BY EDDIE BUCHANAN
Odds are, you have observed someone in your fire department who consistently performs poorly and that you wonder, “How does he still work here? Why doesn’t management get rid of him?” Seems easy enough; why isn’t something done? Fast-forward a few months to your performance evaluation. Your boss gives you a decent rating, but the discussion seems to cover only the past couple of months. You moved mountains during the first few months of the performance period, but that was long ago and out of management’s mind by now. Both scenarios have a common issue that challenges most organizations—
These days, leadership is all the rage in the fire service. Social media pages and Web sites pop up daily touting one leadership theory or another. Being the coach and cheerleader for your people is the easy and popular part. Providing honest, critical feedback can be more challenging. And if you document that feedback, you risk being known as the disciplinarian that most want to avoid. The fear surrounding documenting performance has much to do with not fully understanding the benefits that documentation provides for positive and negative performance.
The Human Resources Perspective
In larger fire departments, catastrophic behavior issues typically land on the desk of the human resources (HR) chief, who will investigate to verify the facts and determine the course of action the department chief wishes to or may be required to take on the case. Commonly, the vibe in the field will be that this person was a sub performer and troublemaker; it was only a matter of time before the individual would be terminated. If significant discipline or punishment is appropriate, it most likely will require a visit to the local government’s HR office, which is common whenever punitive actions are recommended. If you are in a collective-bargaining area, it may require even more steps and involve more people. When you walk into the conference to discuss the matter and resulting actions with the “big” HR people, you’ll find they typically have two sets of documents—the person’s last several performance evaluations and personnel file, which includes documentation of other behaviors that may have been submitted. You walk in carrying a counseling record for a behavior that could result in termination, depending on how the facts are interpreted. You present your case with facts and documentation, causing some gasps and raised eyebrows among those present, and conclude that the fire department recommends very serious action, such as suspension or termination.
Next, the HR representative opens the employee’s performance evaluations and reads the ratings and comments to the group. If you did your homework, you won’t be surprised to find the material recited makes the member sound like Santa Claus, not the demon you’ve spent the past week investigating. Then, the HR representative opens the employee file and finds nothing more than the person’s employment application and emergency contact information. Now, you are in the “Let’s give the firefighter in question one more chance” zone. Since none of the issues that were known in the field were ever documented and submitted, there is no record to bolster your case. From your perspective, your evidence for termination or suspension may seem over the top, but you may find yourself instituting a work plan or remedial training that a nagging voice in your head is telling you will not resolve the issue.
This lack of documentation could also have another impact. Maybe an employee made a horrible mistake, but he is a good firefighter overall. He simply messed up! If only some of the great things that employee did were in that file to offset this one glaring mistake! But, all too often, the real picture of employee behavior, good or bad, is absent in these meetings and organizational actions are carried out without relevant information.
Why Is Documentation So Hard?
There is no better symbolism of switching from buddy to boss than putting pen to paper. As the supervisor, you are documenting a person’s performance and providing feedback and direction based on your observations. At this moment, you are clearly the boss! You are officially judging performance. But you are also the coach and responsible for the development and improvement of those you lead.
The great misconception regarding documenting performance is that it is used only to note poor or unacceptable performance. Being “written up” by the boss has a negative cultural connotation. This fear of death by the pen is absolutely false! Documenting performance does require that you be competent and secure enough in your abilities as a firefighter and supervisor to provide meaningful feedback to others. Documenting that feedback provides a record that the conversation did occur, whether the performance in question was stellar or required improvement. It also provides a record that you did your job as supervisor.
Remember the problem employee we were discussing with HR? When there is great disparity between performance ratings and performance documentation in the file and the now obvious issues in question, how will the department view such a great disparity? A logical question would be, Did the employee have a sudden change of personality and behavior, or did the supervisor fail to engage and do the job? Your failure to act and document might return to haunt you after the case of the problem employee has been resolved. First, the chief will deal with that employee; then, he’ll deal with you.
Using It to Your Advantage
Keeping regular performance documentation can help you and the employee in several ways. Although your less-than-stellar performers may benefit from the protection of the gray area that a lack of documentation provides, your elite performers will welcome the feedback. Elite performers often seek critical feedback and will sometimes make significant sacrifices to get it.
Insulate Your Stars
By regularly documenting your star players’ great performances, you may also provide some insulation that may help them if they make a horrible mistake later in their careers. When opening that employee file, the HR representative will see all the great work that the employee has done in the past that should be considered together with whatever has gone wrong now. This will be much more useful to the employee than the emergency contact information.
These records prove that you were doing your job as the supervisor. Wise promotional panels will pull the employee files of subordinates a candidate supervised in the past. You may talk a great game in the promotional interview, but the real proof (or lack) of your abilities will be found in the files of your previous subordinates.
Documenting Both Ways
The focus tends to be on the supervisor’s documenting the subordinate’s performance. But, there is much more opportunity there if you seek it. Encourage employees to regularly document their performance, to keep a journal as they go through the year. You may not witness all of their creativity in providing service to the citizens. This can be a handy document when performance evaluation time comes. Hopefully, you and your firefighter will regularly sit down and discuss performance. As the supervisor, you can share your observations of that member’s performance and that person can share his personal observations. You can essentially compare notes and discuss how to improve.
If you’re confident as a supervisor, ask your subordinates to provide feedback on your performance. Everyone has areas in which they can improve. You may also identify areas of miscommunications and take advantage of the opportunity to provide better transparency, which enhances trust.
Choosing the Right Instrument
Use the right tools for documentation and the appropriate one for the circumstances. Your department or local government likely has a formal process for documenting poor performance, and it should also have a standardized counseling form and process to support the form. When creating documentation that may result in negative consequences for the employee, be objective and concise; don’t add opinions and subjective information. Consider these documents as you would a report narrative, writing as if you may be questioned about your actions in court sometime in the future, because you may! Ensure your documentation is complete and accurate before you deliver it to the employee. Once the employee has received it, it is nearly impossible to change it. If you have questions, seek assistance from your chain of command.
For informal feedback, you may need to investigate your organization’s procedures. The department may already have an instrument for recording informal employee feedback. When such guidance is available, certainly use it. When informal feedback instruments are not present, create your own. You may choose a notebook or a computer-based platform. Whatever you choose, ensure it is secure and confidential. The information should not be accessible by anyone other than you, the employee, and your supervisor. You may retain your personal records for as long as you feel appropriate. Also, seek guidance from your department on where these records should be maintained. It is common for informal records to be retained at the station level, but if you want a record to be more permanent, submit it to the employee’s personnel file. It is important that any information submitted to the employee’s personnel file be shared with the employee prior to its submission.
Documenting performance should be a good thing! If the supervisor regularly documents employees’ great performances, they will be much more receptive to documentation for an area that needs improvement. Strong documentation facilitates better communication among personnel, and when done properly, it facilitates continuous improvement. Proper documentation also stands as proof of a supervisor’s performance.
So, go ahead, boss! Write me up!
EDDIE BUCHANAN is a past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and an assistant chief with Hanover (VA) Fire & EMS. He serves on the FDIC International and Fire Engineering editorial advisory boards. He is the 2015 winner of the George D. Post Instructor of the Year Award.