Managing underperforming employees: Your questions answered

Tackling questions from the FireRescue1 community about how to best manage firefighters and guide them to success


Register for the on-demand webinar “Unaware, unwilling or unable? Identify and manage 3 types of underperforming employees” to learn more about how to identify the root cause of issues with underperforming members, what it takes to get them back on track, and how to institute a performance plan when needed.

In a perfect world, we’d all work with competent overachievers with perfect communication skills and a flawless track record of performance. But this isn’t a perfect world.

We’ve all worked with someone who generates stress, whether for us personally or for the entire crew. Sometimes this is a personality or behavior issue; sometimes it’s an issue with skill set. As a supervisor, we must be prepared to handle the issue.

The first step in the process is identifying the problem: Is the member unaware of their performance issue, unable to perform at the expected level, or simply unwilling to face the problem? Beyond this, it’s time to conduct a performance analysis and possibly institute a performance improvement plan (PIP).

"Though there are simple actions to follow in dealing with these difficult situations, nuance is everything. Each person and circumstance is slightly different," Chief Sobieski writes.

We covered all three of these steps in the recent webinar “Unaware, unwilling or unable? Identify and manage 3 types of underperforming employees.”  During the webinar, we received many questions, some that we tackled during the presentation and others we simply didn’t have time to address. We’ll address those questions here. What questions do you still have about managing underperforming firefighters? Fill out the form below and we’ll do our best to add your question to the list with an answer from the chief.

Question: Not everyone is on their “A game” all the time … or even their B game. How can supervisors identify the difference between a serious problem and just a slump?

There are a number of variables that can impact this answer. Is this a long-term employee of whom you have a lot of prior knowledge, or are they new to you? That will impact your approach. With a tenured employee, you will probably see this as a change in behavior, whereas the new employee will require a period of monitoring and. If they have come from another part of your organization, reaching out to previous supervisors may be extremely helpful.

A “slump” (meaning a sudden change in behavior) may be a temporary, simple issue or the beginning of a significant downward spiral. In this case, the downward progression may be difficult to stop. This employee may have outside pressures that are impacting their work. Divorce, ailing family, financial troubles, etc., can all derail an otherwise exemplary career. A manifestation of significant phobia, mental issue (traumatic experience) or anxiety issue can be sudden and unexpected as well. It may be correctable but can hardly be considered a “slump.” In all of the cases, there is hope for correction. Keep in mind, your approach may have to change if you are not getting the intended results. It is a dynamic process.

Question: What category would an employee fall into if they have a personal issue at home that’s affecting their work performance – unable? Would you follow the same steps for them as someone with physical or mental challenges to complete the work?

To answer as every lawyer would … it depends. The crux of the issue is their willingness to recognize the situation for what it is and to participate in the solution. Have they been given the resources (EAP, counseling, etc.) to assist them in their situation? Our fellow firefighters tend to mean more to us than just the person in the next desk. We have powerful history and experiences with them. For these reasons, we may feel more invested in their well-being and be able to approach them in ways that are not possible or pragmatic in a conventional work environment. There is an innate trust borne out of the “they have walked a mile in my shoes” understanding. Whatever reason is causing the performance issue, you have to have the conversation, identify the standard and determine the best approach for addressing the gap – coaching, training, setting expectations, etc. The citizens need performance and fellow firefighters need it as well for their safety and effectiveness.

Question: If someone is unwilling to do the work, why even try to get them on board?

On the surface, the term “unwilling” may be erroneously conflated with unsalvageable. Sometimes, unwillingness can be corrected. You may have an employee who is just resistant to change. Given the right motivation, the resistance can be overcome. The realization that the expectation will not go away and, in fact, may be followed with unpleasant consequences may attenuate their resistance. Therefore, your investment in time and effort might justify itself.

Remember, for each employee to “on board,” there is a significant cost to the organization. A general, non-fire service estimate is 1.5 times the annual salary to hire and train. At our organization, it is just under $100,000 to hire and train. Keep in mind, there is the intangible cost of institutional and job knowledge. Additionally, make no mistake, everyone in your organization is watching. From a distance, they are gauging your organization’s allegiance and respect for its employees. Even though Human Resources issues are generally not discussed by the administration, be certain it is by the field personnel. They want to see that their employer exercises compassion. Most firefighters welcome accountability, but do not appreciate capricious, arbitrary decisions with regard to employees. They need to know they will not be condemned by their last worst act or mistake.

