Dealing With the Problem Employee

FireRescue1 is pleased to introduce Linda Willing's first column for FireRescue1. Linda runs RealWorld Training and Consulting and is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. Look to Linda's monthly column for advice on leadership development and how to get the best out of your crew.

Station assignments have been made, and you have learned that "Pat" will be your new firefighter. This is not good news. Pat is a firefighter with a reputation: the one who regularly comes to work five minutes late, the one who fails to pay back trades, who eats other people's food, who loses equipment on emergency scenes, who gets into arguments with bystanders, who files groundless grievances, who pushes every joke just a little too far. In other words, Pat is the quintessential "problem employee."

And now Pat is your problem. So what will you do? If you are like most company officers, you will spend some time in denial and hope for reprieve. Perhaps there has been some mistake: Pat has been doing pretty well in the current assignment — why make a change? And what do you really have to offer to a firefighter like Pat — someone with more years on the job than you have, and unlikely to change at this point in time. You're a good, motivated officer who can only be hurt by someone like Pat on your crew. Certainly there is a better place for this particular firefighter to go.

Eventually, this kind of rationalization will run its course, and reality will set in. Pat is coming to your station, and you will have to make it work. What can you do to maximize success in this situation?

First, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Recognize that creating a highly functioning team that includes a member like Pat is a much greater challenge and accomplishment than leading a crew that is already technically and interpersonally competent. Pat is an equal part of your team, and needs to function as such. And it is your job to make sure that happens.

Understand that the inclusion of any new member puts a team back into the forming stage of development. Even if you have worked with some of the other crew members for years, now is the time to regroup and establish clear ground rules and expectations.

Polarized atmosphere
Make sure you don't hold this meeting in the context of "we all know each other, but we have to explain things to Pat." You must be very careful from the beginning not to allow a polarized atmosphere to develop among your crew. Have the group discussion in the spirit of starting a new year, setting new goals and making sure everyone is on the same page.

You will probably also want to meet one-on-one with Pat early on. Most "problem employees" have been on the job for more than 10 years, and their reputations are well known. You need not reiterate what you have heard about Pat, but do make it clear that you have high expectations, that you are counting on

Pat's contribution and that Pat, like everyone else you work with, will get a clean slate to start. Keep the conversation positive and non-confrontational. The tone should focus on your desire and need for Pat to be a strong member of the team, and your faith that Pat will meet this expectation.

Don't do all the talking in this meeting, or subsequent meetings with any member of your crew. Remember that all people have reasons for what they do, and that those reasons make good sense to them. Many so-called problem employees are people who had issues early on in their careers that never were satisfactorily resolved.

Maybe there was an interpersonal conflict, maybe a disciplinary action that was perceived as unfair, maybe an accident that they were not allowed to ever forget. Sometimes "problem employees" are just employees who are trying to be heard, and the longer they are ignored or disrespected, the harder and more inappropriately they try to get their point across.

Or maybe Pat is among the group of difficult employees who seem to have just given up. They seem not to care at all about the job anymore, and people doubt they ever did. So these employees show up late to work, they do routine tasks reluctantly and haphazardly, they make little effort to get along with others. They seem to care about nothing and do just the minimum to get by in the job.

But everyone cares about something and most people get satisfaction out of real accomplishment and being part of an inclusive group. Find out what Pat likes to do, give Pat the opportunity to do those things as much as possible, and then give lots of positive feedback when a job is well done.

Be specific
When expectations are not met, be clear about what the problem is: the fact that the work was unsatisfactory in a specific way, not that Pat is a bad employee.

Of course, such treatment does not just apply to Pat and the ranks of "problem employees." All crew members should get a clean slate when they arrive, all new teams should meet together to clearly outline expectations and norms, all firefighters should be listened to and included.

Everyone should have the opportunity to try new things and get positive feedback for a job well done.

Treating Pat like anyone else on your crew will go a long way to undo years of damage that have led to the situation you now face in being Pat's supervisor. And although it is unfair for you alone to be expected to reverse years of poor performance, the magnitude of the task does not allow you to stand by and do nothing, just biding time until you can pawn Pat off on some other officer.

If you do that, you will be part of the problem and will join in responsibility for the fact that Pat is not the firefighter he or she could be. You must do something and you will find that even the smallest and simplest efforts may reap large rewards.

I once taught a class for aspiring company officers and during a discussion of leadership, one of the participants said thoughtfully, "I think I could be a really great officer. All I need is a good crew." It was hard not respond with Duh! Anyone can be a good officer with a highly functioning crew.

The biggest challenge in that situation is just staying out of their way and letting them do their jobs. Greatness in leadership is demonstrated when you have a crew that includes someone like Pat — and you make that crew into a smoothly functioning team, at the same time doing your part to help Pat and others be the best firefighters they can be. That is an outcome that is a winning proposition for everyone.

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