When It Comes to Reputation, Perception Is Reality

by | June 14, 2023

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here and hello again. In my last article, I shared a bunch of quotes about the value of one’s reputation, including a quote from my father, “All you have is your reputation.”

In fact, my dad delivered a great lesson to me on reputation when I was in Catholic grade school in San Francisco in the 50s. When he got home from World War II in 1945, he got a job at the sewer plant near San Francisco Bay as a stationary engineer. During the years he worked there, I had more baseballs than another other kid in the city—but I did not know why they were all discolored. Dad later transitioned to a job at San Francisco General Hospital (also as a stationary engineer) and most of the time he worked early mornings, getting home by 1530 or so. Oddly enough, I walked home from St. Michael’s when classes ended at 1500 and met Dad, and we would both walk back to St. Michael’s. Why?

My dad taught all the nuns at St. Michael’s Convent how to drive! Seriously. The nuns all came from Ireland and many had never seen a car, let alone drive one, in the Old Country. S&C Ford donated a Ford station wagon to St. Michael’s for the nuns’ usage, including occasionally driving kids around. It was relatively easy for a nun to get a driver license—what DMV examiner is going to turn down a nun for a license out of fear of burning in hell for the next hundred thousand years? So they all had licenses to drive, yet their skill sets in this arena were very weak.

So Dad would take a nun out for an hour-long driving lesson every day—every day a different nun. He would teach them parallel parking, some thoughts on following and turning, and all the things necessary to be a safe driver. I dutifully sat in the back seat of this massive “Yank Tank” wagon and did my homework as Dad sat in the right front seat and gave directions and a lot of praise to the given nun for her efforts.

At the end of the hour, Dad would have the nun park the car in the convent garage and he would set up an appointment with another nun for the next day and we would then walk home. We would talk sports and school and who was doing what in the neighborhood. When we got home, Mom and Grandma would have dinner ready—and my could they cook—and on the way up the stairs Dad would always say, “Thank you for your help today.”

Not only do we have to behave correctly, but we have to be aware of “optics” and what things “look like” to people who are watching.

This went on month after month and year after year. One day as we were walking up the stairs at home after the driving lesson and Dad said, “Thanks you for your help today,” I said, “Dad, I didn’t do anything to help.” He stopped me on the stairs and said, “Without your help, I could not teach the nuns how to drive.” When it became obvious I was still confused, he continued: “Never be in a car alone with a woman other than your wife.”

Remember this was mid to late 50s and Dad (who gave me so many lessons in life both directly and indirectly through his behaviors) was well ahead of his time. This conversation led to a discussion on perception and rumors and while he did not use the term “optics,” that was the lesson I took from the conversation.

Fast-forward to training at the California Highway Patrol. If you were transporting a woman, there was a special radio code at the start of the transport—including time and mileage—and again when the transport was completed. When I was a sergeant, I talked to my motorcops about the importance of following a transportation unit to the jail as a witness for the “just in case file”—and that paid off a couple of times.

Let’s bring this issue a little closer to home. Let’s say you’re in court on some arrest you made with a partner. You have both been subpoenaed by the prosecution. Many times, the defense lawyer will ask the judge to “exclude” you from hearing your partner’s testimony. The defense lawyer’s hope, of course, is your partner will say something under oath different than what you will say—and thus give the defense lawyer something to make an argument to the jury: “Officer X said XYZ and Officer Y said XYQ, so this proves my client is innocent.”

Your partner is waiting in the hallway of the court building for their turn to testify and the clock closes in on noon. So the judge says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we will now be taking our lunch break. Be back at 1:30—and Officer Snodgrass, you are still under oath and I am directing you not to discuss your testimony with your partner!”

Of course you will abide by this directive from the judge. As you file out of the courtroom with the jury and spectators, you see your partner. “I cannot talk about the case with you,” you say, and she/he says, “No problem.” Then you walk together down the hallway talking about sports, office goings-on, relationships, new cars and other topics.

Here’s the thing. Members of the jury are likely watching you and your partner. While YOU know you’re not talking about the case, THEY “know” you have violated the judge’s directive. And their certainty can turn into baggage that may bias them against you.

I am closing in on my word count, so I will continue this discussion in the next article. But let’s see where are. Not only do we have to behave correctly (and that is what you and your partner are doing), but we have to be aware of “optics” and what things “look like” to people who are watching. To many people, “perception is reality”—and that is where we will start our next discussion.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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