Question: Can you address how important it is for us to take a look at how the "unwilling" firefighter got hired in the first place? In other words, were they always like this, or did something happen on the job that changed them to now fit into the “unwilling” category?

Recruiting and retaining quality employees is a universal struggle for every organization. Different departments use a variety of exams. This systems may evaluate cognitive ability alone, while others combine a level of psychological evaluation along with cognitive examination. Many departments use psychological testing and interviews to develop an idea of the suitability of their prospective candidates with regard to public, maladaptive behaviors and personality screening safety.

The question you ask is helpful if you don’t have a good, validated process that you use for hiring. Beyond that, you probably won’t be able to establish a clear A-to-B causal relationship. The variables – length of employment, area of work and outside issues – will preclude you from finding a definitive answer.

Question: We all try to be professional and do the right thing, but how do you handle that “unwilling” person that you can find no common ground with? What if, frankly, you can't stand them?

As a supervisor, it is likely that you will work with someone with whom you are not “compatible.” Even more likely, employees that require your corrective attention will exacerbate those feelings. We are humans working with humans; there is a built in fallibility factor. The biggest point to remember and to place foremost is that this is not personal; it is business. Even if they have routinely defied your directives, you must address it as an organizational concern.

My wife – an HR professional in the leadership and organizational development space – gave me a Harvard Business Review article to read that speaks directly to this issue. In the article, “New Managers Need a Philosophy About How They’ll Lead,” author Carol Walker writes, “You are merely a facilitator, and facilitators aren’t angry, frustrated, or resentful when they delivered feedback.” We often speak of our workforce as “my people.” But in reality, they belong to the organization. Our role is to help facilitate the organizations principles and goals. Viewed from this perspective, it helps to take the sting out of the personal affront we may feel.

Question: What are your thoughts when the roles are reversed? What if it's your management that's unwilling to change?

This is a principle called “managing up.” There are many factors that impact your ability to do that. Factors you can influence are your work ethic, the delivery of the message, when you present your ideas, your intention and your relationship to management. I know in the evolution of my career, it took time and maturity to understand my role and how to change.

Even with the most difficult management, approach is everything. An old boss of mine used to say, “If you want to be successful, know your system and how to make it work for you.” He didn’t mean manipulation of people to gain advantage. He meant respecting your institution and leaders enough to learn what is important to them and how they best receive information. You probably will be unsuccessful at delivering the message if you don’t understand them and how they work.

Realize that the limitations of the leader will impact the level to which they are susceptible to any information (especially criticism). If you carry the sincerity of the well-being of the organization and the leadership first, many times, that will open the door to productive dialogue. The key is a sincere, genuine approach.

Question: How do you create a culture that makes it possible to discuss behavior with the understanding that there will be a range of solutions and not just jumping to termination?

Building any type of culture is a process. Whether it is making the changes you describe or making any significant organizational impact, the steps to changing culture are the same. In truth, books are written on just this sliver of organizational concern. Incidentally, your dedication to working with employees who are struggling is, in itself, a cultural commitment.

Several years ago, I developed a six-step process to change culture. While variables may influence how the steps are applied, these steps can guide your through cultural change:

  1. Figure out where you are – cultural assessment;
  2. Define your objective relative to your cultural assessment;
  3. Develop your plan to achieve your objective;
  4. Communicate or “sell” your plan/vision;
  5. Implement your plan; and
  6. Evaluate progress and readjust.

One thing to remember is that the larger or more drastic the change from your current culture, the longer it will take. Have patience. Repetition and consistency will be essential to enact a cultural shift. True change culture is not for the faint of heart.

Question: Do you work with county attorneys and HR when you have personnel issues? If so, what has been you experience working with them to come up with a solution?

I routinely work with both our HR and county attorney when dealing with performance issues. Our current representative meets with our on-shift battalion chiefs once a month during our morning video conference.

At the end of the day, in our organization, it is the county attorney that is charged with defending any actions we take. For this reason, any written documents, as well as proposal concepts, are reviewed by the county attorney. We have two attorneys specifically assigned to deal with our issues. We meet with them monthly and more frequently if we are involved in a specific instance that needs more attention.

Question: If not everyone is a Navy SEAL caliber, how do I provide the same level of expectation for each employee if the Navy SEAL caliber is required? (Refers to special operations/advanced level training requirements.)

If a specific job description requires a certain uncompromising skill set, then they must meet that to be in that job. For example, if your special operations program includes a swiftwater program, it is perfectly reasonable to expect each employee on the team to meet a minimum swim qualification. Not every firefighter in your department need meet it, so it is position specific. The swim skill demonstration would be considered a minimum competence for the position.

