A while back, I was privy to a candid conversation about morale between a young new officer and a supervisor who outranked him by more than three stripes. This new officer, whom I’ll call Tim, did not appreciate the fact that paper towel dispensers in the men’s locker room had been empty for some time. Tim saw the shortage of paper towels as a glaring sign of apathy from management about officers’ welfare.
Additionally, Tim and a few other new officers were scurrying at the bottom of the seniority totem-pole during a time when the department needed continual overtime coverage due to an unexpected shortage of officers. Hence, multiple supervisors continuously relied on Tim and these other new officers to work extra hours on a weekly basis. After a month or two of coming in early or staying late, Tim started to vent his frustration that senior officers were not sharing the workload.
When Tim expressed his opinion that the supply of paper towels in the men’s locker room is also the responsibility of the highest ranking officer, i.e., the chief, his supervisor’s endearing response was, “Well, Tim, you’re smoking bananas!” Later, when Tim argued that overtime hours should be shared by senior officers across the board so as not to exhaust junior officers, he received an unsympathetic retort: “That’s the way it’s always been, the senior officers had to do it when they were junior. They’ve earned their time off and now it’s your turn. Suck it up, don’t be a whiner—you’re getting paid.” Needless to say, Tim’s brave attempt at correcting perceived injustices appeared doomed from the start.
Before anyone castigates Tim for being an ungrateful or misguided new officer, it’s worth mentioning that Tim is a member of the SWAT team, was selected for a specialty position in the department, and is a TAC officer at a local police academy. By most measures, Tim is a diligent officer who continuously seeks more challenges, strives for high principles, and generally grasps the challenges facing law enforcement. So why all the fuss about paper towels and paid overtime hours?
Besides the surface issue of locker-room supplies and work hours, Tim’s conversation with his supervisor reflects generational differences regarding work ethic, respect, role of authority, tradition, communication, knowledge retention, and training. As many of us already know, law enforcement agencies now have more generations working together than ever before since past generations are working longer while the newest generation—the “Millennials”—are entering the workforce. As a result of world events, life experiences, and upbringing, each generation conceives values that are unique to that generation. For Tim, his feelings about paper towels shows his generational belief in shared responsibility for basic matters regardless of rank or tenure, i.e., a more egalitarian view of authority common amongst Millennials. On the other hand, the supply of paper towels is more efficiently resolved at a lower chain-of-command so that the chief’s knowledge, skills, and abilities can be better utilized. Generational attitudes clearly guide one’s interpretation of particular situations and problem-solving abilities.
Undoubtedly, there are notable exceptions to every attempt at describing an entire population of people, but some generalizations can be made based on traits that are commonly observable. With respect to Millennials, the key insights shared by contemporary research are succinctly presented below in three categories:
1) The way that many Millennials were raised and socialized (“Background”).
2) The resulting set of key behavioral norms, attitudes, and belief system (“Characteristics”).
3) Some ways that management can leverage the strengths that Millennials bring to the department while building on valuable traditions and expectations (“Leadership Tools”).
As will be emphasized again later, these generalized categories are subject to discussion and certainly not the final say about Millennials.
Millennials have been…
- Routinely given a voice in family matters.
- Asked for their opinions and feelings.
- Told they are intrinsically valuable regardless of accomplishment.
Millennials have received…
- Incessant praise and recognition to build self-esteem.
- Constant guidance and support from parents.
- Choices, things, and opportunities that previous generations had to work harder and longer to obtain.
- Unprecedented and nearly unlimited access to technology and information 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Millennials have witnessed…
- 9/11, school shootings, other “random” acts of terrorism targeting civilians in the U.S. and abroad.
- Publicized scandals and corruption by authority figures in politics, religion, and business that cheated people out of promised rewards (e.g., savings, promotions, job-security, etc.) or harmed personal security/safety.
- Parents sacrificing personal and family time for work at great cost to personal and family welfare in return for negligible, uncertain, or empty rewards.
- Tasks, duties, responsibilities, processes, policies must make sense to advance a legitimate purpose; hence Millennials ask a lot of “why” questions.
- The reasons why certain acts are necessary or why certain decisions are made should be transparent, especially if they concern fundamental issues of fairness.
- More respect to a person with expertise, trust, humility, and accomplishment—not merely position of authority.
- Less trust in “working their way up” since the promise of rewards may not pan out.
