"Off the record" are three words that should raise a red flag. The term was allegedly coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was president. He held press conferences including "off the record" portions that were intended to be heard only by those attending, with strict instructions not to share with anyone else. As the usage of the term grew, its meaning changed. It was a way to guide journalists in a specific direction without exposing the source. In today's law enforcement world, off the record applies to more than just journalistic interest.
Most supervisors, managers, and other command staff have an open-door policy, meaning anyone can stop by and speak directly to them in confidence. The process starts off with good intentions, but often turns out to be a double-edged sword. The first cut consists of the type of information shared, and the second is what you must do with it. When supervisors are given information, they become involved, and own it.
There are times when casual conversations don't pass any threshold to act. There are other times when you have no choice but to act. Your failure to act could lead to lawsuits and damage to your career. For that not to happen, you must have a game plan well before the knock on your door.
Never establish a blanket "what's said here, stays here" environment.
First, you must never establish a blanket "what's said here, stays here" environment. When someone wants to discuss something confidential, set the ground rules up front. Acknowledge the open-door policy but add a disclaimer: "If you give me information that by policy or law I have to act on, I will do so." If they don't want to talk to you after your disclaimer, encourage them to contact human resources or internal affairs anonymously.
Most conversations are usually fine. For example, maybe someone doesn't like their supervisor's leadership style, saying it's micromanaging. If no policies or laws are being broken, then it remains a confidential conversation that needs no action. However, if the person being discussed is one of your supervisors, it still might be something to follow up on. To protect yourself, and the subordinate who brought you the information, I would do three things:
1. Document your decision. Include your disclaimer and a short summary of the conversation. Add how you looked at it for policy or law violations and found none. State that you asked them to come back to you with any other concerns.
2. Speak with the other person. Without naming names or giving out specific information, discuss and review leadership styles. Speak in general terms about micromanaging. Remind them you are here to help them. End the conversation on a positive note. Document this conversation in your notes as well.
3. Follow up. Check with the subordinate and see if your talk with his or her supervisor had any effect. Accept that you may never get rid of their negative perceptions. Check to see if this is an isolated concern, or if others on the squad feel the same way. There might not be any policy violations but there might be room for improvement.
On the other hand, serious complaints are considered easier to deal with because they are clear cut. For topics like sexual harassment, EEOC complaints, or violations of the law, what you need to do is clearly defined. You cannot turn away and ignore these types of complaints or you become part of the problem and subject to discipline yourself. Once you are made aware, you must act regardless of the subordinate's request for anonymity.
I once had a member of my platoon come to me about a problem with his sergeant. I felt the issue should be discussed with our captain, even though no policies had been broken. In speaking with the captain, the subordinate claimed it must have been a misunderstanding, and said things were fine between him and his sergeant. I was stunned by the quick turnaround and realized this had actually been a case of a person wanting me to help him get his way.
That incident taught me a valuable lesson about an open-door policy. You must be careful not to be manipulated. When some subordinates don't get want they want, they can get creative in finding ways until they do; their creativity usually includes you.
Not every conflict rises to the level of your involvement. There is a saying: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Remember that your good intentions are wrapped around policy and procedure, regulations, and law. Stray from that, and you will be looking down the wrong road.
Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience.