6 considerations for cops stuck in a hostile workplace

There are many difficulties and risks associated with confronting an adult bully in the workplace


When we wrote our column, Bullies in the workplace: Sabotaging police culture, we anticipated substantial commentary – both supportive and critical – and we were not disappointed. In reviewing the feedback from officers across the country who’ve experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand – we’ve validated our belief that it is a real problem within the police culture and needs to be addressed.

Low morale is a significant issue for law enforcement, and behaviors easily categorized as bullying – especially from administrators and line supervisors, but in some cases, peer-to-peer – are a primary cause. We need to go deeper into this issue – to not just address the existence of bullying, but to offer real suggestions to combat it at the source. Here are six things to consider when you confront this problem in your department.

We fully understand the difficulties and risks associated with confronting an adult bully in the workplace. These are merely options that may provide clarity and guidance in a scary and disorienting situation.

If you are bothered by the behavior of a peer or supervisor, chances are you are not alone. (Photo/Pixabay)
If you are bothered by the behavior of a peer or supervisor, chances are you are not alone. (Photo/Pixabay)

1. Reevaluate your perceptions

Several LEOs who responded to the article either disagreed with the assertion that bullying exists within law enforcement, or that it is or should be a concern. More to the point, they were of the mind that anyone claiming to be a victim of such behavior needs to “toughen up, buttercup!”

Although we specifically defined bullying in our column – separating it from the inside jokes, affectionate and inclusive “ballbusting,” and inoffensive hazing that routinely go on in law enforcement – many readers missed the distinction. Nonetheless, they do raise a good point: Before determining if what you’re experiencing is, in fact, bullying, step back for a clear-eyed assessment of the intent and context of what’s being said and done.  

Seek the counsel of a third party you trust, ideally with knowledge and experience with your agency, the people involved, and how others have been treated and fared. It could be possible you do need to “toughen up” a bit.

But what if that’s not the case?

2. Consider leaving (the shift, crew, assignment, or department)

Sometimes the simplest solutions still work best and distancing yourself from the source is the most direct way of avoiding further problems. Police departments come in a variety of sizes with different cultures and personalities. In larger departments, you may be able to easily transition to a new supervisor, shift, crew, or job assignment. In the largest departments – in a big city, large county, or state and federal agencies, for example – it may be possible to transition to an entirely new precinct or district while maintaining seniority, rank and position.

Of course, the great majority of law enforcement agencies in the US are small – usually fewer than 10 sworn officers – with seniority differentials measured in years instead of months or weeks. If you’re being bullied at one of these, you may do well to simply jump ship and go somewhere better or bigger – most police departments are happy to “lateral in” an experienced, trained officer from another agency.

When enough people “vote with their feet” the higher-ups might be forced to take notice.

3. Confront the bully

Standing up to an antagonist often takes them by surprise and, if done with resolve and planning, has a high success rate regardless of whether the antagonist is of equal or greater rank. Bullies don’t expect pushback and it makes them wonder what else you are capable of and how hard you’re willing to fight. Remember, bullies want easy marks, not worthy adversaries.

4. Find strength in numbers

If you are bothered by the behavior of a peer or supervisor, chances are you are not alone. Describing your experience to colleagues may yield ideas for how to respond. If someone else was once a target but got out from under the crosshairs, it would be good to know how they managed – or create solidarity and a possible coalition to respond en masse.

This is especially important when the bully is a boss. Supervisors can and do ascend without requisite leadership and interpersonal skills. When they suddenly find themselves managing people they revert to an “all stick, no carrot” motivational approach – targeting certain individuals for special torment just because they think they can get away with it.

It’s easy for them to dismiss a lone voice fighting back. Facing an angry mob should prompt reevaluation of their management decisions. Involving sympathetic supervisors or administrators (they usually know when one of their own is out of line) can be especially helpful when going against a superior officer, if for nothing more than advice and support. Ideally, they can advocate on your behalf.

5. Give it time

Flying under the radar and doing your best to ignore the behavior sometimes causes the bully to lose interest or find another target. This is, of course, the advice given by countless parents to countless kids being picked on over millennia, but it does have its merits.

Bullies are frequently “all about the reaction” and get bored when they don’t get one, and if they up the ante, it only makes them look worse.

6. Access formal grievance procedures

Approaching internal affairs, human resources, or the police union to file a formal grievance is never (or rarely) fun and it involves an investment of effort and even professional risk. It may, however, be necessary.

At the very least, it raises awareness and puts the bully on notice. It may also show the continuance of a pattern of behavior you are not even aware of (but others are) if there have been prior complaints or suspicions.

Conclusion

There are no perfect solutions, and picking wrong can exacerbate the issue. Each of these suggestions comes with benefits, costs and risks. If you find yourself in the sights of a bully, only you can weigh your options for the optimal solution. And there are surely solutions we’ve not included or are modifications of those we have. Please let us know what has succeeded for you or what advice you’d give others.

No matter what happens at work, remember to focus as much or more energy on off-duty time. Our whole premise for succeeding on the job is remembering to be “more than a cop” away, and when facing tough times at work, it is especially important to not let it affect your time away. Friends, family, interests and balance can sustain you when workplace stressors try to bring you down.

This article, originally published 08/26/2015, has been updated. 

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