9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Good Influence: How Progressive Discipline Can Effect Positive Change

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2008
Written by Raphael M. Barishansky

Imagine you're the newly appointed coordinator for the dispatch center of a medium size EMS agency serving a diverse urban community. Lately it seems like every morning when you walk into your office, you find messages regarding personnel issues from both shift supervisors and tired providers who seem to be increasingly upset about inconsistent discipline.

Then, in the course of your monthly meeting with the shift supervisors, you ask for a report on personnel issues. Among the expected notes of occasional tardiness and perennial disagreements between dispatchers and road crews, a customer service complaint filed by one of the local hospitals about how an emergency transportation was scheduled is brought up. When the chief field supervisor is queried about the actions taken in response to the complaint, she answers that because the two dispatcher involved in the incident were "known" for their "Bad attitudes," both wer suspended for a week without pay.

Momentarily startled by this extreme measure, you ask if these dispatcher had ever received other counseling or disciplinary remediation for similar behavior in the past. As the supervisor slowly shakes her head "no," you ask, "Don't you use a progressive disciplinary process?" Judging by the vacant looks you get from her and the others at the table, the answer is obvious. You quickly jot down a note to have a one-day seminar for this particular group on the variou aspects of progressive discipline as soon as possible.

Out of the Comfort Zone

Communications center supervisors and managers face personnel situations daily that they may feel less than comfortable handling. Because of the common practice of promoting the best telecommunicators into positions of authority, the vast majority of lower- and middle-level comm center management personnel have not received any training or education on how to handle even the most minor issues related to an agency's most important commodity - its staff. A common and potentially damaging shortcoming is the inability to appropriately mete out discipline. This includes addressing infractions that cover the entire spectrum of seriousness - from not wearing a complete uniform to routine absences/tardiness to dispatching competencies and radio etiquette.

The lack of appropriate managerial education regarding discipline in most comm centers has led to the well-deserved reputation that discipline is inconsistently handed out, used as a vehicle to "settle scores" and, on the whole, is largely ineffective at changing behaviors - either those of the offender or any of the observing co-workers. Except for certain "lifers" found in any agency, most providers will use sudden extreme disciplinary actions by a supervisor as the spur to hand in their resignation and move on. Given the relatively small pool of trained comm center personnel, the end result is a revolving door, with personnel who cycle in and out of the local services whenever a new "disciplinarian" is promoted. Problems aren't solved; they're just shared with the entire system.

What is Progressive Discipline?

Progressive discipline is a process for dealing with job-related behavior that does not meet expected and communicated performance standards. The primary purpose for progressive discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists.

The process features increasingly formal efforts to address the problem or opportunity at hand. Specifially, the progression should begin with a verbal counseling session and then move on to a written warning before exploring more explicit action, such as probation, suspension and/or termination of employment. At every step in this continuum, including termination in the form of an exit interview, feedback should be provided to the employee so that the individual can address, and hopefully correct a stated problem (e.g., lateness, excessive abscense, etc.). The overall end-point of progressive discipline is to improve employee performance.

Progressive discipline is not intended solely as a vehicle to punish an employee, but rather an opportunity to assist the employee in overcoming performance problems and satisfy job expectations. It's most successful when it helps an individual to become a contributing partner and component of the organization. Failing that, progressive discipline enables the organization to fairly, and with adequate documentation, terminate the employment of an employee who has proved themselves to be counter productive to the agency's core mission and unwilling to change.

Useful Information

Typical steps in a progressive discipline progress may include:

  • Counseling the employee about his or her performance. Ascertain the employee's understanding of job requirement and expectations. Determine whether there are any external factors contributing to the poor performance that are not immediately obvious to the supervisor (e.g., financial or family pressure). Offer to help the employee address any issues, if possible (e.g., through an Employee Assistance Program);
  • Verbally reprimanding the employee for poor performance. Again offer any outside assistance as indicated;
  • Transferring the verbal reprimand into a written warning that is also placed in the employee's file. Also document any suggestions of outside assistance;
  • Providing an escalating number of days in which the employee is suspended from work. Start with one day, and escalate to five. Each suspension should be separately documented and a copy given to the employee and placed in their personnel file; and
  • Terminating the employment of an individual for failure to improve. An exit interview should be conducted and documented, if possible.

Tied directly into the progressive disciplinary process is this loose algorithm developed by the late Chief James O. Page, who was a retired fire chief, and attorney and the founding publisher of JEMS (Journal of Emergency Medical Services):

  • Always be sure you have all of the facts when disciplining. It's way too easy to act without them; remember that everyone is guaranteed due process.
  • Check to see if there's a standard that covers this particular situation. Is that standard understandable, and has it been communicated to the employee?
  • Is this a first-time or repeat offense? If it's a repeat offense, what action was taken in regard to the prior offense(s)?

Other useful tips:

  • Use Employee Assistance Programs in cases in which you suspect alcohol, drug or family problems.
  • Always consult with your corporate counsel for anything beyond a standard verbal interaction. This effort can save you a large legal headache in the long run.
  • Adopt a continuous improvement program for your comm center, and include enhanced personnel practices as one of your key projects. Again, this needs to be continuous and should include input from key players, both in- and outside of your system.


Most comm center managers would prefer not to think about it, let alone have to implement, disciplinary actions against their employees. Unfortunately, the reality is that this head-in-the-sand approach just won't work. Properly educating supervisory staff as to the methods and procedures to follow when poor performance needs to be addressed will, in the long run, allow your center to correct and improve the service rendered by its employees - as well as assist you in properly identifying and removing those who can't be "fixed," despite your best efforts.

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