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Discipline and the opportunity for atonement

Why fire departments must embrace discipline in order to protect the integrity of the organization and the employee


Discipline and the atonement process that follows are critical to organizational culture and long-term health.

Photo/Kris Blume

For a fire department to realize its true potential, discipline and accountability must be on display, front and center. In more broad terms, for an organization that aspires to be considered credible, it must demonstrate its commitment to discipline and take actions that align itself with this goal. In the fire service, creating a disciplined organization starts and is demonstrated from the top down. There is no other way. Shortcutting this process amounts to building castles in the sand.

Defining discipline in the fire service

Organizational culture is a direct reflection of demonstrated commitment to the mission, vision and values of the organization. The mission, vision and values are not mutually exclusive, but rather depend on one another to provide members the ability to navigate a well-disciplined organization.

Definitions of discipline seem to include variations of basic principles. Most include a willingness to follow rules and policies and an expectation that one will be held to those standards. Rarely, however, is discipline spoken about in reverent terms. In fact, the mere mention of discipline in an organization incites a cringeworthy reaction. Why is that? Why does the fire service look at discipline as a negative action, in almost all cases, rather than a necessary opportunity to grow a stronger organizational culture and employee?

Discipline as an organizational construct is generally defined as an action taken by a supervisor to modify behaviors or actions that are contrary to the values, policies and procedures that govern the organization. Consistent application of the discipline process is paramount. It is a supervisor’s responsibility to provide the environment and education to ensure all employees are competent. This is to say that employees are aware of the expectations of performance, behavior and organizational values. Once made competent, an employee decides their willingness to be compliant. Deviations from compliance should result in discipline.

Discipline is an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. Discipline offers the employee the opportunity to atone for their actions and be brought back into alignment with organizational values. Discipline and the atonement process that follows are critical to organizational culture and long-term health. Strong leadership and management are required to recognize the opportunity to apply discipline. Do not miss the opportunity to discipline. This may sound terse, but stay with me.

The two robberies of failure to discipline

The failure to discipline employees causes two robberies to occur. The first robbery is the taking away of organizational integrity. Allowing for a deviation from organizational mission and values demonstrates rules and policies are not consistently applied. If this isn’t bad enough, failure to apply discipline erodes organizational leadership’s ability to fairly demonstrate its stated values. This is not fair to the organization or its employees.

The second robbery occurs to the employee. Employees who behave outside of the organizational standards or policies require discipline to improve their performance and bring them back into organizational alignment. A resonant organizational leader recognizes, corrects and coaches members back to organizational alignment, as well as addresses issues of competence versus compliance. Proper application of discipline allows for the employee to atone for the infraction and provides an opportunity to have their credibility restored. If supervisors fail to address actions worthy of discipline, they are failing the employee and the organization the opportunity to grow.

Comparing disciplined vs. non-disciplined employees

I challenge you with this. Reflect on two employees – one who received discipline and was given the opportunity to atone for his or her misdeeds, and one who did not receive discipline. I would argue that the employee that was given the opportunity of atonement is held in higher regard by their peers, opposed to the employee that will carry an unsettled debt.

Lack of discipline is not fair to the employee worthy of sanction, nor the other employees in the organization. When competent, compliant employees see a lack of necessary discipline, it sends a message that following the rules is optional and not required. This perception of a double standard is corrosive to organizational morale and credibility.

Embracing discipline to protect the organization

Discipline is both difficult and rewarding. It most certainly requires emotionally intelligent individuals to navigate its application and process. However, healthy organizations embrace the opportunity to discipline in order to protect the value and integrity of both the organization and the employee. Promote discipline as an opportunity and prevent the two robberies from taking place.

Editor’s Note: What tips do you have for disciplining members in a constructive way? Share your thoughts at

Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian (Idaho) Fire Department. He previously served as a battalion chief with the Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department. With over two decades of fire service experience, Blume is an author, lecturer and independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. Blume is an alumnus of the University of Arizona and holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees.