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5 signs of toxic culture that impact fire department retention

Lessons learned from organizational culture-focused research


Chief Haden and Assistant Chief Tye Prange present helmet shields to Firefighter Steve Clark and Firefighter Joel Hawkes to celebrate the successful completion of their probationary period.

Photo/Courtesy of Tony Haden

I previously shared a three-step model for culture change called “Un-Re-New,” which can be used by leaders to identify and correct issues in their organization’s culture:

  • The “Un” phase involves identifying and addressing any negative attributes like an unhealthy work environment, untrusting relationships, an uninformed workforce or an unforgiving atmosphere.
  • The “Re” phase centers on ideas like reviewing, reestablishing, reevaluating and restoring.
  • The final step in the process is to actively make things new. This may involve implementing new commitments, creating additional policies and establishing innovative processes that align with the desired cultural shift.

Let’s now take a deeper look into what we can glean from research about organizational culture, specifically when culture fails. These are the environments where a culture change plan, like Un-Re-New, is needed the most.

Yes, we can learn from other industries

A significant amount of research on organizational culture has been conducted in other industries, and while some may argue that corporate models don’t align with fire service life, the fact is that so many of the lessons learned in other settings can absolutely apply to our culture challenges. Fire service leaders must be open to heeding the lessons learned from other industries as we work to make our departments and stations healthy places for our crews to work and live.

Let’s start by evaluating the formative work conducted by CultureX researchers Donald Sull, Charles Sull and their team (MIT Sloan, 2022), then applying it to the fire service. The CultureX studies focus on toxic elements in organizational culture and how they contributed to attrition during the Great Resignation that began in 2021. The research can provide fire service leaders important insights as to why individuals become dissatisfied with their employer and offer some key areas of improvement for fire department culture.

Toxic culture and the Great Resignation

In America, more than 24 million people quit their jobs between April and September 2021. While the fire service was not affected as much as many other industries, the fire service has experienced an unprecedented staffing crisis over the past few years. So, what drives resignations across industries? Toxic culture.

This is not new information. Decades ago, Harvard Business Review published “Skills of an Effective Administrator,” which focused on the need for administrators to address human skills in themselves and their teams. This is all about the ability to work well with others. It requires leaders to understand the relationships that exist with their peers, supervisors and subordinates. This, I believe, is the foundation of trust and a healthy culture.

Furthermore, while many of us believe the fire service to be the best job in the world, we must remember that an individual’s personal commitment to service alone is not enough to prevent a department from losing good firefighters. We cannot assume we know what is driving members away. For example, some firefighters may identify pay as the main reason for employee dissatisfaction; however, compensation ranked 16 in the list of reasons individuals reported for leaving a job. In fact, employees are more than 10 times more likely to resign due to a toxic culture than they are for pay and benefits.

Five toxic traits

Many of us have witnessed firsthand the saying “firefighters hate two things – change and the way things are.” There will always be rules or policies that not everyone in your department likes, but that is not a culture issue.

What makes a culture toxic? CultureX reviewed negative comments employees gave for leaving their job. These five toxic attributes, which fit into the “Un” part of the Un-Re-New model, will destroy morale and sink your culture: disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive.

1. Disrespect: In your culture, at the department or crew level, respect is needed up and down the chain of command to build trust. A disrespectful culture has the highest negative impact on how your employees feel about where they work. As leaders, we need to make sure we create relationships that show genuine respect for our teams.

2. Non-inclusive: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is in place to prevent discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age or genetic information. Non-inclusive actions toward these groups not only negatively impact the individual harmed but also every member of your department when they see the unfair treatment. In the fire service, we also must be aware of non-inclusive actions like the creation of cliques that exclude others and officers playing favorites in the selection of members for teams or promotions rather than selecting the most qualified candidates. As leaders, we need to include everyone on our team and make them feel welcome in our departments.

3. Unethical: We all hope that fire service leaders consider ethics in their decision-making. However, in reading the keywords that were identified in the unethical category, I can see how a typical fire department culture could be deemed unethical based on the actions of some members. Words like “shady” and “dishonest” are often heard in the fire service when communication models fail. Even though there may be no intent to be deceptive or to mislead, if your firefighters feel like you lack transparency, you could be facing a workforce that perceives an unethical element in the department culture. As leaders, we must be careful to avoid actions that can be seen as unethical and explain why we cannot discuss certain items at times (legal issues, HR matters, etc.) to avoid this critical issue.

4. Cutthroat: A cutthroat culture is typically described very vividly by employees when they see it with phrases like, “thrown under a bus,” “stabbed in the back” or “sabotaged.” They are describing an unfair culture. Be aware of anyone in your organization that actively undermines people on your team. This is more than just the occasional uncooperative individual in a committee, or a single failure of a department initiative due to poor coordination. As leaders, we need to be aware of environments that allow people to work the system to harm others.

5. Abusive: Abusive management is sustained hostility, not a one-time issue the employee has with their management. It’s unprofessional. Not every conversation will be good, and issues need to be resolved by officers at all levels in a department. Abuse behaviors that impact culture includes bullying, yelling at and belittling subordinates. As leaders, we need to make sure we handle personnel items professionally and refuse to allow abusive actions to be used in discipline.

If we fail to address these five toxic traits, then we should expect issues with attrition. We can also expect greater difficulties in finding new firefighters, as the department will likely develop a reputation for being toxic. The firefighters who stay may experience lasting issues with trust in your department, even when the culture is corrected. Tax dollars keep our departments running. A toxic culture has financial implications in the hiring and training of new firefighters and in increased healthcare costs for members that struggle with stress, anxiety, depression or even physical disease from the cultural issues.


Changing culture is a big, challenging task, so where can you start? Start with the leader. To improve department culture, leaders must hold themselves accountable. This includes both chief officers and the frontline officers who handle day-to-day issues. Identify and review (the “Re” part of the Un-Re-New model) the social norms in place in your department or crew. What types of activities and behaviors are accepted in your social interactions? Do you talk about respect in your department but then allow members of the team to be ignored or pushed to the side? Our actions as leaders create these social norms for our teams. Model the new (“New”) behaviors you expect to see from your department, coach other leaders in healthy leadership methods, and hold your department to the standard you set.

Australian Army Lieutenant-General David Morrison gave a speech on unacceptable behavior. The speech captures the ownership of leadership and the understanding of social norms well with the key point to the audience: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” As leaders, we need to be like Lieutenant-General Morrison when we address our culture.

The Meridian, Idaho, chief shares powerful stories that highlight the impact of fire department culture on the entire community


  1. Katz, R. “Skills of an Effective Administrator.” Harvard Business Review, 33, pp. 33-42.
  2. Sull, D. and Sull, C. 2022. “How to Fix a Toxic Culture.” MIT Sloan Management Review. Sept. 28, 2022.
  3. Sull, D., Sull, C. and Brighenti, C. 2022. “Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture.” MIT Sloan Management Review. March 16, 2022.
  4. Sull, D., Sull, C. and Zweig, B. 2022. “Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation.” MIT Sloan Management Review. Jan. 11, 2022.
Fire Chief Tony Haden has more than 25 years of fire service experience, transitioning from division chief at the Austin (Texas) Fire Department to his current role as chief at Travis County ESD 8/Pedernales Fire Department in Texas. Connect with Haden on LinkedIn.