By Miller Mendel, Subject Matter Expert Staff
About the Author: Miller Mendel, Inc. is the creator of the eSOPH Background Investigation System used by over 2400 users at law enforcement agencies across the nation.
We all know this story. A terrific law enforcement candidate applies, sails through the hiring process, and starts their career journey. They’re eager to get aboard, drawn by camaraderie, the agency’s reputation, the interactions during the hiring process, the sense of accomplishment upon completing the academy, and the promise of an exciting career with an excellent compensation package.
Less than three years later, they’re gone. When asked why they are leaving they respond, “I got a better opportunity.” Law enforcement leaders shrug and rationalize the premature departure of a once-highly sought-after recruit as unavoidable because other agencies provided more pay or opportunities, or assume the employee wasn’t a good fit for the agency.
Many of the explanations are anecdotal or secondhand. Exit interviews rarely provide meaningful information, and even if they do, it’s too late. None of this information helps answer the critical question: what did we do, or not do, to retain them?
Recruiting is vital in today’s highly competitive job market, and retention is just as essential. Although they are distinct processes, recruiting and retention are intrinsically linked and can feed each other with important information to improve both outcomes. To better understand the effectiveness of an agency’s recruiting and retention efforts, leaders must blend statistical data with contextual and anecdotal information to paint the bigger picture and find effective solutions to keep their agency staffed. A starting point is collecting information at the critical steps of each process.
Getting interested candidates to apply is the first order of business. Catching and keeping a candidate’s attention is vital to feed the hiring pipeline. Recruiting takes many forms. There are flashy methods like billboards, wrapping patrol cars, an eye-catching recruiting booth, and unique giveaway items. There are also less formal recruiting methods such as positive community interactions with agency employees, like when a community member has a positive interaction with a dispatcher or responding officer. Interest can come from meeting a school resource officer, DARE officer, or even an officer in a coffee shop. The less formal recruiting tools are harder to quantify, but no less important. Continued engagement by recruiters with potential applicants helps keep applicants from dropping out during the hiring process.
You can gather details about what led the applicant to apply such as asking where the applicant first heard about the agency on the application form or tracking contacts via the recruiting website. Electronic background investigation software can easily collect detailed data to see where candidates drop out of the process. That information will be helpful to you in providing feedback to your recruiting and testing partners. An investment of time and resources into evaluating the effectiveness of these methods will pay rich dividends when incorporated with the other hiring data.
Welcome Aboard; Please Stay a While
Once the applicant is hired, the work on retention begins.
Like recruiting efforts, measuring retention efforts can be complicated. Retention efforts such as financial benefits, employee wellness programs, and recognition events are easy to capture and track. Other retention efforts are more difficult to define and quantify. How do you capture the importance of community support or impact of the sergeant who invests deeply in their people? How do you measure the impact of a compliment to a young officer from a senior executive about a case they worked on?
Larger agencies often assume that opportunities and compensation packages will retain employees. Nonetheless, large metropolitan agencies are seeing an exodus of officers to smaller, lower-paying suburban or even rural departments, where these smaller communities often provide a more supportive atmosphere for officers and a lower cost of living. Smaller agencies assume they cannot compete with the range of opportunities at large agencies. There are pitfalls in relying on national law enforcement data trends. Every region and agency is different and each agency needs to determine the factors that are relevant to retaining their employees.
It is axiomatic to say that if employees are satisfied with their job they are more likely to stay. Obviously, attrition rates are one indicator of job satisfaction. However, it would be helpful to capture job satisfaction data before an employee leaves the agency. This gives the agency more options to devise systems to reduce attrition.
An agency can be successful at recruiting without successful retention. If there is poor retention, the agency will continually need to fill vacancies. Conversely, an agency can be successful at retention without successful recruiting. There are agencies that create an environment where employees stay through retirement, yet because they have not been building a recruiting network, they struggle to build an applicant pool when they need to hire new employees.
This is where the relationship between recruiting and retention becomes clear. Recruiting is more than just getting people’s attention to apply for a job; it’s retaining the right candidates throughout the process and using that retention to generate interest in your department. Successful recruiting includes retaining the candidates that align with your department’s needs and values. Successful retention is recruiting your employees to come back to work every day.
Viewing recruiting and retention as interconnected systems that need to be nurtured will help frame an agency’s staffing efforts. So, how do you gather data, measure success, and identify areas for improvement?
Programs Cannot Live on Numbers Alone – Put them in Context and Evaluate Often
“How many applicants did we have?”
Often this is the main question asked of the recruiting team. If the number is high, department leaders feel their hiring program is working. If the number is low, they may feel efforts are failing. However, the number of candidates is only a starting point to evaluate the effectiveness of your recruiting. It is important to also measure the yield from these numbers all the way through retention to see how the applicant pool matches department needs.
