Career Development in Smaller Departments

By Gibbons, Gary F. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Career Development in Smaller Departments

Gibbons, Gary F., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

In a broad sense, career development involves "helping people to choose organizations and career paths and to attain career objectives."(1) In a more narrow sense, a career development program helps employees to "analyze their abilities and interests in order to better match their personal needs for growth and development with the needs of the organization."(2) By either definition, career development clearly is founded upon the goal of matching individuals' needs and desires with the need of an organization to meet its mission.

For the past 50 years, these concepts have been adapted successfully by many corporations and organizations in the private sector. By contrast, the vast majority of police agencies - particularly those of moderate size - traditionally view career development as nothing more than promoting officers through the ranks until they reach retirement age. While departments offer employees limited guidance in terms of professional development, individual officers generally receive little or no guidance in areas pertaining to personal growth or their postretirement lives.

Many moderate-sized agencies fail to realize the benefits that career development programs can offer because administrators often view such efforts as somewhat extraneous. However, a combination of external and internal factors can change this long-held attitude. As the pool of qualified police applicants dwindles and the opportunities for advancement within agencies decline, administrators may be forced to alter their views of career development. A comprehensive program of career development represents a practical and cost-effective means to improve the morale and productivity of every officer in the department.


The ultimate goal of a career development program is to ensure that departments hire and retain highly motivated employees who understand their role in the organization and appreciate the inherent limitations placed on advancement within the ranks. These goals are universal; they pertain to nearly all organizations - large or small, public or private. Therefore, law enforcement agencies can adapt many of the concepts used successfully in the private sector.

As practiced in many corporations and private organizations, career planning basically consists of four stages or levels of development: Establishment, advancement, maintenance, and withdrawal.(3) By integrating these four levels of career development into a human resources program, public safety agencies can enhance their overall effectiveness while improving the lives of their officers.


For law enforcement agencies, establishment begins with recruiting. Agencies must attract individuals who are interested in the goals of the organization. Therefore, administrators and recruiters clearly must inform potential employees of the agency's mission and goals. Agencies that attempt to attract recruits on the basis of what they think the candidates want, as opposed to what the agencies can actually deliver, risk not being able to satisfy recruits' career expectations.

During the selection process, recruiters commonly ask candidates about their career aspirations. In response, candidates often say that they want to progress through the ranks to become head of the agency. At the time, these respondents possess little or no understanding of the duties involved in the various ranks along the way. In fact, they probably have not considered fully the limited probability that they indeed will become head of the agency.

Unfortunately, recruiters often tacitly encourage unrealistic goals, even though they know that only a few promotions are likely. A far more candid and practical approach is to offer an accurate picture of the real opportunities that exist within an agency. Certainly, promotion through the ranks represents one option. But to attract and retain the best candidates, agencies also need to develop and tout other avenues for experiencing career satisfaction. …

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