Employee Retention: Preventing a “Great Resignation” in Your Public Safety Agency

by | November 30, 2023

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the “Great Resignation” is officially over. Says economics reporter Ben Casselman, “The rate at which workers voluntarily quit their jobs has fallen sharply in recent months … and is only modestly above where it was before the pandemic disrupted the U.S. labor market.” Obviously, this sounds like great news for the economy in general, but just a week after Casselman’s pronouncement, Yahoo! Finance noted a LinkedIn study that showed nearly 70% of workers under age 40 expressed a desire to quit their jobs in 2023.

Between November 2021 and April 2022, an average of 4.5 million U.S. workers left their jobs every month. That number shrank to 3.6 million by July 2023 — admittedly lower, but still historically high. In the area of public safety employee retention, many agencies are operating with large numbers of unfilled vacancies. To make things even more challenging, job turnover for government workers (both local and state) is “twice the average of the previous two decades,” according to an AP News story.

The issue is even more concerning for law enforcement. A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum showed police staffing in January 2023 was almost 5% lower than in January 2020, and 2022 retirements were nearly 20% higher than in 2019.

According to the Work Institute’s latest report, year-end 2022 saw an unprecedented one-to-200 ratio of unemployed U.S. workers to job openings. And the growth in open positions has accompanied an increase in the cost of dealing with turnover. On average, the report says, it costs an agency $18,000 to replace employees when they leave.

We know from experience that it’s more expensive to train and equip public safety personnel. For example, in Florida, costs to train a new police recruit range anywhere from $100,000 to $240,000. This makes public safety employee retention even more critical.

Why are so many public safety employees throwing in the towel, and how can leadership slow the exodus?

Policy often guides the career development process, but policy isn’t personal. It takes human engagement to coach and motivate those under our charge.

The Challenge of Public Safety Employee Retention

What happens when there aren’t enough firefighters, corrections officers, dispatchers or law enforcement officers to handle calls for service? The simple answer: Our citizens are unsafe and our communities suffer.

One unexpected consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it motivated many to rethink their values and priorities. Remote work and isolation created prime opportunities for self-reflection, which prompted tens of thousands of employees to leave their current positions or search for new careers outside of their current professions.

In addition, stress and burnout took a toll on public safety employees. According to Liz Farmer, nearly a third of those working in state and local government agencies “said working during the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs.” Vaccine mandates instituted by many state and local governments likely had an impact on the separations that occurred in public safety.

Onboarding and Career Development

The process by which new employees are introduced into an organization plays a big role in both job satisfaction and employee retention. In a 2018 Gallup poll, just 12% of U.S. employees strongly agreed that their organizations did a good job of onboarding new employees. Clearly, organizations need to improve integrating new personnel into their roles.

In public safety, getting new employees ready for service is a more formal and structured process than in many other professions. Much of this depends on agency policies regarding new hires, with an acknowledgment that some organizations use quick, informal processes to get boots on the ground. According to workplace consultant Robert Gabsa, successful onboarding should focus on three main objectives:

  1. Employees need to learn what makes the organization unique. Why should they take pride in wearing your uniform? Why should they even want to work for your organization? What sets your agency apart from others?
  2. Employees need to understand how their specific job helps fulfill your agency’s mission. What is their potential for making an impact?
  3. Employees must experience the mission and values of the agency. This goes well beyond simply knowing your agency’s mission statement. Today’s employees need a clear understanding of how their role fulfills the agency’s mission. It’s equally important for them to know why they do what they do and how those efforts fit into the bigger picture.

In 2019, nearly 20% of employees reported leaving their jobs due to lacking career development opportunities. As such, it’s important to understand career development as it relates to employee retention. This includes making sure your personnel have access to different job tasks within the organization, enhancing their individual skillsets, expanding responsibilities within their current positions, and developing new skills that are geared toward or assist with their upward mobility.

Hilal and Litsey’s research substantiated the career development element and identified factors such as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, and advancement or growth as key motivators that reduce police turnover. Maio et al found committed employees are likely to engage in spontaneous, innovative behaviors when the work is meaningful and fits between job requirements and an employee’s own ideals, values or standards. Although this comes naturally for most public safety personnel, once those values or standards are challenged, an employee’s dedication to the organization or even the job itself may diminish.

Public Safety Management

There’s abundant research supporting the importance of management and supervision when it comes to public safety employee retention. Simply put, if your agency suffers from toxic or ineffective leadership, your personnel are much less likely to stay. And those who decide to weather the storm likely won’t be happy or productive.

