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Respecting individual and cultural differences: a prescription for effective supervision.

Historically, police work could be viewed as a safe haven for politically conservative white males. A typical recruit of the not-so-distant past had only a high school degree and served in the military or worked in a blue-collar or entry-level white-collar occupation for a short time before applying for the position of police officer.

In most cases, veteran officers served as teachers to those recently hired. Consequently, rookie officers internalized the norms and values of their mentors. They quickly learned the workings of the bureaucracy and how to advance within the system. Accordingly, police managers supervised other white males who, like themselves, came primarily from the working class.


However, during the past 25 years, the composition of the work force in general, and law enforcement agencies in particular, changed dramatically. As a result, police supervisors now encounter a growing number of minority and female personnel. To perform their duties properly, therefore, supervisors must develop respect for the individual and cultural differences of all employees. This requires today's police supervisors to assume roles their predecessors never imagined.

The Prejudgment Trap

The notion of "prejudgment" as typical human behavior should not be overlooked when discussing contemporary personnel management.(1) People tend to arrange, categorize, assimilate, and judge according to previously acquired knowledge and experience. Some degree of prejudgment in itself is normal and healthy. This allows the brain to process vast amounts of information quickly. However, during the process, individuals may overcategorize, and in so doing, may create irrational, rather than rational, categories. This, in turn, creates a breeding ground for discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping.

Left unchecked, these negative thought processes lead to ethnocentrism--the tendency to view only one's own culture and customs as acceptable--and xenophobia--an irrational hatred or fear of strangers and foreigners. Neither of these acquired traits can be tolerated in the modern law enforcement agency. Supervisors, in particular, must understand the incompatibility of these traits and effective personnel management. Creating "second-class citizens" within the ranks is a guaranteed way to destroy department morale, erode citizen support, and invite damaging legal action.

The New Workforce

Pressures from minorities, court rulings, and a national commitment to social equity have gradually transformed the American workforce, including the law enforcement profession. Today, managers in all agencies--no matter the size--are more likely to supervise minorities and females. Departments should appreciate all employees' needs to believe they make a valuable contribution to the organization; few employees want to be patronized.

Therefore, supervisors' knowledge of cultural and individual differences, combined with good human relations skills, becomes critical. Primary supervisory responsibilities should include creating and maintaining an environment in which employees satisfy some of their own needs while working cooperatively to accomplish the goals and mission of the agency. Supervisors must work actively to improve relations within the workplace, avoid discrimination, and help others overcome personal prejudices.

Expecting the Worst

Unfortunately, the debilitating effects of past discrimination may condition many minority workers to expect the worst. These employees may assume that harassment, hostility, isolation, prejudice, rejection, resentment, and scapegoating will be an unpleasant, but persistent, reality in the work environment.

At the same time, female and minority employees may experience heightened sensitivity to incidents and actions that other employees would either ignore or find humorous. However, the courts have awarded substantial settlements to minority employees when evidence indicated supervisory misconduct.

In Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, for example, the court determined that a sergeant "personally participated" in the harassment of female employees by male coworkers.(2) The evidence showed that a captain in the department had knowledge of the offensive behavior, which included displays of pornographic material, but made no effort to stop the activity. Indeed, he reportedly informed the plaintiff that "boys will be boys," cautioning female employees that as women, they should expect offensive behavior and attitudes. The Federal appellate court did not agree with him, stating with regard to sexual harassment:

"We hold that the pervasive use of derogatory and insulting terms relating to women generally and addressed to female employees personally may serve as evidence of a hostile work environment. Obscene language and pornography quite possibly could be regarded as "highly offensive" to a woman who seeks to deal with her fellow employees and clients with professional dignity and without the barrier of sexual differentiation and abuse."(3)

To avoid similar incidents, supervisors with knowledge of hostile or discriminatory behavior must make every effort to thoroughly investigate and resolve these conflicts. Effective supervision demands impartiality and a sense of fairness to all employees. This begins with a sensitivity on the part of supervisors to the individual and cultural differences between employees.

Keys to Success

Today's successful supervisors possess these characteristics:

* Empathy

* Approachability

* A willingness to listen and understand other points of view

* An ability to communicate openly and honestly in all job-related matters and practice introspection regarding relationships with minority employees.

In addition, police supervisors should expect "testing" and probing by minority employees concerning the human relations philosophy of the department, as well as the supervisory commitment to ensure equal advancement opportunities. Generally, these questions are not intended to challenge policy or inflame tensions, but merely to help establish the minority employees' role in the organization. Supervisors should use these opportunities to define equitable parameters and establish a framework for fair treatment of all personnel.


All employees need competent red supportive supervisors who use good judgment and make reasonable decisions. To remain effective, today's law enforcement supervisors must develop administrative and problem solving abilities that reflect the changing demographics of the workplace in particular and of society in general. In doing so, they will not only establish constructive atmospheres within agencies but also help to build public confidence and trust.


1 Jack Holloran, Supervision (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981).

2 895 F.2d 1469 (3d Cir. 1990).

3 Id.
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Author:Bird, Jane C.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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