If you are a supervisor or senior officer, creating an environment of advocacy and trust is invaluable.  Back your officers, be willing to take go to battle for them when it is called for, and discipline judiciously.  Forego politics!  Younger officers are of a generation that distrusts institutions and organization, and retention will be an uphill fight if they feel betrayed or like pawns – something a lot of police administrators have come to assume officers will be okay with, or at least not make too much fuss about.  The younger set may simply abandon the institution. 

For what it is worth, among young and emerging adults, of major organizations and institutions, the military, the scientific community, and law enforcement are considered the top three in terms of trustworthiness.  Holding officers accountable is a necessary component of an administrator’s job, of course, but defending and advocating for these same officers is just as important. 

Each of these suggestions has in common that, although they seem like no-brainer management techniques, they have been identified because their seemingly counterintuitive opposites have become the default mode in far too many workplaces, including law enforcement. 

Younger workers are less likely to think long-term when it comes to jobs and if a position doesn’t hold their attention or loyalty, they’ll be gone.  For professions that need and benefit from employees settling in for the long haul, efforts to increase allegiance to the organization and team will be well worth the effort.   

Valuing the human capital that goes into policing must become a priority for police administrators.  With the potential for a critical shortage of new officers looming – and in some places already noticed – reevaluating how bosses manage their people should be a focus. 

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