a mine field
If you don't want ethics training to turn into this, read on. (iStockphoto) If you don't want ethics training to turn into this, read on. (iStockphoto)
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Those who teach, learn.
As I mentioned last month in Chiefs, Golf and Double Standards, I train on police ethics and leadership, so I'm a constant student of both. I research both topics and I'm frequently taught even more by recruits and officers.
In fact, I had a t-shirt made that says, Stop Learning, Stop Living. A recruit told me that after he privately pointed out a mistake I'd made instructing on probable cause. When I came back later in the same academy class to train on courtroom testimony, I did a public mea culpa and unveiled my t-shirt in the recruit's honor.
I'm pleased to say, I'm still learning. I recently got taught a BIG lesson in a police ethics training session. If the officers had not taught it to me when they did, I could have ended up in a minefield.
It seemed like a good idea.
The day before the ethics training, I assigned an Ethics Needs Survey as homework and said we'd be discussing it in class the next day. You can click on the survey below. I thought this was a dandy idea and would generate some really good discussion. I was clueless.
That night there was a knock on my door and three officers asked if they could come in. They said they would not be completing the survey. They were uncomfortable putting any of their answers in writing -- even anonymously. They said "someone" could analyze their handwriting. When I said I'd keep the surveys, they still expressed fear they might reach "certain people" who would use them in retaliation.
The officers told me they didn't think many, if any, other officers would complete the survey and I'd either get a wall of silence when I attempted a class discussion -- or worse. I wasn't sure what "or worse" might be, but I didn't want to find out.
I wasn't about to fly in, detonate a minefield of accusations and retaliations, or seed closeted suspicions and rancor, and then fly out.
So what did I do the next day? I said that it had come to my attention not everyone felt comfortable with the homework assignment. After the laughter subsided, I said we would not be discussing the survey. After the collective sigh of relief, I said the survey was something the agency's leadership could address, or not. Just as they could choose to address, or not, the fact that officers did not feel comfortable discussing the survey at an in-service training.
When ethics training may -- or may not -- be a waste.
As long as what goes on in the department is inconsistent with what is being taught, any ethical training program will be nothing more than lip service and a waste of valuable time and resources.
That's the view held by Kevin Gilmartin and John Harris in their article Law Enforcement Ethics ... The Continuum of Compromise. (Web link below)
I understand what they are saying, but I respectfully disagree. If you accept their premise, a department is either ethical, in which case it wouldn't need training (or it would only need training to stay that way) or it is unethical, in which case training is a waste.
As with much of ethics, I don't think it's that simple. There are areas in-between total consistency or inconsistency in what goes on in the department and training. Those areas can include:
- Unexplored territory, so that we don't know whether it's consistent or inconsistent with the training or
- Consistency with the training but there is an inaccurate perception of inconsistency or
- A department in transition—old leadership that was inconsistent with the ethics training has been replaced by new leadership that is consistent—but that change hasn't yet been assimilated by officers. (This could also be considered unexplored territory or an inaccurate perception.)
In these in-between areas, ethics training may raise questions that shake up a department, have it evaluate itself, and come out the other side wiser, more open and more ethical.
In the training that nearly blew up in my face, we went on to have a lively, engaging, highly interactive discussion. At one point I had to stand on a chair to moderate. Since I'm 5'1" tall, that may not seem like a big deal. But, it's a trainer's high to have so many people wanting to participate in a discussion at the same time that you have to become a traffic control tower.
After I'd left, the chief told me that she had officers lined up outside her door the next day to talk to her. She viewed this as very positive. So did I.
I got lucky. I decided I'd rather get smarter.
Learning from an expert.
After donning my Stop Learning, Stop Living t-shirt, I contacted Neal Trautman, Ph.D., Executive Director of the National Institute of Ethics.
Neal is an enthusiastic proponent of assessing the needs of your learning group before you try to teach them, especially in more provocative subjects like ethics. What they need may be very different from what you think they need. Amen.
Neal said confidential surveys have worked best for him. He offered these guidelines:
- Make them truly confidential. For example, attach an envelope to the survey so respondents can place it in the envelope and seal it.
- If the topics are sensitive, design the questions with quantifiable answers respondents can select ("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"). This addresses the concern their handwriting might be recognized.
- If possible, distribute the surveys several days before the class so respondents are not asked to complete them while sitting next to other employees.
- Consider using internet surveys so employees may take the survey in private.
- If you are going to depend on other people to hand out the surveys, write specific instructions for them to read that anticipate questions the respondents might have.
Below are two web links to surveys that the National Institute of Ethics has used in its Certificate of Integrity Program.
But I wondered,
If officers feel they can't speak freely and openly on ethical issues, isn't training a waste until leadership addresses this inconsistency?
Neal didn't think so. He had found officers nationwide commonly feel that way. He'd also experienced valuable ethics training -- as long as the trainer:
- Gathers honest, truthful information about the relevant ethical issues from officers. Anonymity is the most likely way to do this.
- Does not sidestep the survey truths, but address them with a personal passion and right intention for tackling the "hard" topics.
- Respectfully confronts those that need to hear the truth.
As Neal concluded,
"A true friend tells you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear."
Stop Learning, Stop Living.
Those officers that knocked on my door are true friends. Thanks to them, I learned a lot. It's great to be alive.