How to bounce back after a disciplinary issue

Redemption and advancement are possible; you just have to see yourself as the solution


One of our retired fire chiefs, Doug Sporleder, used to tell each newly promoted company officer something along the lines of “Here’s the badge, don’t screw it up.” (I’ll let you use your imagination on other words that could be included in there.)

This phrase could be applied to all ranks of personnel, especially those we bring on the job on Day 1. Why? Because odds are, if you serve at a fire department long enough, especially 20-plus years, you will find yourself on the receiving end of disciplinary action.

Now before you say “that could never happen to me,” think again. Disciplinary action could involve termination, suspension, demotion, transfer, formal letter of reprimand, written counseling or even a very minor verbal counseling. Very few go through their entire career without having at least verbal counseling. Why? Because none of us are perfect, and we all will make mistakes (myself included). If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning!

No matter the level, disciplinary action can be a blow to confidence. How do you keep going, trusting yourself to perform in your job and believing that you can continue to hit the mark?
No matter the level, disciplinary action can be a blow to confidence. How do you keep going, trusting yourself to perform in your job and believing that you can continue to hit the mark? (Photo/Getty)

Now, most will not be terminated, suspended, transferred or encounter a formal letter of reprimand (that remains in your personnel file and could be held against you upon time of promotion, special assignment, or some other situation that would be considered punitive). More likely, you’ll receive some form of admonishment, especially at the lowest levels of the progressive discipline ladder, which are typically the written or verbal counseling.

No matter the level, disciplinary action can be a punch to the gut, a blow to confidence. How do you bounce back, trusting yourself to perform in your job and believing that you can continue on your envisioned career path?

From hot head to captain

Now hopefully we all understand the reason for discipline: to change behavior. And hopefully we all understand the reason for the progressive discipline ladder: to find the appropriate level of discipline to change one’s behavior. Let’s consider this in the context of a real-life scenario.

A friend of mine was once disciplined for something he did that was, in my opinion, completely justifiable, based on what he had told me. When my friend shared with me the details, including the level of discipline the fire chief had imposed on him, I actually thought the fire chief had been too easy on him.

To offer some background on my friend: He was a solid firefighter but very impatient and challenging to manage. After plenty of opportunities to correct his own behavior, the firefighter put his captain in a position of having to discipline him to the point that he was issued a formal written reprimand that would go into his personnel file. As luck would have it, the firefighter was also taking the promotional examination for his department’s captain’s position. He did great on the process, coming out on the top of the list. When it was time for promotions, the fire chief skipped over him to promote the next person on the list who apparently did not have anything negative in their personnel file.

I remember that day my friend told me about all of this like it was yesterday. He called me up all hot and bothered (which was his reputation), complaining about the chief passing him over and how he was thinking of filing a grievance or even suing the chief for not promoting him. I let him vent until he somewhat calmed down and asked me for my opinion, hoping I would agree with him and support him in his misery. I asked, “Do you really want to hear my honest opinion?” He said yes.

I started with, “Be careful what you ask for, my friend; please take my comments as suggestions or considerations and definitely not personal, as they are not meant that way.” I then asked him to tell me about the conversation with the chief when he said he was passing him over. He said he had assumed he was going to walk out with his captain’s badge in hand and was instead told he was getting passed over. I asked if the chief gave him reasons why he was passing him over. The chief had told him it was because he was considered a hot head, and the written reprimand in his personnel file was proof that he needed more time to mature and try to change his behavior. As he shared the chief’s comments, I could almost see steam coming out of his ears, nose and mouth, as he was still obviously bothered by the situation.

I then asked him if he might be considered for future promotions. He said the chief had told him that he would consider promoting him in the last two years of the list should a spot come open and, more importantly, if he demonstrated to the chief that he is trying to improve upon his inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.

I inquired next how he responded to the chief, as I was fully expecting him to say he flipped the desk over and punched the chief. Now before I go any further, before you say I should not have thought worst-case scenario, let me say I’ve known this guy for a long time, and like all of us, he is very predictable and consistent with his actions – good, bad or indifferent. He calmly told me, “Steve, you’ll never believe this, but I bit my lip and said I was disappointed for not getting promoted, as much as I wanted to go off on him.”

My friend then asked me what he needed to do to get the badge.

“The chief gave you an opportunity by not promoting you, and I would have done the same,” I said.

He didn’t like that answer, as I guess he was expecting me to tell him what he wanted to hear as opposed to what he needed to hear. I asked him to hear me out.

“The ball is in your court, dude,” I explained. “If you want to get the captain’s badge, you need to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. You need to prove to the fire chief that promoting you to the next vacancy is the best thing based on much you have matured and learned from your past mistakes. It’s yours to win or lose at this point. Do you want to have to take the next promotional exam? I know I wouldn’t.”

It took him a couple of weeks to shed the chip on his shoulder, but over the next few months, I saw him do a drastic turn for the better. Mister Miserable slowly turned into Mister Mature. Maybe he had an epiphany? Maybe he had enough people get into his head, and he realized he was the problem – but also the solution? Who knows. What I do know is that about a year later, a captain retired, creating a new vacancy, and the fire chief lived up to his word to promote my friend who, in the chief’s eyes, had demonstrated that he could rise above the adversity and get his act together.

How will you move forward?

Changing our behavior for the better, especially as we get older, can be tough. I get it. I also understand that as humans, we all make mistakes. Also, life will throw us curve balls and force us to sometimes step back in order to step ahead, or worse, put us in an embarrassing position from which we must emerge. Regardless, it’s not the situation or the adversity that defines us as much as how we handle the situation and the outcome of our progress. If we can bite our lip, take the high road and be professional, while trying to right our wrong, we have a great chance of success in the future.

So, if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a disciplinary action, what will you do as you move forward? Will you hold a grudge and remain bitter, or will you be the professional you are expected to be and rise above by taking the high road and proving others wrong through your actions?

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