How to Recognize Quality Applicants and Help Them Grow Into Quality Officers
Demanding work hours. Overcrowding. Occupational danger. Noncompetitive compensation. Staffing shortages. Burnout. These are only a few of the reasons why the turnover rate in the corrections industry is at an all-time high. In fact, the American Correctional Association has researched turnover rates and found that on average, an estimated 35,700 openings for correctional officers and bailiffs are expected each year because of high staff turnover (American Correctional Association, 2023, Pg. 2). All positions in a jail or prison facility feel the wrath of turnover. From the administration to the front line, when staff watch their peers drop like flies it’s no wonder the loss of motivation and productivity can spread like wildfire. Not only are the mindsets of staff challenged, but they are left questioning what the future holds for the facility, and for themselves. Their minds spin with thoughts like, “I’m so overwhelmed with my workload, how quickly will the open positions be filled?” and “Will the positions be filled just to be filled or will they be filled with quality individuals?”
If you’re a recruiter or have been part of the recruiting process, you’re familiar with the high stress and pressure that comes with trying to fill positions. Sometimes it almost seems like the facility has turned into a revolving door where someone walks out just as someone is replaced. Hiring is a difficult task in and of itself, but it’s filling positions with the “correct people” that is the most grueling part. Recruiters understand just as much as the trainers, administrators, and front-line officers that not just anybody can work in corrections. Anyone who has worked inside the walls knows that it takes a very particular type of person to manage the stress that comes with the role. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the unfit applications from rolling in. Sifting through applications and trying to locate the ideal candidate is a hurdle, especially when you’re inclined to fill the position as quickly as possible. So, what happens when the recruiter feels like they don’t have a solid selection of candidates to choose from but they’re on a time constraint to fill a position? Do they “make do” with what they have, or do they wait until the next batch of applicants and hope it’s better than the last? The answer to this question depends on the needs of the facility, including the type of role it is and how urgently it needs to be filled. However, all facilities typically have a rule of thumb when it comes to the qualifications for an entry-level position, and that is to specifically look for candidates that have growth potential.
What to Look For
So, what does “potential” look like? For starters, let’s clear up any confusion on what “potential” means. We’re not talking about the kind of potential where they might eventually become a good fit after some training. The kind of potential we’re talking about involves having a solid foundation with possibly a few areas to work on. Of course, good trainers can take the runt of the litter and make them the stud of the team. But why force the trainers to go through that? If there’s a chance to select an applicant that has good values, a good work ethic, and integrity, they have potential. These are the ones to consider hiring as they have a strong foundation with room to grow and mold into. Because, if we’re being realistic, we know that it’s unlikely to receive applications from the “perfect” candidate. You know, the individuals that have earned a Purple Heart and three Master's degrees and prefer to work weekends. Although this is the description of a perfect candidate, receiving one of these applications is as rare as seeing a unicorn. However, coming across a good, quality application with potential is much more realistic. It sometimes feels like trying to find the needle in the haystack, but it’s well worth the wait.
While narrowing down the applications to those who have potential and could be good considerations to hire, it’s important to understand their level of integrity. Knowing if they are honest and have strong moral principles helps identify if they’d have a solid work ethic to contribute to your team. If you want to quiz a candidate on their integrity, ask them if they believe 99% is good enough. Explain a scenario where a new officer is responsible for completing rounds and it occurs to them as they wrap up their round that they skipped over the *assumed* empty cell on the other side of the pod. The administrators seem to be too overwhelmed to be asked a question about confirming an empty cell, so what should they do? Go check the empty cell or complete their round at 99%? How they answer should be a good indicator if they are worth considering for hire. Think about it, if they can’t be trusted to complete the smallest of tasks, how can they be trusted to do the biggest of tasks? It’s the small things that hold the highest level of accountability. Candidates need to understand that at some point in this job, they will be faced with work ethic obstacles. They will be tested by debating if they should just take a shortcut for their own convenience instead of sincerely fulfilling the duty they were assigned. How a candidate responds to this example scenario should either give the green light or red light if they’re welcome back. A poor candidate would say that 99% is good enough while a quality candidate understands that shortcuts are a misuse of power and can deteriorate the trust they’ve built with their team, and most importantly, lead to an unsafe facility for all.
You Found the Right Fit: What’s Next?
Once a candidate with potential has been selected, it’s up to the rest of the team to take the new boots under their wing and show them the ropes of the facility. Remember, hiring someone with potential indicates that they have room for growth, which means it's up to the team members to help the newbies grow into the officers they need on the team. The team needs to lead by example to encourage the new boots to grow into the position. Bringing in a new employee also enables the entire team to learn new perspectives since the new hires bring a fresh outlook. This can sometimes lead to finding a special niche that they may have, which can be a benefit to the whole team. Sharing a new talent collectively can help a team identify and fill any gaps that nobody realized existed in the first place.
