One of the definitions for the word “discipline” that you will find in a dictionary reads as follows: “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” As I read this definition, I am reminded of a class early in my career in which I learned that the purpose of using a disciplinary process in an organization is not to punish but to change behavior.

Using the definition and purpose outlined above, let’s run through a couple of scenarios in which discipline was administered. Consider the intent of the administrator and the effect on the recipient.

Scenario 1: During a staff meeting, an employee displays behavior that the supervisor deems to be inappropriate. This behavior angers the supervisor. What should the supervisor do?

A. Confront the employee then and there.

B. Meet with the employee soon after the staff meeting to discuss concerns and expectations.

C. Remain angry, but do nothing.

The correct answer is B. Meet with the employee as soon as possible after the meeting, regardless of the effort it takes to do so. The employee deserves to know while the incident is a fresh memory that his behavior fell short of the supervisor’s expectations. Even if the employee is disruptive during the staff meeting, confronting him then is not advisable. Instead, tell the employee that you recognize his concerns on the topic and will discuss them with him later in a separate meeting.

Assume the supervisor in Scenario 1 chose answer C (remain angry, but do nothing). If the supervisor chose not to discuss his concerns with the employee, is it reasonable to think the employee will figure this out on his own and fix the problem? No. Supervisors often chastise their subordinates by saying, “I’m not a mind reader.” However, they sometimes forget that their subordinates also are not mind readers. If you don’t tell them they’re doing something wrong, how will they ever know that they should change their behavior?

Now, let’s assume a year has passed since the first incident and the supervisor and employee are together again in a staff meeting. The employee again behaves in a way that the supervisor deems inappropriate, and the supervisor becomes angry. As in the first incident, the supervisor does nothing about it. For the next six months, the supervisor stews in his juices and remains angry with the employee, but the employee doesn’t know that he has done anything wrong. There have been multiple opportunities for the supervisor to discuss this matter with the employee, but he has chosen not to. This leads us to Scenario 2.

Scenario 2: One day the supervisor has an opportunity to talk to his boss (the manager) and bitterly complains about the behavior of the subordinate in two meetings that have occurred over the past two years. What should the manager do at this point?

A. Ask the supervisor what’s been done to resolve the problem.

B. Tell the supervisor not to waste his time with such problems.

C. Take the matter into his own hands and terminate the employee immediately.

The correct answer is A. The manager should see this as an opportunity to teach and coach the supervisor in problem solving and dealing with difficult people. The first question the manager should ask is, “Have you met with the employee to discuss your concerns and to tell him what your expectations are?”

Whenever there is a problem between two people, the best way for that problem to be resolved is for the two principals in the dispute to get together to discuss the conflict. If this hasn’t happened, the supervisor isn’t doing his job right. Sure, it would be easier to complain to the manager and dump the problem into his lap to handle, but it’s not fair to the manager or to the employee.

Let’s assume momentarily that the manager chooses answer C (terminate the employee immediately). How fair would this be to the employee? Having never given the employee the benefit of being taught or coached on expectations, how would the employee know he had done something wrong? He wouldn’t. He’d simply show up for work one day and be told his behavior on two occasions over the past two years was not acceptable and he was being terminated as a result. Imagine how bewildered and confused the employee would feel if he wasn’t told there was a problem and given the opportunity to correct it.

You may be thinking to yourself, this fable is in the land of make-believe. I can tell you that, sadly, it’s not. The facts have been changed slightly, but the supervisor’s and manager’s actions are real. The supervisor never told the employee there was a problem. The supervisor stewed in his juices. The supervisor used his manager to take adverse employment action against the employee.


Remember, the purpose of disciplinary action is to change behavior, not to punish. The employee in this story was never given the opportunity to change his behavior because he was never told there was a problem. Causing an adverse employment action against this unsuspecting employee is pure punishment with malicious intent. The supervisor was angry; therefore, the employee must suffer.

This might be a good place to pause and discuss the emotional maturity it takes to be a good supervisor. I recently attended a class on the topic of leadership in which the speaker told the attendees that “growing old is mandatory, but maturing is optional.” Certainly, a supervisor who purposely causes his employee pain simply because he lacks the maturity to deal with the problem in a professional manner and allows his anger to override his good judgment is problematic.

Now we have three problems to resolve. First, we have the undesirable behavior of the employee that gave rise to this entire issue two years ago; second, we have the behavior of the supervisor who has chosen not to deal with the problem and allowed his good judgment to be tainted by anger; and third, we have the inappropriate actions of the manager, who allowed the supervisor to talk him into taking adverse employment action against an employee who was never given the opportunity to address his shortcoming.

