Discharging discipline: An officer’s guide to employee counseling
It is what we tolerate that will ultimately build the crew’s DNA
Every fire officer wants to lead that perfect crew – the crew that always does the right thing, never causes issues, and never had any disciplinary problems. The problem with the perfect crew is that it doesn’t exist. Even for the best crews, there will likely be a disciplinary issue. Perhaps a firefighter will say something stupid on a run, or maybe they run a red light in the apparatus. It could be that a member shows up late to work, or maybe they get a little bit heated at the kitchen table about that other unit or the underperforming firefighter at the other station.
These types of issues occur in every firehouse across the country, but little time is actually devoted to training the fire officers who have to manage various administrative issues and discharge discipline. I’ve found that it is easy to follow the three Ds – Document, Discover and Discharge.
Before we dive into the general principles of discipline, followed by a review of the three Ds, it should be noted that each situation is different because we are all different. We are human beings, and as such, we are going to bring very human emotions and ideas to various situations. As officers, it would be amazing if we could just simply ride the right front seat of the rig, give size-ups and lead crews on the fireground all day long. And while we have those days, we also have the responsibility to lead our team and uphold our department’s standards, policies, rules and regulations – and to keep order in the firehouse. The company officer must be the constant leader, and it is what we tolerate that will ultimately shape the crew.
General principles of discipline
There are some general principles to discharging discipline that officers, especially new officers, should know:
- Understand the overall purpose of the discipline process. The process is not to simply yell or berate a subordinate for a decision that they made but rather to correct a behavior. For whatever reason, our firefighter has strayed from the normal course of action and violated some type of rule or standard. Yelling does little to solve the problem. Therefore, discipline is always aimed at correcting the issue, not to exude power over our firefighters.
- Keep your emotions in check. When officers react emotionally to a situation, it can be very easy to stop thinking strategically on how to correct the issue. Emotions are inevitable during a discipline process, but when you as an officer are angry and upset, the strategic goal of correcting behavior turns more into a personal attack, leaving you as the officer open for liability and perhaps a hostile work environment claim. Conversations are rarely productive when tempers flare, not to mention that points and counterpoints are missed. Simply put, when emotions are high, we stop listening. Regardless of how angry or upset you are, you must control your emotions and calm down, consider the situation, and work the process.
- Check your ego. Just because you have been promoted does not make you automatically right. Ego can be a powerful motivator and an even greater destroyer. Discharging discipline requires empathy, which runs counterintuitive to arrogance and ego-driven behavior. It is not the job of the company officer to humiliate or prove that they are better than anyone, but rather to show the offending firefighter the error of their ways and walk hand in hand to bring them back on track.
Now let’s dig into the three Ds – Document, Discover and Discharge.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the discipline process in many organizations is the lack of documentation. If you counsel an employee, even informally for something, write it down. This may seem counterintuitive to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the fire service, and I’ll admit it even sounds somewhat sneaky. But the truth is, similar to an EMS patient care report, if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Take for instance an example of a firefighter speeding while driving non-emergent. You tell the firefighter to slow down, they do, and then several shifts later they do it again. At what point does the discipline process progress? The allegations of policy violations carry more weight when it shows that you have warned the firefighter two or three times before writing them up.
Documentation can also be positive. When one of your firefighters does something well, write it down. If they perform an action that is above and beyond their normal job duties, such as going out of their way for public education or showing the truck, write it down. Perhaps they did a superb job on a run – write that down.
In this way we have a running document of positive and negative experiences that will help to shape our annual employee evaluations. The likelihood of anyone remembering what occurred at the beginning of the year versus the end of the year with all of the other stuff that occurs in the fire department is a heavy lift for any officer; therefore, the more you document, the more you have to reference.
Informal documentation does not have to go beyond the company officer’s desk. A simple running word document or journal is all that is necessary to record conversations and a brief synopsis of the topic. It also serves as a layer of protection for the officer to show when and what was discussed if any legal issues were to ever arise.
Once an offense has occurred, it is up to the company officer to do some digging into the alleged offense. The first step is to determine if a rule or policy was even broken. In some organizations, the discipline process can fall flat because of a lack of documented policies and procedures. It would be very difficult, if not foolish, to write somebody up for a rule that doesn’t exist.
Simultaneously, you must gather the facts. If you witnessed the offense directly, write down what you observed. Note the date, time, other parties involved, and what was said or what occurred. This helps to keep emotions out of the decisions and to channel normal emotions such as frustration into a factual accounting. If there were witnesses to the offense, note that as well. Sources to check facts include run logs, time logs, schedules and dispatch notes. Sometimes the offense is simply a rumor – the proverbial firefighter A told firefighter B about what happened to firefighter C. This is where the officer has to dig deep and discover fact from fiction. Do not be lazy during the discovery time. Reflect on the offense and what you would do in a similar circumstance. Consider the firefighter’s experience level, training, circumstances, and policies to make an informed and fair judgment.
You may have to do some research back on your existing documents to see if the firefighter has been breaking the same rules. This helps to establish a pattern of behavior that may be the cause of the issues. For instance, if you’ve documented that a firefighter has been late three times in the last six months, you’ll want to know why. Perhaps the firefighter has a newborn child at home, or maybe they have a sick relative they are caring for. While the firefighter should be at work on time and ready to go every shift, there could be a reasonable and human element as to why that isn’t occurring. Similarly, if a firefighter is having angry outbursts at work, when normally they are a highly productive, responsible and respectable subordinate, that should cause you to ponder what is going on. Could they be going through marital or financial issues? Could there be stresses from the department or outside of the firehouse causing problems? Could the firefighter simply be burned out and need a reset?
Once all facts have been gathered and examined, it is your duty to discharge just and appropriate discipline. This is the least fun part about being a fire officer but it’s one of the most important aspects of the job. Similar to parenting, no father or mother wants to discipline their kids, but eventually it is inevitable. It is how you react that your children, and your subordinates, will remember.
Most departments have some type of formal progressive discipline process. It is imperative that you understand that process and what authority you actually hold as a fire officer. For instance, company officers in my organization cannot suspend a firefighter; they can only recommend higher discipline to the chief officer to discharge. If you are unfamiliar with your discipline process, consult your policies and procedures or speak with a chief officer. Also, you must know what the discipline process looks like with collective bargaining agreements to ensure that you are not discharging discipline against the union contract.
Set up a time and place to discharge discipline. Call your employee into the office and have a private meeting. Remember, praise in public and discipline in private. Eliminate distractions such as emails and cell phone calls, and give your full attention to your firefighter. This is a sign of respect and goes a long way in achieving trust, collaboration and a willingness to correct poor performance or behavior.
You as the officer control the meeting. Identify the policies violated, how you reached your conclusions, and what you recommend. Allow the firefighter to speak, but do not let them derail your judgment. If there were extenuating circumstances, then that should have been uncovered in your discovery portion of your investigation.
Keep in mind that not all discipline has to involve written reprimands and suspensions, and that not all discipline has to be equal. A firefighter who is chronically late or is a sick time abuser should not be treated the same as a firefighter who overslept one time in 10 years. The punishment must be fair. Use good judgment and temper favoritism. If your best firefighter is late multiple times, then they are late multiple times and must be treated as such. [Read next: Disciplining ‘similarly situated’ members in the fire service.]
For “lesser” issues, one option for discipline is to assign a job that nobody wants to do. Scrubbing showers, dusting cobwebs or similarly “messy” jobs are good tools to motivate a firefighter to not re-offend. Another option is to assign a teaching topic to them based on what they did wrong. For instance, if a firefighter is habitually speeding when driving non-emergent, assign them to lead a company training on the vehicle operations policy. This is an effective tool to educate them on the policy while simultaneously being productive for everyone.
We want the best for our firefighters, and we are simply holding them to that standard. Ensure that they know the consequences for further poor performance and that progressive discipline can warrant suspensions, reassignments, demotions and perhaps termination in extreme circumstances. If you have a culture of trust built into your crew, then the likelihood of re-offense is low.
Conclude your discipline on a positive note. While nobody likes being disciplined, your firefighters should be affirmed that the purpose of discipline is to curtail poor performance and to correct bad behavior. End the meeting with a firm shake and agreement to be better. This is a relationship, in that the firefighter will follow the established rules and the officer will monitor their progress and the progress of other firefighters to ensure that rules are applied consistently and fairly.
Disciplining our firefighters is not a fun job but it is a necessary one. Our firefighters take on a tremendous responsibility every day, and sometimes they mess up. As officers we cannot fly off the handle at every inconvenience or minor screw up; we must remain a calm and consistent voice of reason. Pursue official discipline when it is necessary, and understand that discipline is not a power trip but rather an opportunity to coach, mentor and direct a firefighter back onto the correct path. That, in itself, is leadership.