Many fire departments have some form of progressive discipline in place. Progressive discipline centers on the concept that most employees will correct behavioral problems if they are adequately notified of the issue. Theoretically, employers also can fire employees who are unable or unwilling to correct problems, making the dismissal more likely to withstand a court challenge.
The key to this process is to discipline in the least-severe manner initially and to increase the level of discipline as rule infractions continue. In theory, if applied fairly and uniformly, progressive discipline can make individuals feel they have chances to improve and other employees feel that rule violations are being addressed appropriately.
Even with a strong system of progressive discipline in place, however, many departments suffer from complaints that center on several major themes. First, employees may not be clear what constitutes a rule infraction. Second, many employees believe that some people are disciplined for certain actions that others are not. Third, employees may believe that certain people are singled out for discipline for other reasons, such as race, gender, rank or station assignment. These complaints present an opportunity to improve the use of progressive discipline.
If correctly designed and administered, a progressive discipline program has the potential to do more than change individual behavior. Progressive discipline can increase professionalism, improve morale, improve manager/employee relations and foster long-term positive change.
With these goals in mind, create a progressive discipline system that looks beyond individual behavior and develop standards and processes for your department as a whole. These tasks include written job descriptions and guidelines about what constitutes a rule infraction, a regular review of discipline statistics to ensure discipline is fair and equal, and a periodic revision of written standards based on this review.
Few departments operate these days without written procedures or guidelines. While departments have realized the importance of guiding crews with tactical and operational issues, many written guidelines don't clearly identify what constitutes a rule infraction outside of operational issues. Dealing with rule infractions on a case-by-case basis can leave the impression, often accurately, that each individual will be dealt with differently. These issues can undermine a progressive discipline system even if each individual case is handled using this method.
The Minneapolis Fire Department, as an example, faced this issue in the late 1990s. After a change in top management, the new fire chief, Rocco Forté, had to resolve dozens of employee grievances over discipline that remained from the years of his predecessor. While the department had been practicing progressive discipline, the sheer volume of employee grievances was evidence that the employees felt the discipline did not work and was unfair.
Working with the union, Forté set out to clarify the essential rules of the fire department and to create a chart that explained how each rule violation would be handled. The administration identified 20 rules, some of which have been further broken out, as essential to the fire department's mission, rules that each firefighter must follow to ensure productivity of the department as a whole. The administration and the union then set out to clarify what level of discipline was commensurate with each infraction, including successive violations, with flexibility for varying circumstances.
|Supervisor fails to enforce city, civil service or MFD rules and policies||Suspension||Demotion|
|Supervisor fails to enforce sexual harassment policy||Demotion||Discharge|
|Sexual harassment with physical assault||Discharge|
|Sexual harassment||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Sexual harassment retaliation||Suspension||Discharge|
|Sexual harassment (Supervisor's)||Suspension||Discharge|
|Criminal, dishonest or disorderly conduct||Suspension||Discharge|
|Making false entries or statements in any department communications||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Acceptance of gifts or gratuities from public in connection with performance of duty as a city employee||Suspension||Discharge|
|Endangering self, fellow employees or public by willful violation of safety rules, laws or ordinances||Suspension||Discharge|
|Possession or consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs on city property||Suspension||Discharge|
|Reporting to work under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs||Evaluation||Discharge|
|Provoking or instigating a fight||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Physical assault in the workplace||Suspension||Discharge|
|Misappropriation or unlawful taking of city property||Suspension||Discharge|
|Willful or negligent destruction of city property||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Insubordination/Refusal to carry out an order or abusive language||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Leaving workplace without authorization||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|AWOL with notification||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Working more than 48 consecutive hours or buying or selling shifts||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Failure to assist in backing fire apparatus||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Allowing persons other than MFD personnel to ride apparatus or occupy fire department property without the fire chief's permission||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Interfering with the works of others or failure to treat the public or fellow employees with courtesy||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Excessive absenteeism resulting in loss of pay||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Failure to report a known injury||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Failure to provide an address or phone number or to have a telephone at residence, or making personal phone charges against a station number||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
|Smoking in any city-owned vehicle or building||Verbal warning||Written warning||Suspension||Discharge|
With clear written job descriptions and rules, the department was able to align employee expectations and job performance with department goals. Since Forté took over as chief in 1998, employees have been disciplined only for violations of the 20 rules or substandard performance based on written job-performance descriptions. There have been more than 175 instances of discipline in the department for which the union has filed no grievances. It's apparent that written rules and guidelines for discipline have greatly reduced the strain of management/employee relations on the department.