The best solution to this situation is to prevent it from happening in the first place. To accomplish this, we’ll apply a four-step approach I learned from an exceptional fire service leader, Tim Holman, chief of the German Township (OH) Fire Department. Holman’s approach is one of teaching, coaching, and counseling. Here’s how it works:

  • The supervisor sets clear expectations for employee conduct well before a problem arises. The supervisor teaches these boundaries to all employees so there are clear expectations regarding behavior.
  • If an employee steps over the line, the supervisor follows up with the employee quickly, giving the employee some coaching, reviewing the expectations of the supervisor and discussing with the employee any misunderstandings there might be about the expectations. At the conclusion of the coaching session, the employee and the supervisor have a mutual understanding about expectations.
  • If the employee steps over the line again, the supervisor follows up with the employee (again, in a timely manner, while the facts of the situation are fresh). This time, the approach is a little different because the supervisor already has used the teaching and coaching technique. In the counseling phase of this process, the supervisor reviews the expectations again (some people learn at a slower pace than others). The additional step in counseling comes with the review of the consequences if the problem continues. This is an important component that eliminates any surprises. If the employee knows that stepping outside the established bounds will result in disciplinary action and he does so anyway, then the consequences are not a surprise.
  • The final step is the administration of discipline. This step comes only after teaching, coaching, and counseling have failed to achieve the desired result. We have established that the purpose of discipline is to change behavior, not to punish, so start lightly. The disciplinary phase also includes a review of the desired behavior. The severity of the disciplinary action should be based on the consequences (or potential consequences) the behavior has caused (or could cause) to the organization and the achievement of its mission. Better to start light and use a progressive approach when you can.

It has been my experience that employees who want to be productive members of the organization will respond well when this process is used. Most of the time, the behavior will be corrected with teaching. Occasionally, it will require some coaching, depending on the complexity of the task with which the employee is struggling.

It has also been my experience that employees who progress to counseling and discipline are the same people who are not productive members of the organization and are not there for the right reasons (i.e., to meet the needs of the community by putting service to others and the needs of the organization above their own selfish desires). A person who is not onboard with the organization’s direction and supportive of the mission is probably not someone who is going to respond very well to teaching and coaching.

We cannot force people to change their behavior. They can only change if they want to. If they don’t want to change, no amount of teaching, coaching, counseling, or disciplining is going to make them do what we need them to do. Simply stated, these people need to leave the organization, and having a progressive disciplinary process can help you transition them to being a nonmember.


Progressive discipline often follows a series of benchmarks that may include an oral warning, a written warning, suspension, demotion, or termination. Here are some key steps in the formal progressive disciplinary process:

  1. Develop a written progressive disciplinary policy and have it reviewed by your department attorney and approved by your governing body.
  2. Make sure the policy is well communicated to all your members. This includes not only giving everyone a copy of the policy but also going over the policy at a departmentwide meeting to ensure that everyone understands the policy.
  3. As you administer disciplinary action, keep your focus on the behavior that needs to change. Fair, firm, and friendly are three good qualities to display during the disciplinary process. Even if you are angry about the employee’s behavior, don’t make it personal.
  4. Make sure your progressive disciplinary process has a mechanism for the employee to provide his side of the story before the discipline is administered. This is known as due process, which could prove important if the disciplinary action is challenged in a court of law.
  5. The policy should include an appeal process. For example, if the captain administers the discipline, the member should be able to appeal to the chief. If the chief administers the discipline, the member should be able to appeal to the city manager or human resources director (or some authority higher than the chief). If a defendant loses a case in a lower court and feels the decision was in error, he can appeal that decision to a higher court.
  6. The behaviors that lead to discipline are cumulative. By this I mean that once you start the formal progressive disciplinary process, each additional infraction of department rules leads to a progression to the next step. You don’t have to start back at step one each time a new rule is infracted.
  7. Steps in the process can be bypassed based on the severity of the policy infraction (your written progressive disciplinary action policy should state that explicitly). Here is a clear example: An employee shows up for work intoxicated, drives the fire apparatus, causes a wreck that results in the death of a civilian, and produces blood alcohol test results that are two times the legal limit. Even if you have a progressive disciplinary process, you don’t have to start at step one (e.g., an oral reprimand) when the consequences of the behavior are so significant.
  8. Adverse employment action (i.e., termination) may result in legal action. It’s good advice to have your human resources department or department attorney review such actions before they are administered, even if the member is a volunteer.

Based on my experience and the discussions I’ve had with dozens of chiefs on this topic, once you begin to traverse the steps of progressive discipline beyond the oral warning, the behavior of some members is not going to change and their attitude toward the organization and you (the disciplinarian) will likely deteriorate. When this happens, holding the employee accountable for his behavior and performance is important. The best outcome you could hope for is that the employee’s behavior and attitude improve and the employee returns to being a productive part of the team. If that doesn’t happen, don’t hesitate to remove him from the organization using a well-designed and well-communicated process.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY, chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department, is a 27-year fire service veteran with 17 years of command experience. He has a master’s degree in business administration and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He lectures on management and leadership topics throughout the United States and Canada

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