Recruiting with Emotion and Market Positioning

By Chris Skinner
Pyramid Graphic with Job-Related Words (Stock Image)

For decades, recruiting personnel into law enforcement seemingly did not present much of a challenge. Departments often saw an overwhelming number of quality applicants compete for limited positions. Today, however, agencies apparently have difficulty recruiting a pool of suitable candidates. Additionally, many organizations, including the Hillsboro, Oregon Police Department (HPD), must compete in a condensed marketplace with numerous other employers for desirable candidates interested in starting a law enforcement career or changing from one agency to another. To address today’s challenges, departments must examine their recruiting methodology.

Attracting Candidates

Two distinct groups compete for law enforcement positions. One consists of entry-level recruits with little or no related experience. Often, they recently have graduated from college or ended military service. In Hillsboro, these applicants undergo several months of training, both in-house and at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. Agencies usually do not consider them ready for public service for up to one year from the initial application phase.
The other category of applicants features police officers interested in a lateral move. They have state certification and experience working at other agencies. These candidates can serve within months of hire.

Every law enforcement agency in the Portland metropolitan area tries to recruit the best police officers. The prominence of labor unions and collective bargaining agreements has created tremendous parity among these organizations with respect to such benefits as salary, shift schedules, and medical and dental coverage. Further, most, if not all, departments feature a paramilitary structure and function under the same general set of rules and regulations.

Deputy Chief Skinner
Deputy Chief Skinner serves with the Hillsboro, Oregon Police Department.

With all things considered equal, why do aspiring officers pick one organization over another? Why do they choose certain agencies versus applying for all? Rational decision making has become obsolete in a market of parity.

Applicants rely more on emotion, sometimes without their awareness or understanding. Accordingly, in a competitive marketplace, departments must establish a strategy to differentiate themselves and appeal to their target groups’ emotions.

Researching the Issue

Understanding the two target groups proves crucial in creating market position. To better understand the entry-level applicants, I conducted a series of interviews with criminal justice students attending Portland State University and Western Oregon University.

I asked all of the participants the same questions. One was why they wanted to become a police officer. Most of the individuals expressed their desire to enter a profession designed to help people. I then asked the students why. The majority of them said they were uncertain but that “it just feels like the right thing to do.” I pushed the students on what “feels” meant, and, as I expected, they struggled to express their feelings in words. So, I provided them a list of emotions used in previous research.1 Once the students could find terms to describe what they felt, they communicated such words as joy, happiness, thrill, kindness, confidence, and acceptance. I then asked the participants if they thought they could experience these feelings at any of the law enforcement agencies in the Portland metropolitan area. Interestingly, students aligned closely with agencies that would give them the best chance at acceptance and happiness.

The second part of my research focused on lateral police officers who decided to move from one agency to another. When explaining their decision, they named greater opportunity as the primary reason for leaving. I asked them to elaborate, and the officers talked about the potential for different special assignments and promotions. Then, I inquired as to how such opportunities would make them feel. As with the first group, they struggled to express their feelings with words, and I provided them with the same list of emotions. Immediately, they identified with such terms as contentment, confidence, inspiration, pride, respect, and hope. I then asked them if experiencing specialty assignments or promotions would be the only way to achieve these feelings. Significantly, they all stated that organizational culture would help regardless of assignment or promotion.

Often, people do not consider emotion because it is so interwoven into their thinking. This holds particularly true for police officers as being emotional is, in a sense, a sin in a profession characterized by logical thinking and decision making. However, if an officer, regardless of experience level, has several choices of employment that are technically the same, the choice that “feels better” rises to the top.

Recruitment efforts and marketing campaigns throughout law enforcement often center on rational, factual information intended to lure potential applicants. Websites, brochures, and video images routinely show the organizational functions followed with such information as salary and benefits.2 These techniques aim to show aspiring officers a wide variety of opportunities within the agency while making a competitive wage.

Recruiting Effectively

In a market where many law enforcement organizations offer largely the same opportunities and benefits, agencies must recognize the need to separate themselves from the others. Market position and differentiation will prove key to departments’ success as they compete with other organizations for the same quality applicants.

One way agencies can differentiate themselves is to achieve law enforcement “brand” as related to their position in the marketplace, to become the brand name when people discuss law enforcement services in the area. More important, each department should strive to have prospective officers consider it the brand name to work for.

Creating the brand name or look is easy; the real challenge is creating a unique brand experience. When citizens interact with the police, they come away with an experience tied to emotion. Similarly, when a potential applicant has an encounter with an agency, it involves an emotional response. Each relationship begins with an initial transaction that represents the individual’s first direct personal experience with the brand.3 The key for each department is to establish an emotional connection with prospective officers; otherwise, applicants will evaluate the agency based solely on the rational factual information that applies to every law enforcement organization. To sustain its brand experience, each department first must commit to a credible brand promise to its community and target group of applicants. An organization can create a brand promise by applying seven concepts; these should be not only deeply rooted in its culture but the cornerstone of its marketing plan.4

  • Problem/solution: By its very nature, police work identifies problems and finds solutions. Similarly, a department must identify issues that exist among its target group of applicants and offer clear and direct solutions. If the issues are real and personal to prospective officers, an agency can make an immediate connection.
  • Reassurance: In a marketplace where applicants have been mistreated by a law enforcement agency, an organization with a well-established brand can provide reassurance and peace of mind for such individuals.
  • Prestige: Creating an organization that people see as elite gives prospective applicants a feeling that they can become something special. This is referred to as the “brand badge.”
  • Personal qualities: Brand badge promises must convey the organization’s personal qualities. This constitutes a key component of a marketing plan for an agency successful in attracting employees that fit with its organizational culture.
  • Membership: Departments must create an internal sense of being a special organization. Although closely related to prestige, this concept focuses on the internal relationships formed among the department’s employees.
  • Memory triggers: Organizations strive to achieve positive memory triggers when dealing with the community. In a competitive recruiting environment, they must differentiate themselves from the others by establishing among potential applicants powerful personal reminders.
  • Self-completion: Finally, the branding of an organization can serve as a means of self-completion. If done correctly, an agency can add significant emotional value that would help applicants bridge the gap between the person they feel they are and the one they aspire to be.


Law enforcement organizations need to rethink their marketing strategies. Often, a lack of resources leaves an organization feeling that it can do little to position itself in the marketplace. Traditional recruitment techniques have become somewhat ineffective in attracting a large pool of qualified applicants. Further, applicants often become involved in the hiring process of several different organizations.

The key is to create that emotional connection with the applicant that tips the scale when prospective officers make that very tough decision. Just as the private sector has established a successful pattern of product branding and created strong relationships with the consumer, public sector employers and law enforcement organizations must adjust their marketing campaigns to establish those solid relationships with the potential applicant group.


Robert Plutchik, “A General Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion,” in Emotion: Theory, Research, and Experience, Volume 1: Theories of Emotion, ed. Robert Plutchik and Henry Kellerman (New York, NY: Academic Press, 1980), 3-33.
G. Ellis, G. Marshall, C. Skinner, and G. Smith, “Using Visual Technology for Recruitment,” The Police Chief 72, no.1 (2005): 32-35.
William McEwen, Married to the Brand: Why Consumers Bond with Some Brands for Life (New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2005).





“Market position and differentiation will prove key to departments’ success as they compete with other organizations for the same quality applicants.”