01 June 2009

When Character Is King

In order to avoid unnecessary injuries, Boulder County Jail Chief Larry Hank asked training officers Doug Caven and Ron Kaundart to reduce the extra-curricular “horseplay” during in-service defense tactics training. So Caven and Kaundart opened the next training by explaining the new guidelines.

Not long thereafter, Hank visited the classroom as he often does, but in the course of his visit, he put an officer in a headlock.

“He messes around with the people he likes,” Caven said, but the chief’s actions still undermined the new guidelines, and during a break, Caven and Kaundart headed down the hall to Hank’s office.

At first, Hank said his reaction was to avoid making too big a deal about it, but he listened, and after Caven and Kaundart left, he asked himself, “What would I do if it were someone other than me?”

Then he drafted a letter suspending himself for 8 hours without pay, and he sent copies to Sheriff Joe Pelle and to officers Caven and Kaundart.

Kaundart had not expected Hank to suspend himself, but Hank’s actions demonstrated the priority of the policy and reinforced the trust necessary for officers to approach their supervisors.

The Boulder County Jail emphasizes character, competence, and open communication in its employee evaluation process.

At a quarterly personal management interview, or PMI, a supervisor and employee discuss any areas the employee does not meet department standards, and then they make an action plan so that they can evaluate progress at the next interview.

This process keeps employees from being blindsided by annual evaluations, and the descriptions of character, competence, and communication help the department maintain the high standards necessary for law enforcement agencies.

If after this process the employee does not reach department standards, the problem will go on the employee’s annual evaluation, and he or she will not receive a full pay raise.

The jail also selects an employee of the month from nominations turned in by supervisors and employees. Hank said the command staff looks for the nomination that best describes how a person showed particular character qualities, competence, and good communication.

“It’s really important that, when you can, you recognize people for character,” Hank said, but if leaders do not maintain high standards, Hank said it would demoralize those officers who are trying to do the right thing.

Hank described a situation in which an officer committed a small infraction, and then was not honest about it. In the end, Hank terminated the employee not for the original infraction but because the dishonesty made it impossible to trust the officer’s word.

Caven has known Hank since having him as a shift supervisor and has seen him change over the years and set the example—whether talking to his officers or interacting with inmates.

“We didn’t have any fear,” Caven said, “we just walked in and had a conversation, and the problem was addressed.”

For Hank, the accountability is what mattered. “Sometimes it takes someone to say it’s not right,” he said. “They’re the real guys who embraced the character that day.”

Or as stated in the Boulder County Mission Statement: “We are governed by a set of laws, not men....”

This article first appeared in Character First's business bulletin series 4. It is reprinted here with permission from Character First and Strata Leadership.

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