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The new sergeant’s dilemma: Navigating the transition from line staff to first-line supervision

If you can’t help wondering why you feel like you’re new and why those stripes are a little heavy, read on


First-line correctional supervisors spend more time in proximity with their teams than many other law enforcement supervisors. With long shifts and regular overtime, the shift supervisor at a corrections facility can have a significant impact on morale, retention and operational success. This article is the first in a series for Corrections1 members that outlines the tools effective supervisors need to lead their team.

Congratulations! You got your stripes. You worked hard. You took on special assignments and became an expert corrections deputy with enough training for big-picture thinking. You have trained half of the night shift. Command staff can always count on you answering the phone and showing up. Not only did you pass the sergeant’s written test, but you aced the oral panels.

Day one, sitting at the supervisor’s desk, you have already noticed the difference those stripes make on your shoulders. Inmates are testing the waters with you; it’s like you are new again! The inmates are asking themselves if they can circumvent your staff and ask you for decisions. They want to know if you will follow up on discipline.

Your best friend, the gal who swore in with you a decade ago, just asked if she could work booking tomorrow. The guy who tested second for your position is still avoiding you. He’s got three years on you and someone has already told you he is bitter about your promotion.

You are a rock star in your duties, you remind yourself. You’ve got this. You had top stats for finding contraband in your facility. You could book an arrestee faster than some of the booking clerks. You can’t help wondering, however, why you feel like you’re new and why those stripes are a little heavy.

You are new

No matter how many years you ran a housing unit, transported inmates, worked in the gang unit or booked intakes at your facility, supervising those who carry out these duties takes a completely different skill set.

What’s more, your success as a first-line supervisor is directly related to the success of your team; everyone on your team. Your rock star status as a member of your facility’s line staff does not translate to your status as a supervisor. Even a new probationary period is in play.

Just as you were tested as a new corrections staff member, you are now faced with the same gauntlet by inmates. In addition, your loyalties to your command staff, to your old partners, and to the institutional mission will be tested. Welcome aboard, you’re new!

Friends will test your loyalties

Prepare for some of your friends to ask for favors. You’ll be asked for days off, specific duty assignments and a pass on doing their duties. Your friends may nod when you direct them to finish a project and not finish that project. Hold your ground and do so early. Regarding favors, ask yourself if you would do the same for anyone on your shift. If that’s the case, give that requested day off when appropriate. Just because you are supervising old teammates doesn’t mean you have to be unfairly tough on them.

Most importantly, remember that a true friend will support your new supervisorial status and respond well to direction. Your true friends will give you honest counsel. They will offer you criticism but in private. They will back your decisions. No true friend or past partner will call in a favor based on personal friendship.

If your old teammates are leaning on your friendship for special treatment, they don’t have your best interests in mind and they treat your friendship in a transactional manner. Don’t take this personally. Make it clear that friendship and work are separate. It’s natural to test the waters when the composition of a team changes, but your team will respond well to your new role if you are clear with them and with yourself as to your role.

You need your entire team

Sit down with the bitter subordinate who feels he should have gotten the stripes you now have. Let him know you’ll need his help to succeed. Bitterness is a normal reaction to someone else getting the position you tested for. Give him some time to adjust, but don’t let him undermine you. If he continues to second-guess you and you know about it, address the matter quickly. Not only did you earn this position, but now you don’t want command staff wondering if they made a good call.

Promotions are not fully objective. Promotion decisions are often close calls between two or more good candidates. You will need to prove to your command staff that they made a good decision. Part of your new role is to lead a complete team, regardless of performance level or attitude.

Those stripes are a magnet for inmate games

Without fail, inmates will ingratiate themselves to a new supervisor and quickly attempt to undermine that new supervisor’s team by jumping chain. Key in on the setup from an inmate. It will be something like, “Oh! Look out, he’s the big man now! They got the right man for the job!” Maybe that inmate means it, but don’t be surprised if that inmate asks a follow-up favor.

If an inmate asks you for something they should ask your corrections team, respond with, “What did the floor officer tell you?” You can follow up with an overperformed look of surprise when the inmate tells you they didn’t ask the floor officer. Inmates generally know the answers to their own questions.

Do not let inmates undermine your team. Do listen to inmates and give them earnest attention when they are complaining about your staff. When you do, be careful to separate out behavior from a staff member. A complaint may or may not be true, but you can easily agree that some types of behavior are not acceptable. It’s in the rule book, and it’s in the publicly published policy.

For example, an inmate wants to talk to you about the floor officer who failed to feed him lunch earlier in the day. Stop and listen. You can even agree that every inmate should be getting lunch. Take some notes and tell the inmate you will investigate it. Do so without too much delay, but don’t let the complaint stop your regular inspection. Just because you’re a supervisor now doesn’t mean you’re not immune to the games that inmates play.

You may find that one of your people made a mistake and that the inmate truly got skipped for lunch. You may find that the inmate has already been reported for regularly spilling his tray in his cell and getting a second tray, only to later eat what he spilled. In this case, a quick discussion with your floor officer will confirm that the inmate is still trying to get an extra tray.

Prepare beyond policies and procedure

You will know for some time before you promote that you are going to be a new supervisor. Use that time well. Speak to your soon-to-be fellow supervisors. Ask them about their challenges. Prepare yourself emotionally for some uncomfortable moments. Do what you can to remove the emotion from any reactions you may have to your new position. This is business.

Remember all the tests you had to pass when you were new to corrections. You will have to pass some of the same tests again and some new ones. Paying attention and minding how you react to tests will help get you through your first few weeks. Congratulations and good luck!

NEXT: Words of wisdom for new correctional supervisors

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on