Question: It can be challenging for less experienced members to grow if they gain a reputation for not being up to par. How can we get more senior members to be good mentors to help the willing get the experience they need to catch up instead of the seniors just working around the less capable or experienced?

Mentorship is an interesting topic to me. It is both a formal and informal process. Many of us gravitate to leaders who exhibit qualities we appreciate. We end up “bouncing” our issues off of them to get their perspective. This is an organic process. Then there are departments that have laudably set up formal mentoring programs.

The danger per se in the organic process is that there is no consistency or “quality control.” The organization has no ability to shape the process or that the right messages are being delivered. In the vacuum of a formal process by which we educate our mentors on how to handle the relationship, most often the organic process will fill the void.

You are right that there is a distinct difference between mentorship and good mentorship. While some seem to innately develop good mentorship practices, this should not be left to chance. There are many resources and best practices that can be incorporated into formally training mentors. There are even online courses for fire service mentorship. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to start a mentoring program, but you should use credible resources to develop your program.

Question: Some members will see the PIP as a punishment. What’s the best way to communicate that a PIP is meant to help the member to protect their employment?

It goes back to trust. Realistically, when anyone receives corrective feedback on their performance, they are likely to feel as if they are receiving punishment, especially with the formal process of a PIP. The perception will also be filtered through the lens through which the employee views the organization as a whole and the involved parties. Your ability to impact that will be how you present it, and the actions you take in following up.

Say what you mean; mean what you say, but don’t say it mean. Be honest and upfront. Acknowledge the “elephant in the room,” that performance is not up to par. Then follow up with how you are going to help them get back on track. This is not a “do it or else” conversation. It is a “here is a path to success” discussion. The nuance in presentation makes all the difference. But it can’t just be words. The employee must see your active engagement and support. They need to hear from you about their incremental successes in the process. That is the trust building. Your actions reinforce the sincerity of your words.

Question: When someone is unable in the physical sense, and training isn’t working, is it time to implement the PIP?

Once again, I summon my inner lawyer to say, it depends. Context is everything. Does your organization have a fit-for-duty policy? Have you done your due diligence with regard to their inability? For example, have you ensured there is no medical reason for the inability that could be addressed? Are you in compliance with local, state and federal labor regulations as well as union obligations? If you have exhausted all of your contributing factors, then implementing a PIP is your logical path. Think of the PIP as just a formal, documented extension of the training you have already provided. That is one reason why the PIP should contain a description of observable behaviors and what you have done to date to correct them.

Question: As a company officer, issues that I notice with a crewmember, I typically discuss in private. Some of those take time to fix. Other crewmembers are taking issue as to why some of these problems aren't being handled or handled quickly. Any suggestions on how to inform other crewmembers that actions are in motion, without violating that struggling crew members privacy?

You are right to address the issues in private for a multitude of reasons, but it can be frustrating to others when they sense there is not accountability in the organization. I tend to take the ones who are concerned to the side and address their concerns privately, too. I explain that I cannot, for ethical and legal reasons, discuss another employee with them. I assure them that I am aware of their concerns but am not at liberty to discuss details. I also inquire of them, that if the roles were reversed, wouldn’t they want the same consideration of dignity and respect.

A conversation like this does two things. It demonstrates the right level of respect for the process and the employee’s privacy. Additionally, it allows the person with the concerns to feel they have been heard. Many times, that is all they want. They don’t need information or a report on progress, they just want their concerns validated. A simple non-disclosing conversation can provide tremendous reassurance that accountability exists.

Nuance is everything

The questions brought forward were all very insightful and interesting. Though there are simple actions to follow in dealing with these difficult situations, nuance is everything. Each person and circumstance is slightly different. The most successful leaders get this. Even though they follow a systematic way of looking at an issue, they don’t apply cookie-cutter solutions. They make an honest connection with each person in order to give them the greatest likelihood of success. I marveled at one particular deputy chief who I witnessed receive a handshake and well wishes from an employee to whom he had to deliver a separation message. It was because he treated everyone fairly and with respect as he carried out every aspect of the organization’s mission. Find a leader like this and absorb everything they have to give. Ask for their mentorship. Don’t try to be them; do you – with added ingredients!

Editor’s note: What questions do you have about managing underperforming firefighters? Fill out the form below and we’ll do our best to add your question to the list with an answer from the chief.

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