The phrase “statistical-based recruitment and retention” creates daunting visions of spreadsheets, graphs, columns, and numbers. The data is powerful and useful, but the operational value of these numbers is gained when they are viewed through the lens of long-term agency goals. Are these numbers supporting your mission? To put these numbers in context, it is important to know your agency’s “why.” Why are you putting effort into recruiting, testing, backgrounding, hiring, training? What value and service do you hope to provide to the community and the candidates through your efforts? Keeping your “why” in mind is critical when evaluating each step of a recruitment and retention program. This will help provide more context to the data and help you to align your processes to your department values and staffing needs.
You can probably gather the hard data from your HR information systems: the number of applicants applied, where they heard about the opening, how many drop out before testing, how many pass the test, how many graduate from the academy, how many pass probation, how long an employee stays with the agency. This is all important information for both recruiting and retention. Gathering the other information is more difficult and requires a variety of methods. This information can be gleaned from surveys, interviews, and conversations with stakeholders. Sitting down with a newly-hired officer to find out, in their own words, why they chose the agency is far more enlightening than simply counting them as a check mark in the “hired” category and letting that be the sole statistic they generate until they decide to leave.
Evaluate the data collected from the hiring process. Are initial application numbers low? Is the area the agency serves experiencing low unemployment due to a glut of private sector opportunities or increases in the cost of living? Is there a particularly negative story in the media about the agency? Consider your regional hiring landscape to re-evaluate the recruiting and retention strategies. Look for areas where you lose a large number of candidates. Why is the attrition happening at this point? Did they fail an exam or screening criteria? Do you have the appropriate pass rates at each screening stage? For candidates who voluntarily withdraw, follow up to determine why they dropped out of the process. Take this information and go back to your why – do criteria at each of these screening stages give results that support your agency’s mission and values?
Gather important insight from a cross-section of department employees by tenure and assignment, both sworn and non-sworn. Send surveys to employees reaching significant career milestones, allowing for anonymous feedback. Ask employees why they’ve stayed. Ask them if they’re thinking of leaving and if so, ask why. A survey like this yields better results if it incorporates both numerical ratings and the ability to freely express thoughts in the form of open-ended questions. Relying on staffing numbers alone can be misleading. An agency with 300 officers might congratulate itself for its retention efforts if 15 officers from an academy class stay for 10 years, but would they pat themselves on the back the same way if they knew 10 of those officers were actively pondering leaving the agency or the profession altogether? Gathering feedback should be a regular and meaningful process.
Don’t just collect information, evaluate and analyze it.
Embrace the information you are collecting. Dedicate resources to gather and analyze it. Learn about emerging technologies that can provide more detailed data about candidates who visit your websites or hiring portals. Understand the best way to communicate with your candidates to keep them interested and engaged. (Spoiler alert – it’s texting.) But beware – data and data gathering tools cannot replace people. The nuances of providing public safety cannot be solely quantified. Law enforcement agencies should be data informed rather than data driven by the numbers. Partner with your municipal auditing resources or academic partners to design reliable data collection and analysis tools. Data should be a beacon to lead you to ask more questions and propose new processes to engage and retain your employees.
Capturing and reviewing data such as attrition rates can identify vital trends
If a statistical-based recruitment and retention program is to be successful, investment from stakeholders is crucial. Assemble a team to evaluate the data and provide feedback and new ideas to the agency. This team should represent a cross-section of the agency and include external stakeholders. Augment your efforts by engaging department members and stakeholders to become recruiters and partners in retention. Share recruitment and retention data in the agency’s annual reports and on the agency website. Highlight unique approaches to engage potential recruits, such as the connection between an uptick in applicants to an officer mentoring and connecting with young people at the local skate park. It gives others permission to be creative and broaden the depth of the agency’s talent pool.
After you assemble a team to assess hiring and retention, keep them informed and engaged. Ask for their input and provide feedback to the team about the implementation status of any recommendations and results of those recommendations that were implemented. Share the information gathered from internal surveys and humbly acknowledge areas needing improvement. Sharing information about the areas identified for improvement and the adjustments undertaken to fix them demonstrates a commitment by the agency to serve their employees and the community.
We’re All In This Together
Implementing a statistical-based and data-informed recruitment and retention program may sound daunting, but it can be accomplished. It can be a valuable internal and external tool and the basis for evidence-based conversations about appropriate staffing levels for public safety agencies. The program can be scaled to any size agency and can be started with data you’re probably already gathering but have not aggregated for a holistic view of agency staffing. Recruiting and retention is a continuous and interconnected process that should regularly be evaluated and adjusted using soft and hard data. Looking at the data and the context behind those numbers gives agencies the ability to proactively address recruiting and retention challenges and more efficiently serve their community.
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