How To Survive a Reprimand

Dealing with a reprimand at work can be a very distressing situation. Sometimes we create the situation and sometimes the situation is created for us. Either way, it's best to develop a strategy so you are prepared if and when it happens.

Amaury Murgado Headshot

When you are made aware of a complaint against you deemed to have merit, you should have a strategy ready. (Photo: Getty Images)When you are made aware of a complaint against you deemed to have merit, you should have a strategy ready. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dealing with a reprimand at work can be a very distressing situation. Sometimes we create the situation and sometimes the situation is created for us. Understanding that not all reprimands are created equal allows you to take a look at them honestly; you either deserved one or you didn't. Either way, it's best to develop a strategy so you are prepared if and when it happens. For the sake of this discussion, we will assume that a reprimand is a formal type of discipline that stays in your work file and is available for scrutiny as a public record.

The Process

The process begins with some type of complaint. The complaint either comes from within or outside of your agency. Complaints will have to be deemed with or without merit. The only way to know which one is for the agency to initiate some type of inquiry, which is considered somewhat less than a full investigation.

If the inquiry finds enough information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that an agency policy may have been violated, the inquiry is raised to the level of an internal affairs investigation. Depending on what your agency's policies dictate, the investigation can be handled by your immediate supervisor, another supervisor, or a member of an internal affairs section. Regardless of who conducts the investigation, the standard for determining guilt in an administrative investigation involves the preponderance of evidence.

The preponderance of evidence standard is very subjective (opinion based) instead of being objective (fact based). In other words, the decision on how to evaluate evidence which will be used to determine your guilt or innocence is based on the investigator's opinion on their interpretation of events, using a 51% versus 49% probability format. Administrative investigations do not use the stronger criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

For example, I was on an appeals board where a sergeant was fighting a suspension he received for not taking a report. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that if you looked at the scenario the sergeant found himself in, our policy at the time clearly stated that taking a report wasn't required. His captain thought otherwise and pushed for an investigation. But because the internal affairs investigation (conducted by a lieutenant in the captain's chain of command) agreed with the captain's point of view, the discipline was administered. During the appeal, I could not convince my fellow board members that the discipline made no sense and it was the first time in my career that I had seen discipline issued without a policy violation.

Internal affairs investigations are covered by the Officer Bill of Rights, otherwise known as Garrity Rights, which protect public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during investigatory interviews conducted by their employers. We will not venture into criminal allegations but stick to discussing possible agency policy violations.

My only comment about criminal allegations is to be very clear on one point. If you are being read your Miranda warnings, you are not in an internal affairs investigation but in a criminal one. The distinction is very important. In one you may lose your job, but in the other, you may end up in jail or even prison. When someone is about to read you your Constitutional rights, don't believe them when they tell you not to worry and that this is just procedure. That should tell you everything you need to know about the person about to ask you questions.

Take the opportunity to read all witness statements against you. Take notes while you read so you can bring them up during your interview. (Photo: Getty Images)Take the opportunity to read all witness statements against you. Take notes while you read so you can bring them up during your interview. (Photo: Getty Images)

If You Deserve the Reprimand

When you are made aware of a complaint against you, you will know if it has merit or not. The question then becomes, if it has merit, what do you do about it? There are several schools of thought on what to do.

One school of thought states you should fight the complaint no matter what. Following this theory, it doesn't matter whether or not you did anything wrong. The only concern is keeping you from receiving discipline. This tactic revolves around finding some type of procedural error or any other circumstance surrounding the incident that will allow you to influence the preponderance of evidence in your favor. Remember, all you need is a subjective 51% to rule the day. This involves turning your back to the truth and sidestepping your own actions by finding fault with the system. Going this route signals a lack of character and integrity.

The other school of thought involves accountability and responsibility. If you did the violation, own it. Unless you were malicious in your decision-making, you probably made a simple mistake or interpreted the policy incorrectly. Give your thoughts on what you did and why during your internal review. Be honest, accept responsibility, and if need be, apologize. Explain that you understand what went wrong and that you have learned from your mistake.

It's been my experience that when you accept responsibility for your actions, things are placed in a much better perspective for those that have to decide what form of discipline is required. Most administrators take into consideration that people make mistakes, so what they really look for is how people deal with them. You can either learn from your mistakes or make things worse by ignoring them.

If You Don't Deserve It

Life isn't fair and sometimes we get caught up in the drama of office politics. Discipline is often given out because of convenience or politics. Since history is written by the victor, not all reprimands are created equal. Words have meaning and how the investigation is written leads to the outcome; it's a form of bias. The subjective standard of 51% has bitten many an officer for no good reason other than it made the agency look like it took care of a problem. In today's world, a mere accusation takes on the form of the 1800s Napoleonic Code of guilty until proven innocent.

During an internal investigation, you are usually the last person interviewed. You will be given the opportunity to read all witness statements against you. Make sure you do, because that will let you know where you stand not only in terms of the severity of the complaint, but with the people involved. Especially if others from your agency are involved. Obviously, you will find out quickly who is representing the truth and who is not. Take your time reading the material and take notes while you read so you can bring them up during your interview.

Though your interview is driven by the questions of the investigator, there is always a point where you are asked if there is anything you'd like to add. If you haven't had an opportunity to address some key issues in the testimony, it's at that point you should whip out your notes and make sure all your concerns are put on record. If you don't put them on record, they don't exist, which is especially important if you are already considering an appeal.

If you are given a reprimand, you will be asked to sign it. Failure to do so can be seen as an act of insubordination. Signing doesn't mean you agree with the outcome but that you received it. Instead of not signing, sign and add, "I do not concur with the findings." If you are going to write a rebuttal letter, you can also state, "I do not concur with the findings. Please see my rebuttal letter."

A rebuttal letter becomes part of the discipline packet. This is your opportunity to write a detailed response to the complaint and include your concerns, especially those from the notes you took while being interviewed. Though your agency has the final say, you are at least guaranteed that your side of the story is presented.

A bit of a warning, however: writing a rebuttal letter will be seen as controversial. It will keep you on the radar longer, as administrators don't like pushback. At this point, I say who cares. If you are going to fight a reprimand you feel you don't deserve then go as big as you can. Keep in mind that there might be other remedies you can use based on your agency policies, procedures, or collective bargaining agreements.

Some Takeaways

Receiving a reprimand is not the end of the world. It might seem that way if it keeps you from taking the next promotional exam or trying out for a specialty unit like SWAT. It's also not very amusing to know that people are talking about your faux pas behind your back. But don't worry, it won't last long. Someone else will come along and take your place.

The bottom line is that only you know for sure if your reprimand was well deserved or not. If you violated some policy or procedure, accept responsibility, learn from it, and move on. If it was not deserved, then you need to decide if you are going to fight it or leave it alone. If you do fight it, take it as far as you can go. Once you start, it doesn't matter the scale of your response; it's all viewed the same by administrators. If you are going to push back, then push back hard.

The positive side of a reprimand is that it's a great learning tool and a window into your future with your agency. You learn exactly how your administration acts, how politicized an investigation can be, and where you stand in the agency's eyes. After all, knowledge is power. During any investigation you have no friends; you only have the knowledge of what you did or did not do. If you remember why you became a law enforcement officer in the first place, you'll survive any reprimand, justified or not.

Amaury Murgado is a retired special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 30 years of experience. He also retired a master sergeant from the Army Reserve.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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