The term “progressive discipline” automatically brings forth negative thoughts, but it shouldn’t. Discipline is a fact of life in the workforce. As a supervisor, you are charged with efficiently accomplishing tasks in your area of responsibility. If it is true that you, as a manager, must accomplish tasks with the resources and personnel available, then you will find yourself completing various assignments through the efforts and abilities of the people working for you. A primary key in developing and maintaining an effective workforce is your skill in fostering good working relationships among your employees. You must find a way to maintain a positive attitude among employees who willingly follow department policies and procedures.

In an ideal world, employees would be built that way-they would always be positive, do the right thing, and follow all the rules. Unfortunately, however, in the real world, not everyone is perfect in every way, and many organizations must embrace the concept of progressive discipline.

This article describes the system used in my organization when management must act to prevent or respond to an employee’s failure to meet work or performance standards. The system is used as a general reference when implementing the progressive discipline process. It offers supervisors a constructive approach for handling situations related to employee discipline and methods for doing it so that any potential for getting in trouble while doing so is minimized.

First, understand that there is no magic formula for solving problems arising from interpersonal relationships. No standard or procedure can replace sound judgment or common sense. When sound judgment, positive relationships, and any other tool you have fail, however, your remaining option may be to change an unacceptable behavior. The principles of progressive discipline will help you to do this.

The progressive discipline philosophy addresses unacceptable behavior issues in three stages: preventative, corrective, and adverse. Although the progression is obvious, it is complex and warrants further review. The preventative phase is discussed in this article; the other two phases will be discussed in the segments to follow.


Understandably, this phase is informal and can be started and completed at the first level of supervision. It is ongoing in that it occurs prior to, during, and after hiring an individual. It is based on the simple premise that creating and maintaining certain conditions will greatly diminish the need for the corrective and adverse disciplinary processes. The premise is that the more information employees have about what is expected of them, the less confusion there will be when adjustments are needed.

Creating the Proper Environment

Here are some tips on how to create an environment in which positive work relationships can be developed and maintained:

Reference checks. Before you offer a job to an individual, your organization should at a minimum contact any prior supervisors or employers to determine if there were any problems with the person’s performance, attitude, and relationships with others in the workplace. In our litigious society, previous employers are not encouraged or allowed to give negative reports because they can be held liable if their negative report keeps the person from getting the job. Realizing this, when I am asked about a former employee who was marginal, I follow my Grandma’s advice, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” I don’t know about you, but if I get silence from a previous supervisor about a future employee, I would take that as a negative. Of course, we must deal with the type of persons who will praise a poor employee they are happy to see leave. If you are that type of person, you should not be in the noble profession of the fire service.

Duty statements. Every position you fill should have a duty statement that lists the essential functions of the job-the functions the person must be able to perform under certain circumstances. The essential functions should be consistent with the position or rank and be explained clearly and concisely. Your organization must have a duty statement available to advertise a position in the first place, but it may need to be tuned up some to be a valid supervisory tool.

The statement is also an extremely important tool for dealing with existing employees who have been injured and are returning to work. The primary care physician will use the essential functions of the job as a guide when determining if the employee can do the job, and workers’ compensation will use them when determining “reasonable accommodation” and in cases where legal return-to-work issues arise.

At the time of hire, you should go over the duty statement with the new employee, and the statement should be referred to when conducting quarterly performance reviews during the probation period and for annual performance reports after the employee is off probation. Any time an employee’s duties change, whether the result of promotion or change of assignment, the duty statement should be revised. In this way, you ensure that your employees understand the essential functions of their job and what is expected of them. I have found that one of the keys to a positive workplace environment is making sure employees understand what they are supposed to be doing and how it is to be done.

Clear standards of conduct. The standards expected should be in writing. Perhaps you and the employee can develop these standards together. Establishing standards of conduct and performance and ensuring that your employees understand them will help to prevent misconduct. Sometimes, what is perceived as misconduct might be simply a matter of not understanding what is expected, and, believe me, it will be thrown in your face if convenient.

