Exercising our “Authority” in a Tactful Manner

A police officer stops at a ranch and talks with an old rancher. He tells the rancher, “I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.” The rancher says, “Okay, but do not go in that field over there” as he points out the location. The police officer verbally explodes saying “Mister, I have the authority of the federal government with me.” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removes his badge and proudly displays it to the rancher. “See this badge, old man? This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish! On any land! No questions asked or answers given! Have I made myself clear? Do you understand?” The rancher nods politely, apologizes, and goes about his chores. A short time later, the old rancher hears loud screams and sees the police officer running for his life chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull. With every step the bull is gaining ground on the officer, and it seems likely that he’ll get gored before he reaches safety. The officer is clearly terrified. The rancher throws down his tools, runs to the fence and yells at the top of his lungs…… “Your badge. Show him your BADGE!”

My purpose for sharing this amusing joke is to actually make a serious point. Let us never forget that we are public servants hired to work for and assist our city’s residents, property owners, and business owners, and to ultimately help keep them safe by promoting life, safety, and protection in the built environment. One of the things I have always stressed to my staff, especially those new to our business such as building inspectors and code enforcement officers, is that while we have the authority and will have instances when we need to exert it, we must not abuse our power to get things done. If we come across as self-assertive, rude, and overbearing, or, worse yet, flaunting our authority, we will hurt our relationships, reputations, and – I believe – our ability to get things done over the long haul.

I’ve seen this principle work well for me over the years, and now that I’ve worked for the same city for 20 years, the importance of courtesy and respect seems amplified. You see, many of the individuals I deal with presently are those I served a month, year, five years, or even 20 years ago. How I treated them then makes all the difference in the level of cooperation I receive from them now. We may be able to use our authority to get things done by causing homeowners, contractors, or others to respond, but if in the process we fail to treat those individuals with the utmost respect, or to provide the level of service our customers deserve, we are not meeting our full potential as code administrators.

In conclusion, we can certainly flaunt our authority, and as the police officer in the joke did “flash our badges.” However, I believe you will find, as I have, that by exercising strong and productive communication skills, working diligently to build solid, respectful, professional, and perhaps some long term relationships, you will ultimately be more successful. And on a final note, if we choose to operate as the police officer did, it may come back to bite (gore) us.

Jeffrey Widmer, CBO, Chief Building Official, City of Rockwall
BOAT Vice President

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