Additionally, the department has won eight lawsuits at summary judgment, nine city civil rights complaints, one state human rights complaint, three EEOC complaints and five civil service complaints. The department's experience shows that well-documented rules and a systematic approach to progressive discipline can keep not only the number of employee grievances down, but can help your department withstand the claim when they do arise.
Consistency is key
Creating clear, written performance expectations is just the first step in developing an effective system of progressive discipline. The next, and maybe the biggest, change for many departments is to take discipline out of the stations. Many departments dispense their discipline, progressive or otherwise, at the station level. Captains or lower-level chiefs deal with rule infractions as they arise. While there exist some benefits to keeping problems “in house,” they are far outweighed by the potential liabilities.
In this day and age of expansive and expensive litigation, fire chiefs are being held liable for things they didn't know or should have known about. Additionally, favoritism can abound when problems are handled at such a low level, providing fodder for discrimination claims. Finally, problem employees can avoid detection by simply transferring to another station or shift.
Instead of having line officers deal with rule infractions, they should report these infractions up the chain of command to someone designated to have final oversight on the disciplinary process. Ultimately the chief is responsible, but the task of reviewing disciplinary complaints may be delegated to an assistant or other higher-ranking chief. In the same way that organizations institute quality-control programs by developing oversight procedures, this process can ensure consistency in discipline.
The person in charge of oversight can ensure that the level of discipline is appropriate for the infraction, that all sides of the story are aired before discipline is assigned and that other violations are not being overlooked.
A higher authority must review every disciplinary action before discipline is handed out. Once a firefighter has been disciplined, it's difficult if not impossible to change the level of discipline — it's crucial to get it right the first time. If your fire department is used to handling discipline problems at the station level, this will be a difficult change to initiate.
Consistent application of any discipline system lies in the actions of supervisors. All levels of supervisors in your department must be onboard with your disciplinary system for it to be successful. It's essential that you train supervisors thoroughly on the new process and work to gain their commitment to the system. This is most important with the line supervisors, as they will be the ones witnessing and reporting rule infractions — a rule violation that isn't reported will lead to no discipline. You must do more than just send a memo to train your supervisors. At a minimum this training should include:
- How the disciplinary system works,
- What types of actions should be treated with discipline,
- What actions should be handled “in house” or with a less formal action and how these should be handled,
- What the legal responsibilities of the officers are,
- What support systems are available for officers when problems arise, and
- What behavior to expect from individuals being disciplined and how to handle it.
This training should be continuous. Officers should have someone to turn to with questions, as they certainly will have many the first time they have to report rule violations, particularly if you are trying to implement a change in your disciplinary system.
Supervisors also must be held accountable if they fail to report rule violations or if they do so inconsistently. Supervisors must be taught that they will enforce the rules or face discipline themselves. If a supervisor refuses to or is unable to enforce the rules, then he or she has no business supervising others. Without the supervisors' commitment, you will not see the larger department-wide gains that are possible.
When a supervisor reports a rule infraction, the decision-maker must handle the report appropriately and in a timely manner. Supervisors will quickly learn which rules their chief officers find important and which they choose to overlook. This can erode their confidence and commitment to the discipline process as a whole. If chief officers pick and choose which rules should be followed, it is only a matter of time before subordinates do the same.
In the event of a rule infraction, officers should work to gather as much information as possible to send up the chain of command, including:
- Name and rank of employee who committed the rule infraction;
- Date of infraction;
- Description of infraction;
- Rule that was violated, referring to written SOPs;
- Name of witnesses; and
- Name of supervisor who reported the infraction.
It's best to provide line officers with a form to report rule violations. Also use a form to record the disciplinary decision. Be sure to give a copy of the discipline record to the employee, keep one in his or her file, and keep another in a separate confidential area for your own data collection purposes.
In the end, your line supervisors will make or break your disciplinary system. If line supervisors don't believe in the rules you establish, or they don't report them, the system will fail. Along with clear training, using unions and other employee groups to design your disciplinary system and rules will help with buy-in from these critical players. While you can command from on high as a chief officer, the time you take to involve employees will more than pay off later.
Claims of discrimination
What about complaints that individuals are being singled out for discipline reasons other than rule violations or job performance? Any administrator may be quick to assure that their disciplinary process is free of racism, sexism or other discrimination, but can you be sure that your disciplinary system is fair and equitable without review?
This is where the forms that you've created to report rule violations and discipline will play an important role. It's essential to be periodically review your discipline data. You can learn a lot about your actual discipline record by running some simple calculations on your compiled data. This is where you want to step back from the individuals and look at the larger picture, as anecdotal information doesn't make for good policy.
