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Understanding voluntary resignations from the police service

There is a scarcity of research on why police officers voluntarily resign from the service. The numbers of police officers who felt that policing was not a ‘job-for-life’ and voluntarily resigned from the police service have risen – from 1,158 in the year ending March 2012 to 2,363 in the year ending March 2020.

This is a rise from 0.86% to 1.83% of the total police officer population in England, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. It appears not to have gone unnoticed by the Home Office. In May 2020, they announced that the ‘retention of experienced police officers has emerged as a concern’ and were considering plans to incentivise retention. However, without knowing why officers leave, the benefits of these efforts may prove limited.

Findings from a small-scale online survey of officers who had resigned voluntarily from one medium sized police force in England between November 2014 and June 2019 (n=46) provide some initial data from a project which will shortly also incorporate interview data with a sample of these respondents (n=27). What we know from existing research is that organisational commitment is likely to be enhanced by strong leadership, social exchange factors and the perceived attractiveness of the organisation. The data from this survey of police leavers suggests a perception of the absence of at least two of these three contributory factors to organisational commitment.

First, poor leadership and management was cited as the most regular theme in answer to why officers left the police service. This was directed at all levels of supervision and importantly support, whether immediate line management, middle management or senior management within the organisation. Perceptions of management are not aided by the inescapably powerful policing occupational cultures, characterised amongst other things, by cynicism and an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ categorisation. Cultural influences aside however, perceptions of poor leadership and management within the police remain as the most cited reason amongst officers resigning voluntarily from the service.

Second, organisational commitment can be enhanced through social exchange factors which are triggered through perceptions of feeling supported and valued. Our data showed that police officers who had left the organisation felt an overriding sense of organisational ‘injustice’, to such an extent that that the delicate balance between employer and employee had been breached. It was also this sense of ‘injustice’ which proved to be the ‘final straw’ for those leaving the police service, with almost half of respondents referring to features relating to injustice such as a lack of autonomy and a lack of ‘voice’ being the ‘decisive moment’ which led to their resignation. There were also perceptions of a lack of access to promotion and progression opportunities and an unsustainable workload which precluded the ability to maintain a reasonable work/life balance. This was stated to have impacted negatively upon their levels of stress, physical and mental health, caring responsibilities and personal relationships outside of their working environment. This would all therefore suggest an imbalance of the crucial social exchange factors which are so necessary in cementing a bond between employer and employee.

Third, the perceived attractiveness of the organisation has the potential to enhance organisational commitment and it is here where our research data suggests a more positive picture. Police officers demonstrated a strong sense of commitment to immediate colleagues and an enjoyment of the job itself, both aspects which they missed after resigning. Indeed, these work factors which derive the highest levels of satisfaction are broadly similar to the reasons expressed for joining the police service in the first place such as working with the public, working in a team and the work variety.

In conclusion, our data suggests that internal organisational issues are far more relevant to intention to leave decisions than occupational factors. While there are also relevant external factors, particularly in relation to ‘excessive’ workloads, which do clearly impact on levels of dissatisfaction, the focus for change would appear to be in a consideration of how the social exchange factors, which are so crucial to an enhanced sense of organisational commitment can be rebalanced equitably to take account of both the individual needs of staff in addition to organisational demand.

You can read more about the research findings in this article published by Policing and Society.

Dr Sarah Charman and Dr Stephanie Bennett, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth