From what I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, there is one type of incident that has a profoundly demoralizing effect on corrections staff and even entire corrections agencies. This type of incident can shatter trust, respect and pride in the profession like no other. What I am referring to is the disillusionment that follows after staff find out that someone they looked up to in the profession came up short—significantly short. Examples are when employees discover that staff they considered to be exemplary professionals, role models and even mentors, are found to have violated policies ranging from employee harassment to inappropriate relationships with employees to inappropriate interactions with offenders. Such behavior is experienced by employees like a personal betrayal, and many of them have difficulty trusting or respecting fellow staff again. Not wanting to be “burned” twice, they build up walls around themselves to guard against the possibility of experiencing such a letdown and betrayal again.
All of us have heard the stories. Sometimes it is staff in enviable positions, staff who were shining stars and who were going places in the profession. On other occasions it is staff who have performed reliably and honorably for years. Then, seemingly suddenly, they make a choice that is against professional ethics, against wisdom, against common sense, even against the law at times.
Staff that self-destruct in such ways may throw away years of commendable performance in one swift move, one act of poor judgment. These choices invariably involve the violation of policy and of professional boundaries. Lamentable choices might be the romantic pursuit of a subordinate, often in spite of the fact that both parties may be involved in other long-term relationships. They can even be about being romantically or financially involved with offenders, and actions that are associated with that, such as transmitting messages from offenders to others, and bringing messages and/or contraband in to them.
What is at the root of such destructive choice-making?
I’ve pondered this question many a time, taking seriously the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that we also have made some impulsive, unwise decisions in our lives, perhaps not of the magnitude described above and perhaps not in the professional arena, but foolish decisions nevertheless. No one is immune to foolishness, from those at the top to the foot soldiers, so to speak.)
The best answer I came up with to the question of what drives such behavior is what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls “self-will run riot.” That is, more often than not, the root of misconduct and unethical professional behavior is the pursuit of self-gratification outside what is allowable in our current circumstances. (Some people would say that such behavior is motivated by greed or lust.) This happens when the dictates of our basic “wiring,” which drive us to need satisfaction, collide with higher-order professional boundaries and ethics.
Civilization requires the spelling out of what constitutes legal, ethical, and acceptable behavior. To co-exist in society relatively peacefully, we need to know and follow the parameters within which we can operate legally, ethically and safely. Many of these expectations are immutable, written in stone. Others fall in the grey zone, perhaps to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the present corrections environment, personal involvement with offenders is never acceptable and sexual involvement can be grounds for prosecution through PREA. Additionally, in some jurisdictions flings with subordinates may be grounds for dismissal or a strongly urged resignation or early retirement, whereas in other workplace cultures they may be considered acceptable behavior and even be common practice.
To convince ourselves to cross a professional boundary line, we generate a multitude of rationalizations regarding why the behavior is permissible. Remember, our visceral, gut-level wiring drives us to get our needs and even our wants met (“the lust of the eye”). So, when under its influence, we may try to talk ourselves into excusing infractions or boundary violations. If the temptation is seductive enough, we may tell ourselves that the existing rules are too rigid, that they do not truly apply to our situation, that our case is a very special exception to the rule, that if it were wrong it would not feel so right, that we are being unfairly deprived of a good thing, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity we don’t want to miss, etc., etc. At that point we are so mesmerized by the prospect of having “it,” that we downplay or ignore potential costs of boundary and policy violations, because we are certain that “it” will ensure our happiness and satisfaction.
The hook, the root of such disastrous choices, is talking ourselves into believing the lie that there is something outside the proscribed boundaries which is wildly desirable and much better than what we have or what we are allowed in our circumstances. We get hooked when we start feeling unjustly deprived—that good things are being unfairly withheld from us by “life,” by our administration, by society, or by whomever. When that happens, it is only a matter of time before the next step is taken, that of violating rules to meet personal wants or needs in a professional setting. So the concealed hook is the falsehood that the “forbidden fruit” is much superior to what we already have, that we are being “done wrong” by having it withheld from us, and that breaking some rules to get our hands on it is justifiable.
Professional safety from such self-deception comes from acceptance of professional boundaries without arguing about their legitimacy and appropriateness. Professional safety (and sanity) are found in unques-tioning acceptance of the fact that policies and ethical guidelines are there for a good reason—even if that reason is obscure to us at this time. Professional safety is based on the fact that professional boundaries exist for the protection of our reputation, our self-respect and our peace of mind, and for the protection of social interactions and relationships. Moreover, in corrections, professional boundaries are intrinsically tied into safety and security of operations. To stay safe and to keep the workplace safe, we need to stay vigilant and on our toes, ready to reject ego strokes and other seductive lures designed to take us outside the safety of proscribed boundaries. We need to remind ourselves periodically that, truly, all that glitters is not gold.
It may sound overly simplistic or even condescending to some, but protection from boundary violations is found in our willingness to accept “No” in the same way that we want toddlers to accept that they are not allowed to touch a hot stove or to sprint suddenly across the road. The key is acceptance of limits and respect for rules without grumbling and arguing, and without trying to find loopholes to “beat the system.” Wisdom involves acceptance of the fact that the workplace is not the proper venue to meet intimate personal needs or to satisfy any type of greed or lust. We are at work to serve, not to be served. Character maturity can be measured partly by the ability to forego inappropriate gratification, no matter how alluring.
Yes, we know of cases where staff were ostracized by coworkers and “cut off from the herd.” Isolated from their own, their professional needs for connection and respect left unmet, they may become vulnerable to the pull of temptation presented to them through offenders. Still we need to remind ourselves of the obvious—two wrongs don’t make a right. Getting personally involved with offenders will only lead to more woe.
So professional safety is found in respecting professional rules and limits, and staying away from what is expressly prohibited or even frowned upon (grey-zone items) in corrections organizations. This requires self-discipline and resolve to separate personal needs for love, affection, admiration, and companionship from workplace activities. Applying emergency preparedness tactics at a personal level, we need to remind ourselves regularly of the importance of professional boundaries, and that they are there for good reason. We must also regularly practice telling ourselves “No” as soon as we detect that our personal needs and wants are trying to crop up inappropriately in the workplace.
The only way to avoid getting hooked is to not play with the bait.