When writing standards, make sure the standards are applicable to each specific position. In some instances, they might be qualitative. For example, if a duty of a certain position is that the employee create patient care reports, you may want to specify how long it should take to create the report. Standards should reflect how important an action or activity is to the organization’s productivity. Regardless of the content or rationale, all standards should be just like incident objectives: They must be reasonable and achievable. Remember when changing standards that it is important to have them reviewed by legal counsel and any employees’ association involved with your employees.

Favorable working environment. I think we all agree that a good working environment will encourage most employees to want to do their work. A favorable work environment includes the physical environment, but interpersonal relationships are equally important. A hostile work environment may include an extremely cold (temperature) setting or being picked on by someone with a dominant personality.

As I said in the beginning, the term progressive discipline conjures up a negative mindset. Therefore, keep in mind that within this system it is important to give a word of commendation or praise for a job well done. In my experience, a favorable or positive response is much more effective at changing behaviors than overt discipline, and it goes a long way in gaining respect. I would rather rein in employees than kick them in the butt.

Finally, a word of advice to you who may feel that you can buy a positive working environment by giving in to all employee requests: I have watched chiefs sell their departments down the river through employee negotiations, giving salary and benefits at every turn, and staring blankly when the same employees stab them in the back when they least expect it. I firmly believe in treating employees fairly, equitably, and honestly. However, I also always remember two pieces of advice given to me: (1) Familiarity breeds contempt, and (2) Many will mistake kindness for weakness, so don’t try to buy allegiance; it won’t work.

Communication. Your employees should always feel that they can offer suggestions for improvements in methodologies or bring problems to you. In short, your employees should be willing to approach you with their thoughts.

I would like to interject a little paramilitary philosophy here. I am talking about an open-door policy, and that is good. However, employees need to understand up front which doors they can go to and which ones they should go to first. As a chief of a small department, I don’t mind seeing all of my employees, but I prefer they run their concerns and issues through their immediate supervisor first. They must also pass one test, and that is, “Have you talked to your supervisor about this first?”

If you want them to come to you, you will have to keep an open mind when listening to recommendations and always be fair in your solutions. As a supervisor, you must always be ready to listen to employees’ concerns, when they arise, if they affect other employees’ welfare interests. The lines of communication should be really open if an employee comes to you with interpersonal issues in the area of harassment or discrimination-100 percent of the time, no exceptions. If a problem is brought to you that clearly indicates the need for an adjustment, and you have the authority to make the adjustment, if you observe infractions that have become acceptable to the group, make it known publicly to that group that the specified change is required. Then, be prepared to enforce the change if you have to.

As a supervisor, effective communication includes being familiar with collective bargaining groups, programs, and issues that affect your staff, particularly equal opportunity, discrimination, reasonable accommodation policies, and your Employee Assistance Program. Finally, if a situation that you do not have the authority to handle arises, pass it on to the next level of authority. Never deny an employee the opportunity to take the issue higher if he desires to do so. If your boss is any good, he will ask the employee my favorite question when he walks in, “Did you run it by your boss first? If so, why are you here now?”

Good example. It is unrealistic to expect your employees to exhibit good conduct and standards if you do not do so yourself. Your employees will constantly watch you and evaluate you, and, in doing so, your behavior will set the standard of acceptable work conduct and performance. Frankly, if you do not set a good example, you cannot expect good work conduct. Remember, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” This is an old adage that is so obvious it hurts. Yet, I see it violated often. Can you guess where? On the fireground. I will run a firefighter up a post for entering a structure without total personal protective equipment compliance while I stand at the scene in my baseball hat. Get the picture? Do it right.

Fair and impartial. If you are fair to your employees and impartial when controlling the work environment, you will garner respect. If you allow infractions to go uncorrected, employees will soon accept them as common practices. This is a killer. Why? The bad habits taught to rookies at the kitchen table by the old guard who may not follow all the rules on the fireground are killing our firefighters. As a supervisor, one of the hardest things to do is change the behavior of the 30-year captain, because every time you try it, it results in an unending litany of events. This individual has 30 odd years of experience working within the system and can cause you problems, if he chooses, while never crossing the line. This type of individual has 24 hours a day to think of ways to mess with you while you can allot only so much time to the situation. The result is that you look the other way, and guess what? You are now no longer fair and impartial, and the lessons taught at the kitchen table kill the kids on the fireground.

