Avoid Career-ending Mistakes

career ending mistakes

There are certain mistakes in the world of police supervision and management that can cancel out all of your good preparations, all your good intentions and all of the good decisions you’ve made in your quest to become a successful police leader.


Some of these mistakes are very common and unfortunately can be seen or heard around many of the coffee pots, locker rooms or hallways of police departments. Others may be less obvious. Either way, these career-ending mistakes need to be avoided if you value your reputation as a boss, if you want your subordinates and superiors to respect you and if you want to continue on a successful career path.

Some people might shake their heads at the apparent simplicity of avoiding these pit-falls. Others might feel that anyone with common sense would be smart enough to steer clear of these obvious mistakes. Maybe… but it is amazing how many police careers falter, and too often fail, as the result of good people failing to avoid these simple career traps.

Avoid: Criticism of Others

Openly criticizing your subordinates is a sure way to ensure their contempt for you and to ensure their counterproductive activities toward you. You know there are no secrets among your officers, so once the word gets out that you are bad-mouthing one, the others will realize it is only a matter of time before you bad-mouth them. In the meantime, you are dis-enfranchising all of them at the cost of their motivation, productivity and your respect. You can’t afford to lose any of those!

Openly criticizing your supervisors is also a surefire way to stifle your future career opportunities. Don’t think that your officers are impressed that your “one of the boys” when you start criticizing your bosses in front of them. Remember that you were promoted because someone wanted you on the management team. Management will soon hear of your negative comments and, as you all know, they have long memories!

Nobody likes or respects someone who talks behind another person’s back. Keep your criticisms to yourself. Also, if you are around someone who starts… take the high-road and either walk away or make it clear that you don’t think the conversations is helping any one.

Avoid: Second-Guessing

This is also known as “Monday-Morning Quarterbacking.” We’ve all made tough decisions in our careers. Most of them work out. A few don’t. That is part of the risk of the job. Your officers make decisions, you make decisions, your bosses make decisions. It has always seemed to me that the “desk-jockeys”, those who have never had to make a tough decision, those who have avoided making tough decisions, those who perhaps fear making tough decisions, are the most vocal and critical AFTER a tough decision has been made. It has also always seemed to me that the people who have made tough decisions in their career are more understanding, less critical and less vocal.

Subordinates should be encouraged to make their own decisions at the time, place and under the circumstances they were faced with at that time. It is incumbent upon their boss (you) to support those decisions whenever possible, even if those decisions are less than perfect. Remember that the best hitters in baseball only average three hits out of every ten at bats. (Of course, we want your batting average in your career to be higher than that.)

Avoid: Blaming Others

When in a position of leadership, everything that occurs is your responsibility, even the errors. Your job is to minimize the damage, correct the problem and assure that it doesn’t happen again. Some bosses believe that public flogging (figuratively, of course) is the best way to prevent future mistakes from happening. In reality, the fear of over-reaction by a boss often inhibits the performance and decision-making of employees. Rather than risk public ridicule or over-reaction, some employees would rather do as little as possible. This is not good for them, or for you, or for achieving the tasks and objectives you are trying to accomplish.

We are all human enough to make mistakes. They happen. Most mistakes are not critical or career-threatening…. they tend to be fairly mundane, unintentional and correctable. Confident and secure bosses deal with these mistakes and problems, take measures to prevent repeats and encourage their employees to move forward rather than crawl in a corner and do nothing. Placing blame on others shows you are a weak commander.

Avoid: Overspecialization

Being a specialist, in the lab, K-9, SWAT or other areas, can result in a very rewarding career. I would encourage career-minded professionals, regardless of position or rank, to seek opportunities to broaden their careers and add to their resumes by getting as much specialization and training as possible.

However, too many years in one area or specialization, especially if you excel at it and make your boss look good, can limit your career. Some bosses might consider you “too valuable” to promote or transfer. Overspecialization in one area tends to make a person a skilled technician rather than a up-and-coming leader. Specialists seldom become leaders of large units or departments. Leaders need a wide variety of skills and experiences to succeed.

Perhaps the only exception to this might be in the area of accreditation. Based on my experiences, I have seen many, many lower level officers who were given the chance to become accreditation managers quickly rising through the ranks of their agency. This is often the case because these officers, although working in a specialization, end up connecting with people of all ranks through the agency and get a focused understanding of all operations within the agency. This knowledge and the contacts made throughout the agency serves them well when promotions come around.

Avoid: Arrogance

Don’t be caught up in the power and prestige of your position. Being promoted is a goal that many aspire to, and some do achieve that goal. Others don’t. I am reminded of some advice that I heard from a crusty old sergeant who was trying to cool-off a trooper who was “strutting” a little too much. The sergeant said to him: “Ya’ know, there were a lot of troopers on this job before you got hired. They’ll be a lot of troopers on this job after you quit. You’re not special – you’re just another body filling that uniform. Too bad you’re not as good as you think you are.” The same thing can be said about all of us, no matter what job we have. A little (or a lot) of humility goes a long way!

