Overcoming a new employee’s fear of the unknown

Environmental awareness training is key to decreasing employee turnover and increasing retention in corrections


By Marc Fioravanti

I once had a new officer ask, “What is challenging about this career?” I responded with my usual list: constant psychological strain, the disparities of shift work and, of course, undesirable aromas. As I finished, the officer stared at me as if she had seen a ghost. I paused and decided to ask her to answer the same question. She responded: “The unknown.”

Confinement is challenging for new officers because of the unknown. Our profession places a human being inside an environment they naturally shy away from. Choosing to work within a confined environment is the first demonstration of the courage and bravery of a correctional officer.

Our profession places a human being inside an environment they naturally shy away from. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)
Our profession places a human being inside an environment they naturally shy away from. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

Why corrections is unlike other fields

When people come into corrections, they initially have an uncertain view of what the work will be like. Their ideas about life behind the wall come from movies, television programs, the media and books from former COs. However, none of these truly prepare an applicant for what they will experience.

Most other fields offer a familiar forefront that we all experience at some point in our lives. Teachers, medical experts, business professionals and customer service specialists all function in environments most of us understand. Granted I’ve never been a bridge painter, cleaned a window in Manhattan, nor operated a crane, but I’ve been in a school, visited a doctor’s office and know what these other trades physically look like. If I asked 100 strangers to describe a doctor’s office, most would formulate a response based on prior experiences with their own doctor. If I asked these same individuals to describe a prison, what do you think their answer would be? Unless they’ve worked in, visited, or been confined themselves, the answer most likely is going to come from their imagination or their favorite prison show.

How agency leaders can overcome employees' fear

When an applicant has gone through the hiring process, they’re eager and ready to begin. That’s when anxiety can set in. During the hiring process, the hope of obtaining a position can be a huge driving force masking the fear of the unknown. I remember driving home from my conditional offer thinking, “Wait, am I going to be able to do this?”

For a new officer, these feelings can be immensely stressful. How do leaders counteract that? You provide them the experience firsthand. You introduce the unknown and make it something they come to recognize. You help them identify and validate their anxiety just before you show them how to overcome it.

The First Five Days

After an applicant is selected as an officer, the first five days are critical for employee success. For the agency, the worst-case scenario is when an officer resigns within the first 30 days. Months of hard work are lost and expenditure never to pay a dividend. For the officer, the hope of being able to develop and prosper in a rewarding career all to be forgotten.  

Across our nation, several confinement agencies place their newly hired staff directly into facilities for “field training.” The officer is paired with a field training officer (FTO) and the two of them disappear into the depths of the facility. At this point, the rookie’s success rests solely on the FTO. This practice is commonly the result of budget restraints that do not permit an agency to send an officer through a structured academy for several weeks or even months only to have them resign shortly thereafter. In general, if an applicant works several months on the job, the academy is then considered a safer investment.

Before placing any of our newly hired officers in our facilities, they attend a week-long orientation designed to assist them with identifying their internal anxieties and developing both awareness and recognition of the facility environment.

Focusing first on human development, we provide interactive and effective training in emotional intelligence, public speaking, stress management and advanced leadership skills. Our environmental awareness curriculum features education on shift work, patrol and security, inmate manipulation, contraband detection, suicide awareness, gang intelligence and aspects of mental illness. The program is a five-day jumpstart to developing awareness for our staff of the environment in which we are asking them to work. Our focus is to provide the smoothest transition into the correctional work environment to promote the greatest chance of occupational success.

The Next Three Days

Once released from the program, an officer is assigned a platoon and paired with an experienced FTO. The next three days are an opportunity for observation within the facility. Trainees are not required to perform any job functions. They are offered the ability to move throughout the facility, interact with other officers and converse with their superiors, all while developing a further sense of environmental awareness.

These three days permit a gradual introduction to impenetrable confinement. Being able to physically move throughout the facility limits the sudden and abrupt feeling of being in captivity. In a world designed with safety as the highest priority, most of us are only used to locking the exterior doors of our home. Experiencing confinement in the workplace goes against our instinct of personal safety to always have a way out.

The Next Eight Weeks

If you establish anything within your training program, make it continuity. Officers want to know that leaders take their training as seriously as we expect them to. However, your program is designed, make sure you have strong and conversant training officers who can identify and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of newer officers. Using their strengths as trainers, they will develop and implement the most successful program for the trainee.

taking an “Out of the Box” Approach

Most employee evaluations praise our approach to confronting their fears and providing them the skills and awareness training necessary to help them feel comfortable in their new work environment. FTO feedback also indicates that as less time is needed to teach about the environment, there is more time for hands-on learning.

Corrections and detention services have long been fields with high employee turnover. Creating a workforce fortified with high levels of environmental awareness is a proven method to reduce turnover and increase retention.


About the author

Marc Fioravanti is an innovator within the detention services/corrections field. Directly overseeing detention services training with his agency, Marc is an advocate for providing development-based training to those who work behind the walls.  

Marc holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Boston University. He has over six years of experience in facility supervision and administration. He recently served as an administrator of a 1,000-bed facility.

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