- Less attention to detail and follow-through on work product (reports, projects, etc.).
- Difficulty making independent decisions and crafting persuasive, well thought-out presentations.
- Difficulty with conflict resolution—parents frequently resolved conflicts for them and thus Millennials tend to avoid confrontation.
- Strong desire for constant guidance, coaching, mentoring.
- A sharp sense for hypocrisy (whether perceived or actual).
- A high level of humanitarian awareness.
- To have a voice/opinion in many aspects of the organization.
- Direct access to management (even if wearing just shorts and sandals).
- More perks and opportunities, sometimes without awareness that previous generations had to wait longer to receive the same perks and opportunities.
- Affirmation, affirmation, affirmation…and more affirmation.
- Personal life and work must be balanced and meaningful since life is fragile and can end any minute so make the most of it now by doing things that bring happiness.
- Working hard for many years may not necessarily pay off.
- Technology is your friend and necessary for social networking, learning, accomplishment, and staying relevant, (even during meetings, especially when the boss is boring or talking about something that is not relevant…).
- They can truly make a positive difference in the organization and the world—NOW.
III. Leadership Tools
Offer more challenges, creativity, and variety to daily duties, if practical and feasible.
- Millennials are motivated by different challenges and variety beyond the daily routine, especially if promotions or specialty assignments are not available.
Ensure that orders, assignments, expectations, and requests are specific and clear—may need to be repeated.
Explain that there’s a value to learning why “things have always been done that way” while assuring that feedback is welcomed to keep policies and procedures relevant and efficient.
Make work meaningful and interesting with opportunities that are free or inexpensive, e.g., access to management, in-house training, team events, various reminders that the department values employees’ welfare to elevate commitment, loyalty, and diligence.
- For instance, some departments have offered small sleeping areas to help officers who are holding over from the graveyard shift and need some rest before going to court in the late morning.
Nurture a department culture of continual mentorship, peer support, coaching, and encouragement.
Emphasize the interconnectedness and important role that each person (and his/her family) plays in the organization.
Truly practice servant leadership. Millennials are craving inspiration as well as seeking practical instruction.
Once in a while, share with lower level staff and officers some of the challenges and difficult decisions that management must make for the department’s well-being (obviously keeping confidential matters out).
- For instance, honestly sharing some budgetary information and economic choices that the department must make in light of the city’s fiscal condition exemplifies transparency, gives people an opportunity to provide input, and quells common misunderstandings or resentment why certain training programs, resources, or equipment are not provided by the department.
Although the material above provides some valuable insight from credible sources, there is still much more to learn about Millennials and cross-generational dynamics in a law enforcement setting. For instance, most of the research on Millennials pertains to private organizations and corporations. Such organizations, especially those in the creative, technology-based, knowledge industry have more flexibility to change styles and working conditions. Law enforcement leaders must continually discern how the less flexible hierarchical nature of a law enforcement agency vested with a duty to protect the public affects how Millennials integrate into this field. Leaders must understand the behavior, assumed values, and priorities of each generation to 1) reduce interpersonal conflict, 2) actualize shared values/purpose, 3) attract and retain new officers, 4) maximize training effectiveness, and 5) successfully pass knowledge to the next generations of sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs.
Caraher, Lee. Millennials and Management: The Essential Guide to Making It Work at Work. Massachusetts: Bibliomotion, Inc., 2015.
Carpenter, Michael and Roger Fulton. Law Enforcement Management: What Works and What Doesn’t. New York: Looseleaf Law Publications, 2010.
Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. The Truth About Leadership: The No-Fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2010
Shaw, Hayden. Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2013
Henry Hsu is presently assigned to the Patrol Division as a senior officer after working the Investigations Division as a financial crimes detective with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California. He has served at FVPD for 14 years. During this time, Henry received three life-saving medals and a medal-of-courage. He is a veteran Use-of-Force Instructor and Terrorism Liaison Officer. He was selected the 2014 Officer of the Year for his department. Henry served as secretary, vice-president, and president of the Fountain Valley Police Officer’s Association 2011-2014.
Before starting his career in law enforcement, Henry practiced law with a private law firm after obtaining his J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law. He has a Master of Arts in Urban Planning from UCLA and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Social Ecology from UCI. Henry is a devoted fan of country music and enjoys reading and traveling with his wife.