6 ways leaders can get input from line staff (and why it matters)
There are simple ways leaders can make line staff feel included in a correctional facility's mission, activities and success
By Wendy Leach, JD
The least-consulted group when it comes to operational challenges in correctional facilities is often line staff. Between inmate safety, general order, food service, grievance resolution, property, and medical and mental health care, most of any manager’s day revolves around inmates and their needs.
Though much of this is appropriate and necessary, line staff are rarely asked for their input on procedures. A lack of contact from leadership can be perceived as management not caring about their correctional officers’ concerns or ideas, and it often leads to a shortage of practical ways to improve facility operations.
Here are six things you can do to encourage your line staff’s participation in the overall welfare of your correctional facility and make your correctional officers feel included in the facility’s mission, activities and success.
1. Show up on third shift
That’s right, I said it. Third shift (or overnight) staff are the most neglected when it comes to contact with leadership. Some staff may prefer this, as they want to do their tour and leave, but some are open to talking about ways to improve things if they are asked. Why not just talk after their shift? Because asking someone who has been up all night to stay at 7 a.m. and meet when it is convenient for you doesn’t garner the respect an on-post visit does. Requesting staff to stay after their shift is over is best saved for mandatory staff meetings or training. If you really want some one-on-one thoughts and hands-on ideas while showing respect for your personnel’s time, talk to them at 3 a.m. while the inmates are asleep. You’ll be amazed how much your staff will appreciate your efforts.
2. Have a locked “suggestions and comments” box for staff and check it daily
Staff may not feel comfortable verbalizing concerns or ideas, especially in a group setting, but they will write them down and submit them. Encourage this. Not only might you get some workable concepts, but it contributes to an open leadership style and culture of reporting and responsiveness. Ensure personnel are aware of the box and how you will respond when comments are received.
3. Conduct surveys and focus groups
Though some staff may not be willing to verbalize in a group, others are, especially if the culture at a facility supports open dialogue with zero tolerance for staff retaliation. Sitting down in groups with staff and asking them about what is working, what is not, or bringing actual issues to the table and asking for their suggestions, allows staff a forum with management they likely won’t get daily or even weekly. It shows respect for their thoughts and ensures you give staff an open line to discuss problems, which might prevent them from feeling they have to go to a union or newspaper to feel heard. Listen to staff and follow up on legitimate problems, using their suggestions whenever possible.
4. Host open-door time
Consider adding an hour or more once a week as “open-door time” in your schedule. Publicize it to staff and allow anyone to talk to you during that time. Ensure you are in your office, and engage with staff if someone wants to talk. You never know what you’ll find out at these random times.
5. Before you enact a new policy or procedure, bounce it off those who have to make it work
If there is one thing I hear from line staff, it is that the agency introduced a new policy or procedure, but the staff’s ability to follow it is hampered by something the policy creator knew nothing about. This obstacle then either means the policy is not followed or that it is followed but is so impacted that it results in a less-than-smooth process. Before you add a new intake form, create a new step for receiving staff, or require a new set of questions of inmates at intake, go to the intake staff and discuss it. You’ll likely get good ideas and more buy-in from them in regard to the new process.
6. Schedule it
Whether it is a focus group, showing up on third shift, creating open-door time for staff to stop in, or just conversing with intake or medical unit staff, if it is not scheduled, some other priority will take its place. Add it to your calendar and make contact with your line staff a priority.
As a correctional consultant, my best days are spent with line staff in interviews and focus groups. Many say how much they enjoy having time to talk and to hear their colleagues’ opinions. The sense from staff is that someone heard them, their opinion was considered and they are important.
In the corrections world, where managers and leaders have to constantly be engaged with inmate safety and security issues, carving out time to get feedback from staff pays dividends; not only will you likely gain new ideas and insights only line staff would know, but you will help create a culture of respect and mutual appreciation. That is what you call a win-win!
About the author
Wendy Leach, JD, is a Senior Consultant with The Moss Group, Inc. and has worked in numerous jurisdictions providing training and assistance in inmate and staff safety, conditions of confinement, PREA compliance, facility operations and system-wide policy revision. She has led multi-member teams in prison and jail assessments around the country, has been a faculty member at the national PREA Auditor Training, and has spoken at various summits and conferences nationally. Prior to joining The Moss Group, Leach was a prosecutor in Baltimore Maryland, managed a federal settlement agreement with the Department of Justice over conditions of confinement in three Maryland detention facilities, and later served as the statewide detention facility Director of Quality Improvement and as a corrections consultant. She is a Department of Justice-certified PREA auditor based in Chicago and a graduate of Albany Law School in Albany, New York.