It’s important for the long-time officers to intentionally look for the positives while onboarding new recruits. Of course, there will be times of frustration when showing the ropes. Officers will likely need to repeat themselves a couple of times and offer a few different pointers while explaining daily operations. Now, it’s important to note that there is a massive difference between the temporary annoyances that may come with onboarding a quality new hire versus realizing that the new hire is not a good fit and is only working for the paycheck. In this case, the training officer is responsible for informing the administration that the new hire is not suitable for the career and should be released. Sometimes administration can be hesitant to release the new hire as they understand that they might struggle again to refill the position. However, when they look at the bigger picture they will realize that it’s not about just filling seats. Working in this profession takes a special kind of individual and those are the people that should be in those seats. With the seemingly never-ending turnover rate spreading across the country, administrators are stuck between a rock and a hard place - either they keep their subpar officers to avoid another hiring process or they realize the need for quality officers and make the call to release the subpar ones. The solution to this problem should be clear: you always choose quality over quantity. And with that, there will be some inevitable tweaks that will need to be smoothed out. Although it may be a tad annoying, you have to remember to give some grace. Think about when you started as the new hire in the facility. You probably remember those in higher positions constantly being on the pedestal with the “my way or the highway” attitude. As we all know, those who tend to have this mindset are typically not regarded as the best leaders. If you want your new staff to grow into leaders, you and your team need to act like leaders. If you know that your team has this mindset, you’re in good hands. However, if you know that you have people on your team that are far from being good leaders, then it’s up to you to be the change you want to see. In order to take in a new recruit and help them become a quality officer, you need to lead by being a quality leader.
Where Does Leadership Come In?
Quality leaders recognize other quality leaders because they notice that they are not the ones barking orders. Instead, quality leaders insist on hearing other people’s thoughts and opinions before delegating tasks as they realize that their growth is dependent on understanding others’ perspectives. People in high-ranking positions typically make decisions that affect their team’s safety and well-being without consulting the entire team. Now, this is a leadership style that has always existed and probably always will. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good leadership style. There will always be people who abuse their authority. Whether it’s neglecting to listen to their subordinates or using aggressive methods of control, there are many leaders around the world that are not quality leaders. This can cause massive damage to any department as an effective leader is an essential piece of any team structure. A quality team is impossible without a quality leader as it can’t move forward collectively without having a solid foundation of trust and respect. Understanding the value of investing in a team is something that any quality leader should be capable of. They acknowledge that having open-door, engaging dialogues builds trust and respect, and shows the rest of the team that they appreciate the work they do. Quality leaders recognize the importance of needing their staff to want to work together and be the best collective team that can possibly be.
The Importance of Team Mentality
While there is a lot of weight on the shoulders of a quality leader, it is important to remember that it isn’t 100% their duty to build a strong team of influential individuals. Each team member is responsible for taking ownership and holding themselves accountable. Though a strong leader can pave the way for the rest of the team to follow, the leader can’t hold everyone’s hand. The team members need to have their own unwavering mindset. Those who have a strong inner dialogue don’t hinder the failures they’ve made. Instead of becoming hesitant after a mistake, a quality team member takes it as a lesson to learn from and uses it as a stepping stone to further their growth and become more confident in their decision-making. It's crucial to learn how to pick yourself up after a mistake and get ready to tackle the task again and be there for support when your other team members experience it. Think about how you would want your new hire to respond to a poor situation. Would you rather have them confess to you that they may have made a mistake or run the other direction and hope you don’t find out? What you envision as the “right” response in your head is how you need to carry out your actions during and following a poor situation. When training a new team member, it’s important to remember that your behavior will likely be replicated. Each new officer presents a blank slate, and quality leaders lead by example.
There are obstacles in every jail and prison. Each, of course, are unique to the facility, operations, leadership, team members, but most importantly, the mindset of each individual. Those who work in corrections need a “growth mindset” to be successful in this industry, and that mindset starts from Day 1. Note that success doesn’t necessarily mean rising up in rank, it can look different for everyone. The word “success” in corrections can only be measured by integrity, dedication, and accountability. From the moment of entering the corrections profession, any new officer will need to understand that working in a jail environment takes its toll, and they need to be strong-willed enough for the mental impact it can take. To be a correctional officer means to uphold the badge you swore on by defending the line between order and chaos. And sometimes, that will create battles of its own. Anyone new to this profession needs to understand that it’s normal to struggle with the job and it’s also OK to reach out and ask for help when negative thoughts creep in. Quality officers understand that asking for help is not a weakness or vulnerability, but rather an important strength, and that when confronted with a challenge or failure, it’s an opportunity to rise from the ashes. We can’t control the current staffing crisis and the burnout from constant turnover, but what we can control are the individuals we are bringing in and the lessons we are teaching them. It’s our job as quality leaders and team members to uplift the new boots and help them grow into the solid officers that we would want to manage our future facilities.
The Office of Correctional Health, American Correctional Association (2023). Staff Recruitment and Retention in Corrections: The Challenge and Ways Forward [PDF].