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Dealing With The Staff Curmudgeon
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/17/2011

Devil face Let us consider the curmudgeon. It seems that in any large organization, there are colleagues who ruffle feathers, insult peers and superiors, and are generally unpleasant to be around. It seems that everything that they touch turns sour. Often it appears as though they try to fan the flames of strife and bad experience.

Working in the wake of a curmudgeon is like trying to operate in war zone. Those who experienced it are shell-shocked, gun shy, and do not wish to return to action.

Of course, almost no one wants to work with or even be associated in any way with the pariah. And that is unfortunate in corrections, as enterprising prisoners await such an individual to come on the scene. This is, of course, the classic anatomy of the setup. Offenders who wish to gain unfair advantages through staff manipulation simply cultivate the shop pariah. Through observation, they are aware that this person is ostracized. The whole process starts with a target and may end with a feigned friendship turned into contraband being introduced into the facility staff person was handled.

For the sake of increase safety in our facilities, we cannot afford to disenfranchise colleagues. As difficult as it seems, you must accept that some colleagues are less pleasant than others. Otherwise, we open the doors of staff division, providing a potential thoroughfare of contraband, uneven enforcement, special favors.

Still, healthy, camaraderie is easier said than done. You may see a colleague that no one gets along with. But is this person so reprehensible that you cannot perform an outreach? Do you worry that in the pursuit of staff unity might tarnish your own reputation? Here are some things to consider when dealing with a curmudgeon:
  • First assess yourself. Are you so perfect as to believe that all worship every professional decision that you execute? Is everything you do above reproach?
  • Zealous outreach may be construed as harassment by some. At time, no good deed goes unpunished.
  • When you befriend the friendless, is your motive pure? Do you reach out in order to improve staff relations and therefore security? Or do you see it as a way of looking noble – like you are helping a hopeless, bitter colleague?
  • Does a curmudgeon make mistakes? Or is this simply a case of someone who might be less than approachable but still effective?
  • Consider that the curmudgeon may want no contact. This does not necessarily mean that he or she is an automatic target for manipulation. Outreach may cause retreat.
  • Might the problem be gossipy colleagues rather than the alleged grump?
  • Will your reputation and therefore your effectiveness take a hit through association with the pariah? Or is an effort in chipping away at staff division worth any possible fractures in your reputation?

Without question, staff unity is very difficult. There are simply too many personalities in the mix for all to flow smoothly. Perhaps, though, that is an attractive feature the job. Such psychological diversity certainly staves away boredom. And this is also an opportunity for self-improvement. For those interested in learning and growing on the job, staff relations keeps one on one's toes.

Perhaps a good strategy is to be realistic. Nothing is perfect. The ideal is a far distance from the real. But do not confuse realism with cynicism. Most of us contend that we can find some good in almost anyone. And it is preferable for us to patch our own differences on the job than to have them used against us through manipulation. In the end, the safety of staff, prisoners and the public may depend on how colleagues treat one another.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Joe Bouchard, has been with the Michigan Department of Corrections since 1993 as a Librarian for the Baraga Correctional Facility. He also teaches criminal justice and corrections classes for Gogebic Community College. He is the editor of The Correctional Trainer, the official journal of the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel and MCA Today, the official journal of the Michigan Corrections Association.

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