Analyzing a Reprimand

An employee thinks he did the right thing to protect campus safety, but his superiors disagree. C.K. Gunsalus weighs the arguments.

April 15, 2011

Dear Survival Guide:

I got reprimanded with an official letter in my personnel file for looking after the safety of the people in my college. This isn’t fair. I read all the local papers online and one of them prints the town's police blotter. Last week, the blotter showed that one of the affiliated faculty in a program here was arrested for a domestic violence charge involving a gun. Thinking of all the horrible things that have happened recently, I set our computerized security systems to make sure his key cards wouldn’t let him in our building. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, to keep someone who has a gun and was arrested for using it from coming into our building. I was putting safety first. How did I get to be the bad guy in this situation and what advice do you have for me about getting this wrong put right?

--Better Safe Than Sorry

Dear Better Safe:

You took the initiative by doing something you saw as beneficial to the institution, in the interests of safety. That’s great and I hope someone in this situation told you that thinking about the larger implications of the circumstances is a good thing for you to have done. At the same time, most institutions have a policy in place that provides guidance for situations like the one you faced, and I have never seen one where an individual acts without consulting others. This likely is the reason you were reprimanded. Even when there isn’t a policy, changing building access without conferring with others is problematic, especially when the threat is not imminent. In short, it sounds like you might have skipped some important steps.

Your note doesn't address any of these issues, and so what follows is based on some assumptions on my part. I'll spell them out so you can disentangle assumptions from the following advice. First, your note suggests that after seeing the information, you changed the system on your own initiative. That was your first mistake. Had you felt it was so pressing that you needed to act immediately, done so, and then right away alerted someone in your reporting chain of what you’d done, I suspect this might have played out differently -- or at least without the letter of reprimand. Communicating about your action would have brought more heads into thinking about the change and helped address some of the steps you skipped.

Second, your note doesn’t make clear whether it is within your regular duties to manage the security system or whether you overstepped in adjusting the access settings. From the fact that you got an official reprimand for taking the action, I’m guessing that, while you might have access to the system, adjusting the settings might not be within the scope of your job. Or, if it is, you didn’t follow the policies and procedures, if they exist in your institution. If they do, they probably address what documentation is needed for changes, what qualifies and what approvals are needed -- the parts you seem to have skipped. You didn’t say much about the content of your letter of reprimand, but I’m guessing that it focused on not following proper procedures and/or overstepping your authority in making the change.

Finally, your note doesn’t indicate whether anyone from the faculty member’s family regularly frequented your building, which might (might) have raised the stakes for quick action. If, for example, both the faculty member and one or more family members involved in the incident are regulars in the facility, the likelihood of the dispute spilling over into the workplace might be larger. Even then, though, more process was in order.

Remember that game where you start a piece of information at one end of a line by whispering it in a person’s ear, and then have each person pass it along? The information is often unrecognizable by the time it is spoken out loud at the end of the line. With that in mind, stop and think for a moment about the number of steps it took for the information you found online to arrive there -- and the number of places error could creep in. The police blotter in the newspaper is at the end of a long chain of information transfers -- an official game of "telephone" as it were -- that each permits entry of error. In your situation, the arrest could have been in error, the report could have been incomplete or inaccurate, the name could have been confused, the entries could have been switched, etc. I once worked with a man who has a name that is very close to the name of a chronic ne’er-do-well in our town, and the actions of his name-sharer caused him no end of trouble and occasional embarrassment. You didn’t know if that was the case here. Or not.

You had a reason to be concerned when you read the police blotter entry, and that’s enough to communicate with others and raise questions, and under some circumstances, take action before and while the verification is being carried out. The verification step is essential, though, after the first action: none of us know enough about the situation to know whether the affiliated faculty member posed a threat to anyone on your campus. The next step should have been to start a process for figuring that out with those having the responsibility and authority to verify facts and check the proper procedure. This would probably have included a threat assessment process involving the police and your institution’s legal staff. If yours is a public institution, your college is a state actor and there are due process concerns that must be addressed before restricting access, over and above the other process issues this situation presents.

Let me be clear: Safety is a paramount concern, and taking responsibility for and thinking about those around you is a strong, positive step on your part. Where you got yourself into trouble was taking unilateral action.

A quick checklist of things to think about when you come across potential safety issues:

1. How immediate is the threat?

2. How widespread is the potential danger?

3. How reliable is the information?

4. Who should be consulted/informed and how?

If a person in the same room or building as you are is doing something in the moment to jeopardize your safety or anyone else’s, an immediate reaction (get out/duck/hide) and calling 911 is the right response: get everyone involved as far from the danger as you can and call the police, whose job it is to deal with safety problems. If the threat is somewhat more remote, calling the police or the security office is still the right step to take.

Here’s the heart of the problem: you acted on your own, without following the official process, without consultation, and without verifying relevant facts.

Now that you have the letter of reprimand, what can or should you do when you feel it is unfair? First, think back to the circumstances in which it was delivered to you. Was your supervisor taking a required step while basically understanding and appreciating your impulse (“I’m sorry, I have to do this because you technically violated the process”), or was the overall sense stern and that you really mis-stepped? Try to assess for yourself the spirit in which this was all delivered and take a good look at how well you are doing in the overall environment. Do you need to attend better to the signals you are getting about your performance or does everyone basically feel you are doing a good job and this was one unfortunate event?

Either way, take look at your institution’s HR policies to find out if it’s possible to file an appeal or an official response to the official reprimand. Most places will provide one or the other, and often both. Get help from a trusted friend or colleague in crafting your response. Your letter should be unemotional -- that is, written in professional language without adjectives or drama -- and at the same time should both convey the facts of the situation that prompted you to take the action you did, and explain how you might now act differently if faced with a similar situation in the future.

Directly reference the process or procedure you ought to have followed and explain what you have learned from the situation. If there’s some constructive suggestion you have for making the policy easier to find or understand, a very low key reference to that might be in order, so long as it doesn’t sound like you’re blaming the policy for your own misjudgment. If you craft this carefully and professionally, even if the reprimand stands, you may be able to blunt any longer term career damage.

Would I have been concerned in your situation? Sure. Was there a reason for taking immediate action? Maybe. Should the information you saw have been communicated to others and a process invoked to assess whether there was a threat to others in your environment? Absolutely. What would have happened after that is a matter of conjecture, from one extreme where your action would have been endorsed and stamped with official approval to another where it would have been removed as based on erroneous information. You had the best interests of the institution in mind when you acted out of concern for everyone’s safety. In the end, in large organizations, doing the right thing matters—and so does doing it the right way.

--Survival Guide


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