When you evaluate your discipline record, think of the following types of questions:
- What rule infraction is most commonly the cause of discipline?
- Are certain stations generating more discipline than others?
- Are certain supervisors generating more discipline than others?
- What percentage of discipline is being handed out to each race, rank or gender?
If you have collected consistent data for each disciplinary action, these questions should be easy to answer. Interpreting your results, however, may prove more challenging. There are some important points to keep in mind when analyzing your discipline data.
You can't draw any real and significant conclusions if you have fewer than 20 to 30 disciplinary actions to analyze. For statisticians, 30 is the preferred group size to begin running any real analytical tests. If you don't have enough employee violations in a year to review, then hold off until you have a larger number of violations.
Beware of repeat offenders when analyzing your data. If one person commits 15 violations in a year and you are looking at 20 acts of discipline, then you don't have enough data to analyze your discipline process in a meaningful way — and you have an employee whom you should consider releasing.
When analyzing any group of employees, for example race, gender or rank, be aware of the percentages in your department. If firefighters receive 75% of the discipline in your department and they make up 70% of the department, then this finding should not alarm you. If women receive 50% of the discipline and they constitute 2% of your department, you should be alarmed.
Don't be afraid to ask for help with your data either before or after a review. Many cities and counties have lawyers, human resource specialists and others who can help you make decisions about how to analyze your data.
After the review
Now that you have met with employee groups, designed a new discipline system, trained your supervisors, and collected and analyzed data, what do you do next? This will depend on what your analysis has shown you.
If one certain violation or several violations constitute the majority of offenses, then you will know what areas of your rules and regulations you need to emphasize in training. For example, if more employees were disciplined for not wearing proper turnout gear than any other rule, create an educational campaign to explain why this is important. Send your chief officers out with the message. Educate the line officers on the problem. Involve the union in a campaign to improve in this area. The punitive approach will come through individual cases of discipline; now is the time to be positive and re-educate your department as a whole.
It also may be the case that one violation occurs at a higher frequency because it really isn't an important rule. Beware of choosing your rules without careful analysis because dropping a rule can have negative repercussions on your discipline system. However, as times change, so do the rules of the game. Don't be afraid to change the rules as they become outdated.
If one particular group is receiving more than its expected share of discipline, be ready to examine all sides of the issue. For example, it can be easy to simply stereotype white men who are disciplined more than expected for fighting as “go-getters who are passionate about the job” or to negatively stereotype a group as “disgruntled with changes in the department.”
However, one particular cultural, racial or ethnic group committing a higher frequency of violations could point to other problems, such as unfair distribution of discipline or a morale issue that underlies the discipline problem. Be willing to suspend judgment and work with employee groups such as the union or cultural networks of firefighters to get to the root of the problem. You may never know the whole story but if the data is showing you a problem, your job is to try to fix it. Jumping to conclusions without investigating would do the department a disservice.
A review of discipline data also may show that there are differences in performance expectations among companies, stations or even ranks. You may need to address this to avoid a morale issue. An example of this would be if apparatus operators believe they are being held more accountable for errors than other ranks. If these complaints exist, particularly throughout the department and on the basis of rank, review your SOPs to be sure performance standards are clear and definable for all ranks. If one station or crew is disciplined more heavily, investigate with the officers in that station as you may be seeing signs and symptoms of dysfunction.
As you review your discipline data it is essential to keep an open mind. This period of review is not just the end of a long process of changing your disciplinary system, it's also the beginning as you must be willing and able to adapt to the information you learn. Creating a truly fair and equitable disciplinary system is an ongoing and evolving process that will more than reward you with higher morale, improved labor-management relations, higher productivity and a legally sound department.
In the end, creating a new disciplinary model for your department may be a tough change to initiate. However, the importance of protecting your department from costly lawsuits and the potential to improve morale far outweigh any negatives.
How you as the chief handle yourself will go a long way toward the success of the program you're trying to implement. You can design a great discipline system, only to undermine it by treating your employees with disrespect or by betraying confidential information. There is more to implementing an effective discipline system than just the processes and standards. It takes vision, leadership and grace.
Jennifer Cornell is currently a captain with the Minneapolis Fire Department, where she has been since 1994. She has taught two rookie schools for her department, is a fire science instructor at Hennepin Technical College and is a contract instructor with the National Fire Academy. Cornell has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in labor policy from the University of Minnesota. She's one of the founders and the secretary for the Minnesota Women Firefighters' Association.