Disciplinary action: Does it make your employees SORE or SOAR?

Eight principles to ensure self-disciplined progress among your members


Disciplinary action. The general thought conjured by those two words is that someone is in TROUBLE! Based on the way we have been programmed, that assumption would be correct.

What I would like to do here is reimagine or redefine discipline in a way that 99% of the time, it is seen as a positive, and it is readily, even joyfully, received. Readily and joyfully? Yes, readily and joyfully.

As a leader, the type of disciplinary action you use will fall into one of two categories – actions that make your employees SORE, Snuff Out Remaining Enthusiasm, or SOAR, See Opportunities And Rise. To make these changes in your department, be sure to download and share our 8 principles to SOAR.

As a leader, the type of disciplinary action you use will fall into one of two categories – actions that make your employees SORE, Snuff Out Remaining Enthusiasm, or SOAR, See Opportunities And Rise.
As a leader, the type of disciplinary action you use will fall into one of two categories – actions that make your employees SORE, Snuff Out Remaining Enthusiasm, or SOAR, See Opportunities And Rise. (Photo/Getty)

A reflection on you

During my 17 years as an officer in the fire service, I have only had to levy disciplinary action twice. Both times, I was very bothered.

When I was first promoted, one of my then-peers suggested to me that if I never had to discipline anyone, I must be doing something wrong and that I would be seen as a weak supervisor. They said I needed to establish myself early as a person who didn’t take any crap (crap with a capital S, if you know what I mean) from anyone, and that I should use my pen as my sword of veneration.

I chuckle at this now, but even then, I thought that was an interesting perspective, as I had been taught the exact opposite by my mentors. I believed that if I ever had to discipline someone, it could quite possibly be due, in part, to some failure on my behalf. I certainly felt this way regarding one of the two disciplinary actions and its intended purpose. I felt a sense of failure to give the proper support in one of the instances. Because of my introduction to the fire service with a captain, apparatus operator/engineer and senior firefighter who helped me understand that my success or failure was just as much a reflection of them as it was me, I too bought into that concept and believed, and still do, that the success or failure of my people rests just as much with me as it does with them.

The problem with progressive discipline

What does that have to do with defining disciplinary action, you might ask. Let’s start by defining disciplinary action as this: “A process for dealing with job-related behavior that does not meet expected and communicated performance standards. The primary purpose for discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists. … The goal of discipline is to improve employee performance.”

Most employers, especially fire service/public safety organizations, use a disciplinary process called “progressive discipline” where the employer uses a graduated progression of responses to employee performance or conduct problems, from mild to severe, depending on the nature or frequency of the problem.

Sue Bingham writes in Fast Company that progressive discipline is a “dirty phrase” to her, but it’s also the most common approach to dealing with employee behavior and performance problems. She explains the issue: “This strategy supposedly aims to correct problems using a system of graduating threats. It starts with a verbal warning, followed by written notice if things don’t get better. The whole process is doomed to fail. If you think about it, this is an official company policy to treat people progressively worse while making it progressively more difficult for them to improve.”

She continues: “Punishment can occasionally force temporary behavior changes, but it doesn’t help employees or enact lasting change. So why are companies still practicing progressive discipline? Simply put, it’s the norm. Attorneys and the Society for Human Resource Management recommend it, and employers agree. Many people believe that it’s a ‘safe’ option because it protects companies from being sued or losing unemployment claims. Furthermore, it turns out a good deal of managers – 37% of them, in fact – aren’t comfortable having poor-performance conversations, which ends up further diminishing progressive discipline’s appeal and overall effectiveness.”

This is the type of discipline that I would suggest makes your employees SORE, in that it has the potential to Snuff out Remaining Enthusiasm for the job and any reasonable opportunity to learn from whatever the mistake or misunderstanding was.

The tide may be turning, though. In the JEMS article, “Progressive Discipline: Why the Process is Flawed and How to Improve Employee Performance,” Louis Imperatrice states: “Recently, many scholarly articles have begun to realize that progressive discipline is, in fact, an outdated and antiquated process that does not effectively improve employee performance or behaviors. Instead, it creates angry, hostile, unproductive and disengaged employees.”

