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How to keep the people you worked so hard to recruit

Supervisors have the power to improve retention in corrections with the right attention, attitude

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When first-line supervisors help build high levels of retention in any organization, the issue of recruitment will self-correct.


Ask agencies about their biggest pain point in recent years and you’ll likely hear two words over and over – recruitment and retention. As you know, those aren’t just buzz words. These issues speak to the challenges facing the public safety profession and can be tied to budgets, community engagement, candidate pools and more.

But there’s still plenty you and your agency can do to turn the tide. Imagine the following situation happening at your facility.

After a four-month background check process and fresh off training, a new corrections deputy starts to figure out her place in her new shift. The academy was a breeze for Deputy Ramirez, and she was second in her class. Ramirez has found her career path in corrections. Her background showed high resiliency, strong emotional intelligence and a solid work ethic. All signs point to Ramirez being a loyal employee you can count on to stay with your facility for the next 20 years and help maintain a strong work culture in your agency.

Fast forward one year. Considering the amount of overtime her facility is handing out, Ramirez still maintains a good attitude. She has some ideas on how to improve the booking process and manages the courage to write up some proposals. Ramirez hands three pages to her sergeant one evening at the end of shift. He looks up from his desk after reading the first paragraph.

“You’ve been here a year and you already have ideas?” Her sarge shakes his head, “You didn’t do this on work hours did you?” OK, maybe her timing was bad. Ramirez is surprised by the response, but she moves on, still feeling positive.

Two months later, Ramirez hustles to a call for assistance regarding two inmates fighting in a housing unit. Ramirez struggles to control one of the inmates. She gets help from one of her partners, and the incident ultimately ends well. She shakes it off and takes this as a lesson to practice her defensive tactics more and maybe ask for a refresher course. The sergeant calls Ramirez into his office. He’s angry.

“When your team needs you, you’ve got to show up,” he says. The sergeant is pacing his office and stops to face Ramirez, waiting for an explanation. She definitely showed up.

“Sir, I was just thinking about that, and I’m sorry. I did what I could. I’ll practice more, and I could use a refresher next time there’s a DT course available.” The sergeant tells Ramirez that she had her DT training just last year (it’s actually been 14 months) and there’s not enough staffing to send her for extra training. Ramirez is excused.

Another couple of months go by, and Ramirez finds two gallons of pruno in a housing unit. It’s her biggest find so far, and she’s jacked, parading her score through the booking area on the way to dumping the fermented fruit. She pokes her head into the sergeant’s office to show off a little.

“Hey, just give them a verbal, OK?” the sergeant says, looking annoyed, “I’ve got too many disciplinary hearings this week. Don’t drip any of that in the hallway.” He stays focused on his paperwork. “Close the door on your way out.”


How easy do you think it would be for another agency to recruit Ramirez at this early stage of her career? Your agency brought her into the corrections field, trained her, sent her to school and got her through her first year. She’s not seasoned yet, but she’s ethical, and she cares about performing above-standard. Plus, Ramirez buys into the agency’s missions.

Now, she’s worth so much more to another agency. What will it take to keep a good employee? How much will it cost? What are you willing to do to keep a good employee?

Corrections spend tens of thousands of dollars creating quality recruitment videos and then more money and staff time attending recruitment functions. Fifty applications turn into two candidates who actually make it through the background check. Today, the qualified applicant pool is still shrinking for any sworn position.

Right now, your group of first-line supervisors stands a chance of bulletproofing your roster by retaining the line staff members your agency has taken time to recruit. It won’t cost you a dime to keep people, but supervisors will need to be more cognizant of their responses to subordinates’ behaviors and help build a culture in which people enjoy working.


If a member of your shift comes to you with an idea, it means the person cares enough about the job to go above and beyond duties as assigned. This is your future training officer, thinking outside the box and excited to make a contribution. Make time to go over new ideas because, in the case above, Ramirez may actually be onto something. If not, at least a discussion will give her a better understanding of the job and a deeper buy-in to the agency’s mission.

Most importantly, you will show Ramirez that her efforts matter to her workgroup and that she is relevant to the success of your agency. The cost? Nothing.


If your subordinate makes a mistake or shows a deficiency, take the time to find out why they think the mistake was made and what their response is to the mistake. In most cases, you will find that a motivated employee will already be dissecting the problem and trying to find ways to correct it.

Show some trust in your people and start the conversation with the questions, “You OK? (expressing the care you have for your people’s well-being), and “What happened?” (the person who made the mistake is given the opportunity to self-correct immediately).

If Ramirez responds, “I don’t know,” you have a bona fide problem. If, however, she can tell you where the issue is and what went wrong, the two of you can work on a path to a better future outcome. Now Ramirez knows she can safely own her mistakes.

Conversely, if you create an atmosphere where people are afraid of mistakes or owning them, you will encourage defensive reactions, blame assignment and lying. How many mistakes have you made in the past 24 hours? That’s how we learn. What is the cost of empowering your people to self-correct? Zero dollars.


In a perfect world, your team would always have a high level of drive to carry out the missions of your agency. In the real world, everyone has a spectrum of buy-in levels, affected by different variables in life, including hours slept, workload and quality of home life. As a supervisor, you have zero control over most of those variables.

You do, however, have absolute control over your reaction when your subordinate expresses a high level of buy-in. Celebrate the wins your people are proud of. Every time you recognize high performance, you encourage more of it. I’m not talking about fireworks for a job well done, just a high-five works.

Take that buy-in one step further and make sure you understand what motivates your crew on- and off-duty. Cultivate those motivations. If you’re going to ask your team to buy in to the agency mission, it stands to reason that they know you buy in to what drives your people, beyond a paycheck, to do excellent work.


When first-line supervisors help build high levels of retention in any organization, the issue of recruitment will self-correct. An agency made up of people who enjoy coming to work, regardless of the challenges, will be an agency that attracts more quality candidates with very little recruitment effort. Today, with a low number of good candidates entering the corrections field, first-line supervisors can be one significant reason your roster remains bulletproof in an employment crisis.

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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