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Considering the Personal: What is Appropriate?

Updated on January 8, 2016

How much personal knowledge is too much? How much should a criminal justice manager know about his subordinates?

Don't be afraid to be concerned

Too often, in paramilitary or military organizations like law enforcement organizations, employees are seen as robots—government property that should just march along, do what it is programmed to do, and leave the personal life at home. It is irresponsible, however, for someone entrusted to steer the direction of an organization, and elicit the efforts of employees to help, to ignore the factors that may affect the performance of employees—including their personal lives.

To be an effective and fair manager, it is necessary to be concerned, at some level, with what is going on in the lives of employees, at least to the level of knowing those circumstances that affect job performance. A manager need not be intrusive or controlling when it comes to this knowledge. Basic interpersonal skills are all that is needed to acquire this knowledge. Asking an employee how they are doing, what they are interested in, how their families are is one way of establishing the relationship that leads to the trust an employee needs to communicate personal issues to managers that may be affecting work performance.

Be aware of issues that may affect performance

In addition to a general awareness of employees’ personal situations, I think it is necessary to be aware of specific situations—or particular seasons—in an employee’s life that may affect their performance over short or long periods of time. Some examples of this may be the illness of a loved one, financial strain, marriage difficulties, or other personal crises. These crises arise from time to time in everyone’s life and managers need to know when they do.

An employee’s job performance can be affected by many things. In the interest of fairness, a manager needs to know whether poor performance is caused by a poor work ethic or a distracting life situation at home (Johnson, 2014). Both can be corrected; however, both need to be addressed differently.

Deal fairly

Managers have a moral obligation on some level to the employer to get the most productivity out of the employee. Sometimes it requires punitive approaches and other times rehabilitative. Punitive action can be the wrong approach in the wrong situation and may even exacerbate the problem. Contrarily, rehabilitative approaches in a situation that calls for a punitive one can have the same effect. It is the manager’s responsibility to apply the right approach. A manager can only do that by having the right information.

Managers need to be concerned with employees to manage effectively. This concern need not be intrusive and is an essential ingredient of effective leadership.

Fairness, context, and individuality

However, each employee is different. Some have found that to be an effective manager at work, it is necessary to avoid personal relationships with subordinates. It can impair judgment and lead to decisions that may be good for an individual, but bad for the organization. The first priority of a manager should be the organization. Herb Brooks (the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team) sternly told his players, “I’ll be your coach, I won’t be your friend.” Consequently no one doubted that his personal feelings would not factor into his decisions concerning the team. Using this approach, he led the team to accomplish a goal many thought was impossible.

Additionally, Brooks was able to use the personal knowledge he had gained from his players over a six month period as their coach to make a decision that many critics thought was reckless and irresponsible. He decided to keep an injured player on the team—who was unable to play for several games—in opposition to the voices that said he needed to be replaced…all for the good of the team. Brooks knew that this player inspired his teammates, worked hard, and was a good example. He rested him, placing a heavier work load on the other players. When the injured player returned to the ice, he played an integral role in beating the highly favored Soviet team, which led to the gold medal. Had Brooks taken a strict non-personal business approach, this may not have happened. This is a good lesson for us.

Sources cited:

Johnson, R. (2014). Personal relationship with subordinates. Hendon Media Group. Accessed from

Moberg, D. (1990). Helping subordinates with their personal problems: A moral dilemma for managers. Journal of Business Ethics, 9, 519-531.

Rosh, L. & Offermann, L. (2013). Be yourself, but carefully. Harvard Business Review, October, 135-139.


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