An Open Letter to Chiefs:
A lot of talk has been going on lately about hiring and retention rates for police departments and what can be done to improve both. There is a lot of speculation about the perceived dismal quantity and quality of applicants, with much blame being placed on the so-called millennials. Quite frankly, it is us old timers who are to blame.
For starters, we are asking a lot of the wrong questions in oral boards. In fact, we are asking the same questions we were asked twenty-five, heck, fifty-years ago. It goes like this: Tell us about yourself. Why do you want to be a police officer? Why our department? What have you done to prepare yourself to become a police officer? Are you willing to work nights, changing shifts and weekends? Where do you want to be in five years?
Then we throw a few scenarios at the applicant: You and your partner arrest a guy and your partner finds a wad of cash in the car – and puts it right into his own pocket. What are you going to do? Or, describe a time you had to deal with a difficult person and what did you do to de-escalate the situation?
These and questions like them suck, as far as millennials and whatever other generation your applicant pool falls in. You want a breathing body who isn’t going to get the department sued and who will “just do their job.” That’s not how your applicants think or see their “job.”
Knowing your audience is the key to asking the right questions. So here are a few things you need to know about millennials (by the way, I helped raise five of them):
1. Policing is not about the money and benefits. Millennials were raised with the mindset they can (and will) change the world. Policing is about purpose, the greater good, making a difference and actually changing the community they serve in. Millennials are always asking “why,” because that is how they are hardwired. Asking why drives them to seek out the how and to understand and formulate an answer.
You and I, like practically every cop before us, all gave the same answer to “Why do want to be a cop?” – because we wanted to help people and give back to our communities. Because that was the “right” and “expected” answer. We need to stop asking that question, because it is a not a great question – and neither was our answer. It is like asking your kid, “How was school today?” You get a lousy answer, “Fine.”
A great interview question(s) looks like this: “What do you see as the perfect position for you on our department?” Why is that?” “What do see as the worst position for you on our department? Why is that?” “If you could not be a cop, what would do?” Their answers will give you insights into their strengths and weakness, what they believe they can and cannot do well, and what drives/motivates them. It helps you see them as a unique individual – because there is no right or wrong answer, only their personal insights.
2. Millennials are tech savvy, which also causes them to be less adept at some of the interpersonal communication skills cops need to have and hone. In fact, for many, the whole concept of the oral boards is foreign to them. Send them a text, tweet or instant message on their favorite social media platform and you will probably get more of a detailed and informative response than in an oral board. Why? Because they were raised that way, think it is normal and they are comfortable expressing themselves this way. You need to see into their ability to communicate with people, in person not on the other end of some tech tool.
A great interview question(s) looks like this: “You have to tell your best friend their mom just died in a car accident. How would you do that?” “Now, you have to tell a total stranger their son was shot and killed. How would do that?” Then be prepared to ask “Why would do it that way?”
3. Millennials are known to change jobs rather often. Here’s a clue as to why. They aren’t quitting their jobs, they are quitting bad bosses and poor leadership. They jump ship because of who is steering it, not because it is a bad ship. Put another way, millennials are looking for a strong culture in their places of employment. They want to be challenged, recognized for doing good work that is bettering their organization and community, and they want the slackers on the team to be dealt with – all done by those in leadership positions. If you have cops bailing out of your agency, this is why.
A great interview question(s) looks like this: “What is your definition of leadership?” “Are you a leader?” “Why or why not?” “Describe the perfect boss.” “Describe a bad boss.” “What would you do if you were assigned to a shift that had a bad boss?” Again, follow up with the “Why would you do it that way?”
Remember, you are seeking to hire and retain folks who can and will be warriors, servants and leaders. They must be willing to stand up and defend doing the right things, at the right times, the right way and for the right reasons. They must be willing to put the wants and needs of others before their own. They must be able to influence and impact the lives of those they are sworn to protect and serve, as well as their fellow officers. That’s what warriors, servants and leaders behind the badge do. So ask questions and listen to the answers that show if they have the warrior, servant, leader mindset.
So, in your oral boards, academies, field training programs and in-service training create the culture that reinforces this mindset of a warrior servant and leader. As leaders of your agencies, set, communicate and live the expectations and acceptable way of thinking, talking and acting (i.e., culture) that reinforces this mindset.
An Old Timer Who Gets Millennials
Pat Welsh is an author, speaker, trainer, and expert witness. A retired major from the Dayton Police Department (OH), Pat is the author of the best new release, Warrior, Servant, Leader: Life Behind the Badge (2015), and Warrior, Servant, Leader: Life Behind the Cross (2018) and co-author of the best seller, Healing Happens (2014).
Pat is known as a dynamic, entertaining yet impactful author, speaker and trainer who engages his audiences to connect with and influence others at work, home, and the community. Pat is most proud of this evaluation from an USAF Security Forces NCO, after attending his WSL Mindset Training, “Thank you! You have given me the tools to help save my marriage.”