It’s a big deal to get promoted, but do your celebrating in private. When you show up for work as a supervisor or manager, you need to remember that you’re not special. You must always be willing to help your subordinates, even in the most mundane of tasks. You must always be available and approachable to your subordinates. An arrogant attitude will make you unapproachable, and will ultimately put you out of reach, out of touch, and isolated from what is really going on in your unit.

Avoid: Conflicts of Interest

Keep in mind that the appearance of a conflict of interest can be as damaging to your career as actual corruption. Some bosses forget that their every action and every word is being observed and critiqued by their subordinates. Your conduct, appearance, work ethic and motivation must be beyond reproach. Your subordinates will feed off your behavior and conduct.

Avoid gratuities, special favors and preferential treatment if you want to be considered an officer with integrity. You need to be overly-critical of your own conduct and choices to be sure that they are in accordance with the highest standards. If there is any potential conflict, or if there could be the perception of any conflict, you must always take the “high road” and make the right choice.

As a test of your integrity, tell your people that they can do anything they see you doing. That will put the pressure on you to follow the rules you make and enforce.

Avoid: Unsavory Characters

Who are your friends and associates? Are they the kind of people that a professional law enforcement person should be associating with? There is an old saying that says: “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives.” Well, in the arena of law enforcement, we all should pay close attention to this. Some of our friends and associates outside of law enforcement may have made poor choices in their life, may like to have a few too many drinks when they go out or may not present themselves to be the most reputable or professional. If people in the community see you socializing with people who don’t have the best reputation in the community or who appear to be unsavory, they could easily make a direct association about your character and/or reputation.

Like it or not, our communities hold law enforcement professionals to a higher standard in many regards. A lot of people in the community know who you are, even though you may not know or recognize them. Some people wait for the opportunity to “catch” you doing something that could be perceived as wrong or take what you do out of context. For example, I was told years ago when I first got hired as a police officer to not go to any of the bars or restaurants in the community when I was off-duty if I wanted to have a drink or get a meal. I was told that even if I only had one beer with a pizza, that somebody in the community would see me and then the rumors would start that I was drunk, etc., etc. I took this advice, and though some might say I was overly-paranoid or too suspicious, I did what I could to keep my “community reputation” as clear as I could. Other officers I worked with back then did not.

Cultivate friends who have the same high ideals of honesty and integrity that you have, regardless of their professions, and you will be in good company.

Avoid: Sexual Harassment

This is the number one “career killer” in policing. No other act or allegation can end your career as quickly as being accused of sexual harassment. Even if you are officially “cleared”, the allegations and rumors could stay with you the rest of your career The “unofficial grapevine” of your peers, the long-memories of your bosses and your reputation in the community (if the allegation is serious enough to get into the media) could limit your promotional opportunities years from now, your chances to be picked for a special assignment or career-enhancing in-service training opportunity, etc.

In order to avoid sexual harassment, you must know what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace today. Ignoring the reality of sexual harassment in the workplace will clearly jeopardize your otherwise successful career. Know and understand the laws, your department policies, and your role and obligations as an employee and/or as a manager regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.

Avoid: Gossip & Rumors

Avoid gossip, and control rumors. Even if your department doesn’t have a policy regarding workplace rumors and gossip, understand that it is your responsibility to control your unit. You are responsible for the morale of your unit, and rumors and gossip tend to undermine morale.

Regardless of your rank or position, avoid the tendency to badmouth your peers or bosses at all costs! Unfortunately, it’s human nature to gripe, complain or talk negatively about other people. In the workplace, this can be fatal. If you badmouth one of your subordinates, word will get back to them. That could affect your dealings with that person for many years in the future. Also, your other subordinates may feel it’s just a matter of time before you badmouth them behind their back. This can cause a major problem in the respect that you must have with your people in order to get a job done.

Gossip, rumors and negativity about others has no place in the workplace. It’s your command and you are in charge. Handle it!

Avoid: Lying

Whether it is intentional or unintentional, avoid lying to anyone, anytime. Your credibility as a leader is always at stake and always being evaluated by others. Be sure of your facts before you make a statement. Be sure of your authority and limitations as a boss before you you’re your mouth about a matter. ALWAYS be honest to a fault. It will serve you well throughout your career. In fact, in repeated surveys, employees have cited “honesty” one of the most important attributes they want in a boss.

There are many career traps, some of a general nature such as noted above, some specific to your department. Know about them and understand their nature. It’s relatively easy for an intelligent, upwardly mobile officer, but you must work at it. With a little work and common sense, you can avoid falling victim to the common traps that have ended so many police careers before yours.