If you are going to have a standard or level of work performance in your outfit, it must be, “One size fits all, or get rid of it.” Arbitrary or unfair supervision will do more to undermine morale than any other action you can take. Only if you are lucky will this policy not kill or injure someone. Be cautious when dealing with issues that invoke strong feelings in either party, as it will cause one or both to lose objectivity when it is needed the most. If you find yourself in this type of volatile situation where you cannot be objective and, therefore, you would be unfair, ask your supervisor for assistance to ensure the final outcome is fair and impartial. There is no shame in running up the ladder for advice or support.

Training. It is your responsibility to ensure that the necessary training is made available to the employee. It is the employee’s responsibility to ensure that he is adequately trained to perform at the expected level. A good way to determine if the employee is receiving adequate training and to plan for future needs is to address the issue during the annual performance report process. This way, it is an open discussion, and it is in writing and agreed on by both parties. I find it amazing that we can set standards of performance and then do not give the employees the benefit of training so they can attain the goal. What is more amazing is that we will then punish the person for the inability to perform. Teach employees how to do the job before you criticize them.

Performance reports. In my department, performance reports are completed annually on or about July 1 and quarterly for probationary employees. Performance reports can be done more frequently, as needed, to address a performance problem and should be used in this fashion. When giving a performance report, be direct in stating deficiencies. Just as important is that the employee is not hearing of the deficiency for this first time during the review process.

The performance report should also include a section in which the employee states the desired goals for the next year, including training and personal development, that may address any deficiencies. You should then review and discuss these goals and comment on their planning. Also, compare the employee’s performance and ability to complete the stated goals by reviewing the previous year’s report. Keep in mind that just because the employee proposes various goals, you do not have to approve all of them, but you should at least acknowledge them.

I have noted over the years that many supervisors greatly resist completing performance reports. When this is the case, if the manager is forced to complete the report, it sometimes results in a substandard report. I am not sure which is worse, not doing a performance report or doing a lousy one. If your organization uses performance reports, commit yourself to doing them in a timely fashion and in depth. You will be mildly surprised and refreshed after the sessions with your staff as you open doors of communication and trust.

Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If your organization has an EAP, it should be a confidential short-term assessment, counseling, and referral program available to all employees. It is important that the EAP be offered to all employees during all phases of the progressive discipline program simply because performance deficiencies can be indicative of personal problems that require intervention by a professional. We have made our EAP available to our employees any time, and they may access it up to three visits without supervisor approval so they can deal with personal issues at their time of need before problems manifest themselves in an ugly fashion.

Encourage employees with personal or job performance problems that may be due to some external factor to use the EAP. These problems may be caused by alcohol or drug abuse or personal or family problems. Make sure your staff knows and understands the EAP and how to access it. Your organization should have a self-referral program within the EAP that allows employees to access the EAP if they recognize their own problem.

Additionally, there should be provisions that enable supervisors to recommend the program when they become aware of an employee’s problem. In this case, you would recommend to the employee that he seek help through the EAP. This informal referral should be passed on to your supervisor to keep him in the loop.

Finally, supervisors must have the ability to formally refer an employee to the EAP in cases where poor performance or behavior, which may be caused by personal problems, is affecting the group’s work performance. In this case, prepare a formal letter to your supervisor describing the problem. In all cases, use of the EAP is voluntary, and the employee needs to be assured that the program maintains confidentiality at all times. Remember that asking for professional assistance is a solid management decision. Simply calling the EAP does not commit the employee to anything. The decision to confront the employee, make the referral to an EAP, or take disciplinary action is up to you. Always keep in mind the action chosen should be one that is the best for the employee and the organization.

• • •

The preventative phase, as noted, is ongoing-from the day you meet and interview a prospective employee until the employee retires. It is all about developing and maintaining a quality work environment and is intrinsically linked to all aspects of personnel management and daily operations.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and as operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger was incident commander for the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border, and served as its incident commander for six years. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.

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