A 2021 Gallup workplace analysis found 52% of exiting employees indicated their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving. Other research revealed 78% of employees said their departure could have been prevented by the employer. Only about a third of former employees said they even had a conversation with their manager about their dissatisfaction before they quit. Sadly, these statistics tell us one of the biggest reasons employees decide to leave is simply because leaders weren’t making an active effort to keep them.

Motivation for Employee Retention

What’s not surprising is that the aforementioned elements are all interdependent. Effective onboarding and career development require strong leadership and effective policies. Take away either element and motivation also goes away. Simply put, unhappy employees or those who aren’t challenged on the job won’t be motivated to perform. And they won’t stay.

While examining ways to increase public safety employee retention, Hilal and Litsey’s research identified key variables that led to dissatisfied, unmotivated employees. These include supervision, working conditions, interpersonal relations and company policies. It’s no surprise that role ambiguity also plays an important role in employee motivation. If your employees don’t know what’s expected of them, they have little incentive to perform. Role ambiguity also comes with significant side effects, including anxiety, depression, tension, anger, fear, decreased motivation and reduced job satisfaction.

What happens when there aren’t enough firefighters, corrections officers, dispatchers or law enforcement officers to handle calls for service? The simple answer: Our citizens are less safe and our communities suffer.

If you aren’t engaged and don’t know your people, they will have little incentive to perform. Too often, organizations focus on extrinsic motivational factors such as compensation. While many assume workers leave jobs primarily because of compensation, that’s only part of the equation. A 2021 Pew Research Center study revealed 37% of people who quit a job cited low pay as a major reason. Other factors included poor opportunities for advancement, not feeling respected, lack of flexibility and concerns about childcare, among others.

Organizations that compensate employees handsomely but don’t invest in their wellbeing experience as much or more turnover than their lower-paying counterparts. According to Sebatian Buck of Fast Company, “only 29% of people are thriving at work, and only one third of managers have any strategy for work well-being.” Therefore, it’s essential for public safety organizations to understand and identify ways to leverage the intrinsic motivation in each employee, enhancing job satisfaction through the work itself.

What You Can Do

It’s no mystery that employee turnover comes with a hefty price tag. In public safety, the true costs are unmeasurable because of the adverse impact on the communities we serve. Therefore, it’s important for your organization to communicate with employees and ensure leadership is engaged 100% of the time.

Consider these five tips for enhancing public safety employee retention:

  1. Make sure you are connected and engaged: This only occurs when leaders know their people and communicate regularly with them. Gallup’s 2021 analysis found 43% of employees spoke to a coworker about their intent to leave. In addition, 36% were actively looking for another job one or more months before leaving their current employer. This doesn’t just happen — engaged leaders recognize issues and strike up a dialogue with their personnel before the situation gets to critical mass.
  2. Be an empathetic leader: This means listening to employee complaints, addressing personnel problems and adequately prioritizing your employees’ workload. People like to be heard and they need to feel like you have their backs. Listening and regular communication enhances employee satisfaction.
  3. Empower your people: Identify creative solutions to common problems and personalize the workload in a manner that leverages employee strengths, while accounting for their weaknesses. Being an advocate for your people doesn’t mean acquiescing to every employee’s desire; however, it does require establishing trust and enhancing the rapport among your employees.
  4. Recognize employee success: Encourage and inspire your people by celebrating their efforts and accomplishments. This doesn’t mean participation trophies for everyone, but it does involve recognition of r individual efforts in such a way your people feel valued and empowered.
  5. Help struggling employees: When you know your people and stay engaged with them, you will also notice when they are not performing up to your expectations or are not happy while on the job. Take time to listen to their needs, while also taking time to focus on their career development aspirations. Although agency policy often guides this process, policy isn’t personal. It takes human engagement to coach and motivate those under our charge. Coaching makes employees feel appreciated, valued and connected to the agency.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical nature of public safety agencies can make working in these organizations feel anything but personal. These agencies are policy driven and require a great deal of structure to accomplish their mission, but a rigid mentality can be counterproductive to successful public safety employee retention. Recognize that people are the single biggest resource we have. It’s important to establish policies that foster adequate onboarding and enhance career development opportunities. Identifying appropriate personnel for leadership positions is also paramount. Today’s leaders must be personable, flexible, knowledgeable and engaged with their employees. It’s important we get it right from the first day we hire new personnel.

We can’t stop all turnover, but we can acknowledge that excessive turnover comes with big costs to both the agency and the community. It’s in everyone’s interest to take steps to rein it in. Even small reductions in employee loss rates can have a big impact on the financial and cultural wellness of your agency.

Motivate employees, invest in their development, and show them what’s expected. You can’t eliminate resignations and job-hopping altogether, but with some effort, you can slow the flow of people walking out the door.


Note: This article, originally published August 8, 2022, has been significantly updated and revised.

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more