Water Cooler: Avoiding Replacement Refs in Local Government

Posted on February 26, 2015

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Rae Buckley, Town of Chapel Hill, NC, Assistant to the Manager for Organizational and Strategic Initiatives, used sports to highlight organizational strategies. Learn more about Rae in her first article, How Would Bill Belichick Write Policy?

Water Cooler: Avoiding Replacement Refs in Local Government

by Rae Buckley, LinkedIn

The narrative of an NFL game naturally focuses on the players and coaches.  There are introductions of all the players and post-game interviews with coaches.  The sports analysts shape the narrative by talking us through the game, the stats, the players, the plays and summarizing how it’s all going during half-time and at the end of the game.  And this is all fine and how it should be.  The referees, on the other hand, pretty much fly under the radar in the pre-game/post-game analysis.  Their introduction is understated and is usually combined with a sponsorship announcement. Even a blown call is talked about without identifying the referee’s name.  But everyone knows they are critically important to a game’s outcome.  And no event brought more attention to that fact than the 2012 NFL Referee Lockout.
GoodellVsReplacementsThe lockout was a labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association and led to the use of replacement officials in games for the first 3 weeks of 2012. These replacement officials consisted of high school or college officials from lower collegiate divisions. The situation was a disaster.  Each succeeding week was worse than the last in terms of bad calls and inconsistent application of the rules. Finally, controversy over a game-winning touchdown on the final play of a nationally televised Monday Night Football game in week 3 spurred an agreement 48 hours later between the NFL and its officials.
The thing I remember most vividly about those three weeks is the frustration I felt watching the inconsistent application of the rules of football.  It seemed that the replacement referee crews went to one of two extremes: either letting every infraction go or bending over backwards to call even the smallest infractions.  By week three I had actually lost interest in watching the games. It was then that I learned who Roger Goodell was, because suddenly I wanted to know who had the authority to intervene in this mess and why he or she hadn’t done so yet.  I made some serious assumptions about Mr. Goodell’s character and capabilities as a manager.
39b9a815fd7ef033108827d3c3a5b583_width_600xI’ve seen a similar disinvestment occur in our workplace when employees believe that rules are unfairly and inconsistently applied.  You may have one supervisor who cracks down on any infraction and others who look the other way and avoid dealing with issues.  And when employees witness this happening without any intervention from higher up, the perception can quickly spread that unfairness is rampant throughout the organization and that top management is inattentive, uncaring or just plain incompetent.  Just as I made assumptions about Roger Goodell, employees will make assumptions about top management based on the behavior of front line supervisors and managers.
I also thought about how we prepare our front line supervisors in local government who serve as our “referees.”  Just like the replacement refs who got thrown into a high stakes situation with minimal training, often our supervisors are promoted from within because they are good employees and have proven that they are responsible and good at what they do.  In many cases the assumption is that if they have been a good employee they will be able to help others do the same.  However we often find that these employees are unfamiliar with the rules and don’t have experience managing others.
Experience is critical.  For instance, the NFL requires a minimum of 10 years of referee experience above a high school level even to be considered for the job.  Training is also essential.  In the NFL, each official takes a written test every week during the season and every month offseason.   NFL referees are known to prepare for games by spending at least 15 hours reviewing tapes of the games from the previous week. And as one official described, “members of the crew spend a lot of time talking to each other during the week.  I’ll probably talk to the six other members of my crew at least two or three times during the week to talk about rules interpretation.”
63c1651358bb387e2a10b5f2e0ad2471_originalWe saw the difference that experience and training make in the NFL with the referee lockout.  What can we learn from this in local government?  My takeaway is that training for supervisors should be an on-going, recurring expectation if we want them to make good calls.  We should expect everyone to attend from those employees who may become a supervisor in the future to veteran supervisors who have been doing the job for decades.  This mixes supervisors with a wide range of experience and offers a forum to “review the tape” and open a dialogue about how to handle different supervisory situations.  There is also the need for continuous updates on the law and court decisions.  And hey, if a written test or two gets taken during the course of this training, where is the harm?
Just like a referee can change how a viewer feels about a game, supervisors are enormously important to our employees’ morale. What makes a good supervisor in your organization?  And how does your organization prepare and foster good supervision?

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