How HR Can Support Law Enforcement Professionals and Their Families

Tony Lee By Tony Lee June 3, 2020
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police car

So far this week we've posted coverage on SHRM.org about how HR professionals at companies large and small are dealing with racism and the troubling events taking place in our country right now. We've heard from many of you that you appreciate this work, and we'll keep you in mind as we make decisions about our content moving forward. We've also heard from those of you who work directly with law enforcement personnel, and from those who employ their families and need support at this time.

When Trisha Zulic, SHRM-SCP, and her husband visited an oil change service yesterday, she says she became nervous when her husband requested the discount provided to those who work in law enforcement.

"I didn't know how they would respond. Would they say 'thanks,' or would they leave the bolt out of the oil pan?" she said.Trisha Zulic

If this is how Zulic feels visiting an oil change service with her husband, imagine how police officers on duty feel simply doing their jobs in the current environment, she said.

"It's super scary because there doesn't seem to be a lot of support for them and, being a spouse, I would be very fearful," said Zulic, a SHRM special expertise panel member and senior HR professional in southern California.

Law enforcement professionals are trained to "protect and serve" their communities under a wide range of circumstances. And HR and wellness professionals who work directly with law enforcement are tasked with helping them do their jobs effectively day and night, seven days a week. But neither can be fully prepared when rioting and looting become an everyday occurrence.

"Many people are extremely angry and rightfully so, as racism and discrimination are very real problems in the world," said Ty Smith, a reserve police officer for nine years and CEO of Vigilance Risk Solutions, a San Diego technology company that specializes in conflict and violence prevention.

For HR professionals who are advising law enforcement employees, Smith said, the best advice they can give is to show empathy even when confronted with hatred.

"You are a peace officer and, to do your job correctly, you have to find a way to be empathetic," he said. "When in uniform, you have to find a way to operate at a higher level than everyone else. You also need to recognize that you can become emotional and stressed, too, but you have to stay in control of your emotions. That's what you're hired to do."Ty Smith

To be sure, law enforcement professionals, their family members and the HR people who serve them we spoke to all told SHRM Online that they were appalled and sickened by the video that captured George Floyd's death. Many also said they believe the level of respect among the public for law enforcement is being negatively impacted, perhaps for years to come.

"People who work in public safety are used to being held in high regard, often as role models, and they want to do the right thing," said Bettina Deynes, SHRM-SCP, the former CHRO for the City of Alexandria, Va. "I have family members in law enforcement, and I worry that the protests and violence might deter their aspirations. But law enforcement needs people like them, who have inclusive minds and understand how their interactions, or lack of them, are perceived by their communities."

Deynes, now a CHRO in Miami and a diversity and inclusion expert, says that her advice to her former colleagues in public service is to lead the change that the world needs. "Be sensitive to the times that we're living in and aware of the reasons for anger and frustration, then find ways to listen." She says that many HR professionals are experts at de-escalation and naturally have compassion, so they're well-suited to work with law enforcement personnel who are working under extreme stress.

Zulic agrees that HR is uniquely suited to help these employees cope with the mental health issues that are arising daily. Officers are hired to serve and protect, even when they disagree with the people they are serving. But when they need extra support as the job becomes overwhelming, HR needs to be ready to provide guidance.

"I'd say, 'If you are having trouble handling the situation today, then raise your hand and tap out,' " Zulic advised. "If they aren't feeling the dignity and getting the respect they think they should, it's better to tap out than to break down."

In fact, she says it shouldn't be a surprise to HR to see personal issues arise among officers during this period when every member of a local force is pressed into duty. 

"Many officers haven't been on patrol for a long time, and even though they train all the time, they are not accustomed to being in this situation," Zulic said. "They're people too, so when someone spits at them--given COVID-19--that's assault and they're going to react."

Family members of law enforcement officers often witness the results of this type of stressful work situation, Smith said, and they can bear the brunt of that pressure. And with more than 700,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S., that means there are millions of family members working at employers of all types nationally.

"HR should say to those family members that we understand you and your family are under extreme stress, and we're here to support and listen to you," explained Smith, whose mother is a retired police officer in East St. Louis, Ill. "HR pros who provide overt leadership will be surprised at how far that will go with these families."

One caveat is that HR professionals also need to recognize the limits of their expertise when advising officers and their families. "Unless you have formal training as a psychologist or clinical therapist, you shouldn't play that role," said Wayne Cascio, Ph.D., a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado-Denver.

Instead, he suggests reviewing your strengths and then applying them. "For example, if you can see the impact that being on the front lines is having on someone, and you can recognize the signs of extreme stress and a decline in job performance, then you can refer that employee to a mental health professional and alert senior management."

Cascio also recommended confirming that your employee assistance program (EAP) includes the dependents of employees. "The stress of law enforcement is often harder on the families than it is on the officers themselves. For instance, their kids may be taunted in school and may need emotional support."

Smith said it may also be appropriate to provide in-house mental health resources above and beyond the standard EAP program. "Many law enforcement officers deal with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and I'm sure it's at a height right now between the pandemic and the unrest, so take steps to get ahead of a meltdown," he said.

Deynes added that spouses are in a unique position to help and that HR should assist the spouses of officers who work in their companies by providing direct support.

"I would say to a spouse, 'I understand that your husband's or wife's job is stressful and dangerous, and I'm here to help however I can.' I'd also say, 'Remember what they do and why they do it, and what a tremendous opportunity your spouse has to help lead the change we all want to see today.' "


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