Shift to self-discipline

Discipline of any kind should be to support and encourage both collective and individual growth and development. It should help your employee(s) SOAR (See Opportunities And Rise). As such, I would like to offer a slightly different perspective, one that I believe is more proactive and that is designed to not only guide employee behavior but also encourage employee ownership by way of a form of self-discipline. This self-discipline becomes a repeatable process that transfers to other areas of the employee’s professional and personal life.

To understand this process, let us take a step back. Consider this: Merriam Webster’s definition of discipline, when used as a noun, is “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education” and, when used as a verb, is “to train someone to obey rules or a code of behavior … train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way.” The origin of the word is Latin and was spelled Discipulus or Disciplina, which means instruction, knowledge. When translated to Old English from Latin, the word discupulus, which meant learner or learn, became “disciple.” The definition of disciple is a follower or student of a teacher, leader or philosopher.

As leaders and supervisors, we desire positive outcomes for and from the people whom we are responsible for managing, supervising and leading. Discipline means teaching acceptable behaviors and unlearning maladaptive behaviors with support, guidance and direction in managing said behavior. It is about setting limits, clarifying roles, responsibilities and mutual expectations, and creating a predictable, orderly and stable professional environment.

The self-discipline process begins with the hiring and orientation phase of employment, teaching the mission and values of your organization to new hires. Although we are hiring adults, some even with previous fire service experience, they are often new to our organization, and we must give them the benefit of being properly exposed to every single resource available to them for their reference, training and education. We must take nothing for granted regarding what they do and do not know. Treat each new hire like a blank canvas, regardless of previous life and work experience. Be prepared to train, retrain, educate and reeducate to ensure that they are properly indoctrinated into your organization.

Every person at every level of the organization, from probationary recruit to fire chief, must be supported in understanding that the fire service is dynamic and ever-evolving. The expectation is that our organization is prepared to operate along that same continuum. The only tradition in which the organization should be invested is the tradition of studying, learning, applying, growing and improving.

Further, the organization should go above and beyond to ensure that every member, at every level, has a thorough knowledge of the rules, regulations, laws, SOPs and SOGs. We often advise the “rookies” to read these things in their leisure or to consult their union representative to clarify things that they do not understand; however, this is such a reactive and counterproductive approach. The more each person knows regarding safe and appropriate professional practices, the more empowered they are to manage themselves accordingly.

It is imperative that we create an environment where knowing and consistently following the rules, regulations, SOPs and SOGs is praised and applauded, as opposed to an environment where people only cooperate out of fear or distrust for the disciplinary action process. For those unfortunate times when an employee chooses disciplinary action (yes, chooses because of the employee’s lack of desire to perform rather than a lack of knowledge about the performance expectations), then, unfortunately, a process like progressive discipline has to be enacted. 

Progressive discipline as a model is certainly flawed and has many shortcomings; however, to date, it is the default model for dealing with employee behavior and performance. Ideally, it would be great if the entire industry would reevaluate its current use of progressive discipline and invest in finding more conscientious and appropriate alternatives, like the cooperative performance method, performance coaching, progressive coaching, or developing a goal-setting framework, such as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). Whatever method your organization decides to use, it should be one that involves communication and education to find solutions to the challenges that can’t be corrected through training and education alone.

8 principles to SOAR

We can only expect from our employees what we are willing to equip them with. Make “disciples” of our employees by being good teachers, instructors and leaders. Rather than risking making them SORE with unnecessary and possibly even outdated disciplinary action models, we should help them SOAR by following these eight principles:

