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Mistake Versus Misconduct
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 07/30/2012

Justice scale Supervisors and management often mistakenly accuse their employees of misconduct. It is important to distinguish the difference between misconduct and honest human errors. Knowing the difference will prevent unnecessary and lengthy misconduct proceedings and keep the reputation, the integrity and the effectiveness of the accused employee intact. It is management’s responsibility to protect employees against frivolous and unfounded accusations that may create conflict and professional disagreements within the workplace.

The process to determine misconduct versus a mistake is analytical in nature but also needs human insight and interpretations created by methods acceptable to conduct a fair and impartial hearing with due process and opportunities for rebuttals. Not everything is black and white and those exceptions must be sought out to be fair and bring clarity to the process without any doubt of the end result.

Because the line between an honest mistake and intentional or unintentional misconduct is often unclear and vague, it is the integrity of the process that must be upheld to find a reasonable solution to the issue at hand. Managers and supervisors must recognize their responsibilities and expectations whenever engaged in such an inquisition or review of the facts gathered.

These facts or distinctions found in each and every case must be in agreement with existing policies and procedures but must allow tolerances that may identify the policy to be flawed or not consistent with other directives given. Thus the challenge is to determine policy in place and practice in place of each case. Once determined to be either consistent or inconsistent, an educational process must take place to verify the findings and bring the flaws or discrepancies to light for mentoring process and additional learning practices e.g. remedial or updated training.

Pinpointing the source of debate or opinion is important. Whether the act committed was a mistake or misconduct depends on finding a fair judgment and professional unbiased opinion by those persons working within the review or investigative process to glean the data and facts of each case to make a sound determination.

Once it has been identified as a mistake, they can all be encouraged to resolve or settle the disputed case through power-sharing discussions and dialogue rather than pursuing further misconduct allegations from that point on.
  1. Honesty in reporting the incident and information related concerns.
  2. Careful transcription and analysis of every case reviewed and findings of those results to avoid errors.
  3. Independent analysis and interpretation of results that is based on data and not on the influence of external sources (political views and positions included).
  4. Open sharing of methods used to reveal data, and interpretations through publication and presentation for dialogue or recommendations.
  5. Sufficient validation of results through imitation (role play scenario) and collaboration with peers.
  6. Proper crediting of sources of information, data, and ideas.
  7. Moral obligations related to general ethics, disciplinary action and the responsibilities of individuals involved and their rights as outlined in the handbook or policies related to disciplinary procedures.

Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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  4. Writing Prof on 08/02/2012:

    Thoughtful article. Early training with report writing should help employees understand what the superviors consider "fact" and "evidence," and that types of statements they understand to be filled with blah-blah.

  5. jamestown0509 on 07/30/2012:

    One consideration in these hearings and investigations is the source of the complaint. Inmates love to get officers in trouble and they will lie, steal and cheat in order to get something on an officer. Obviously inmates who reside in the same cell will corroborate everything that the accuser says regardless if it is true or not. The use of a "wire" to catch an officer who is suspected of passing contraband while considered controversial by some is evidence that should be used in an investigation of that nature. As the article indicates mistakes are made thus supervisors and management must account for an honest mistake versus an intentional violation of SOPs or regulations (example use of force). The importance of documentation by officers at any incident is critical for a investigation in addition to possible lawsuits ensued by inmates against the officer and the facility. Good article.

  6. Fred Davis on 07/30/2012:

    Good to see this fair and balanced narrative. Lots of substantive points. These concepts need to apply to those not getting a jury trial on the outside also when an accusation is made.

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