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Leadership Sector: Count to 10 before you discipline

"To err is human. To forgive is not company policy." ƒ Anonymous sign to company employees

During the course of my career, I've worked for some excellent managers whose leadership traits I've tried to emulate. With others, I studied their leadership styles to ensure I did not reproduce their bad habits. One particular individual (for whom I had the misfortune of working) always ended his department-wide SOPs with this statement: "Failure to follow will result in discipline."

The message was clear: Take one step out of line, and you'll pay the price. And he backed up his words with actions. Discipline in the form of suspensions, written reprimands and sometimes even termination were the order of the day. Needless to say, employees worked in fear that a single mistake could cost them money from their paycheck or, even worse, their job.

The decision to take away someone's ability to provide food and shelter for themselves and their family should not be taken lightly. It can be emotional and controversial, especially when the decision involves someone close to you, such as a former partner. However, it's extremely rare for an EMS manager to never have the need to discipline an employee, so be prepared to handle it professionally and objectively. Here are some guidelines that may help you enforce discipline in your organization.

First, never get angry when you learn of an infraction. Emotions can cloud your judgment and prevent an objective assessment of the violation the employee may have committed. Second, get all the facts before making decisions or coming to any conclusions. The worst thing you can do is take immediate disciplinary action without all of the facts. Don't forget: People are innocent until proven guilty.

Lay the foundation

Build the foundation for any incident involving the possibility of disciplinary action by asking a few simple questions: What happened? Who was involved? Who has relevant information? What documented facts exist?

Document the various perspectives of the principal players involved in the incident, including the firsthand account from the individual who may be disciplined, especially if they might lose pay or their job. Except in the most egregious cases, avoid making statements about any possible disciplinary action until you've completed your review and the necessary documentation.

When I worked for the St. Louis Fire Department, any discipline that may have resulted in a suspension or loss of a job involved a hearing board of three chief officers (selected by the fire chief to serve three-month terms) who would hear the case from the officer requesting the discipline. The person charged with the offense would also be present and, if they chose, their representative. The accused employee could provide an explanation or dispute the charges. The board could then ask questions of both sides and hear witness accounts. Once all the information was presented, the board would go into a closed session and vote on a decision to present as a recommendation to the fire chief, who would then make the ultimate discipline decision.

This type of process helps ensure fairness and due process for serious matters involving discipline. You may also want to confer with your human resource manager or company attorney before taking any action.

Dig down to the roots

Remember: Employees do something wrong for three main reasons. I commonly refer them as "the three„uns." Employees are„unaware,„unable or„unwilling to perform what is required of them.

As EMS managers, we tend to believe that employees do something wrong only because they're unwilling. This is not true.

An employee may also do something wrong because they're„unaware. It's your responsibility to educate them about what is expected of them in their job performance. Likewise, if an employee is„unable to perform their job, it's your duty to provide all the tools and resources necessary for them to do what is expected of them.

Discipline is appropriate when an employee is„unwilling to perform their job. As managers we can influence an unwilling employee through either positive or negative reinforcement (e.g., praising behaviors you want to see repeated or punishing someone for behaviors you want to avert).

Finally, don't forget that you should praise in public and punish in private.

Disciplining employees is never a pleasant experience, but to maintain the basic fundamental operation of the department, discipline must be part of the process.

Gary Ludwig holds a master's degree in management and business. He retired from his position as chief paramedic for the St. Louis Fire Department after 25 years of service to the city. He currently serves as director of EMS and fire education for Sanford-Brown College and volunteers as a paramedic/firefighter for several fire districts and as the chief of special operations for Jefferson County, Mo. Contact him via the Web at„www.garyludwig.com.

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