  1. Establish a culture of proactive thinking, training, and behavior by analyzing and clarifying all goals, strategic plans, mission and vision statements to reflect the organizations proactive position on employee and organizational development.
  2. Start Day 1 by preparing new hires to expect to be trained and retrained, refined, educated, and reeducated, engineered and reengineered to operate in a dynamic environment that involves continuous training, education, professional development throughout their fire service careers and beyond. The organization must never take for granted that employees expect to have to learn and apply or demonstrate company culture, rules, regulations, policies and procedures, both on and off duty. This is especially important in public safety because although technically there are off-duty behaviors that may be considered acceptable, legal or moral, those same behaviors can adversely affect the employee on the job. This must be made very clear. As an example, marijuana usage may be legalized in your jurisdiction; however, as a public servant, this may be a cause for a disciplinary action on the job. These are the types of things that we need to ensure that our employees are crystal clear about. Empower them to make good, informed decisions on and off duty.
  3. Ensure that there are skilled and properly trained teachers, mentors, managers and supervisors at every level of the organization. Good organization and employee discipline not only depends on having rules, regulations, policies, procedures, SOPs and SOGs that are designed to teach acceptable behaviors and discourage maladaptive behaviors but also on having employees at every level who are ready, willing and able to teach and lead by example. If it is determined that a new direction is necessary to make the organizations culture more proactive, be committed to retraining and reeducating and remediating (if necessary) even the most veteran employees, at every level. This is extremely important to the overall success and cohesion of the organization.
  4. Understand that self-discipline is a learned behavior that requires daily practice and repetition. Following and adhering to rules, regulations, policies, procedures, SOPs and SOGs must become habitual. A habit by definition is a routine that is repeated so often that it tends to occur subconsciously. Practice, practice, practice. Learning rules, regulations, policies, procedures, SOPs and SOGs should be a regular part of daily scheduled activities, much like morning muster, daily station cleaning, daily apparatus checkoffs, daily staffing reports, etc. The same knowledge and familiarity that we expect regarding these duties that are considered essential and nonnegotiable, should be expected regarding teaching and training on the things that can and often do lead to employees receiving disciplinary action. Daily study also provides an opportunity for employees to discuss concerns and/or to clarify areas they may not understand. Doing so daily also gives the organization an opportunity, outside of their regularly scheduled quarterly, biannual or annual reviews, to address areas that may need to be revised or updated to reflect current best practices.
  5. Analyze, revise and update rules, regulations, guidelines, SOPs and SOGs regularly to ensure they are relevant and current. We live in an ever-evolving society, and our policies and procedures must reflect that our organization is keeping pace with the most up-to-date developments regarding all things that effect our organization’s short- and long-term operations.
  6. Ensure that what is expected or considered acceptable performance is actually able to be done, performed and/or measured. If there are barriers or challenges, then address them or reconsider the implementation of those rules, regulations, policies, procedures, SOPs and SOGs.
  7. Prioritize personal responsibility and development. Help employees to see the value in self-discipline as a way of empowering them to advance and as a way for them to add value to the organization. Treating discipline in the organization like the process of learning a new set of skills that empower the employee to be self-disciplined encourages innovation and employee participation. The employee becomes clear on their individual and collective responsibility to the organization, and they now have a vested interest in continuing to contribute positively to the organization’s progress toward its mission and vision. Also, self-discipline begets self-development, especially when the culture of the organization is one that encourages, supports and rewards learning, knowing and consistently adhering to updated, relevant, appropriate rules, regulations, policies, procedures, SOPs and SOGs.
  8. Empower and encourage employees to take advantage of all resources that are available to them, particularly those that can prevent potential disciplinary action: EAP, pension and defined contribution consultations, health and wellness consultations/programs, human resources, continuing education and professional development, mentors, supervisors, leadership programs, etc.

Honest assessments and actions

Certainly, much of what has been discussed in this article seems simple and straightforward. We also know that some things sound great in theory, but practice is a whole other beast. As such, it is incumbent upon us, as leaders, to be able to take hard and honest assessments of our fire department’s culture to ensure that we are who we say we are in terms of the brotherhood and sisterhood or the “family” that supports one another in both the best and worst of times.

Assessing our position on discipline and disciplinary action is a great way to determine if who we say we are aligns with who we really are. In the infamous words of some very wise person, “Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day (progressive discipline). Teach a person to fish and they will eat for a lifetime (self-discipline).”

There is no doubt that discipline and disciplinary action are necessary components of any structured environment that seeks to have order and that requires certain performance measures to be met consistently regarding the safety, wellbeing, and development of both the employees and the public. However, the way we choose to utilize disciplinary action – proactively through teaching, training and learning new skills versus reactively by leaning on an antiquated model that serves to exacerbate negative employee experiences because of its often subjective, punitive nature – will ultimately determine whether our employees SOAR (See Opportunities and Rise) or are left SORE (Snuff Out Remaining Enthusiasm).

“Leaders instill in their people a hope for success and a belief in themselves. Positive leaders empower people to accomplish their goals.” – Author Unknown

“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.” – Jim Rohn

Semper Vigilans.

DOWNLOAD: 8 principles to SOAR

Download this PDF and share with your fellow leaders to ensure your department's culture helps your employees SOAR (See Opportunities And Rise). Find more advice in our Recognition & Discipline: Handling firefighter performance issues series. 

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