9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Act of Discipline

Taken from 911 Magazine, June/July 2009
Written by Barry Furey, involved in public safety for more than 35 years, managed 911 centers in four states, life member of APCO International. He is the current Director of the Raleigh-Wake County, NC Emergency Communications Center.

One of the most difficult tasks assigned to supervisors and managers is that of discipline. While there are times when he or she may gladly step up to the plate when the incident involves a truly, "What were they thinking?" moment, at other times there may be some hesitation to confront an employee due to sympathy for the offender or a general distaste for that part of the job. While we could devote several columns to the fact that discipline, in itself, should be used as a corrective action rather than a punishment, we'll limit this month's discussion to what constitutes an effective ACT of discipline.

Using the simple three-letter word ACT, we can break down these ACTions into three distinct but critical parts. Our first concern should be the Accuracy of facts. While it's often tempting to jump to conclusions when a complaint is received on a repeatedly less than stellar performer, this is hardly fair. Everyone has the right to be presumed innocent until a full investigation ensues; even those who tend to be their own worst enemies. Conversely, allegations should not be short-weighted simply because they come from an agency or first responder who can seemingly never be satisfied. In neither case is justice served.

This same commitment to accuracy must also temper your initial contact with the offended party or parties. All too often a hasty reply is given without a complete check of the available information. As a manager, make sure that everyone in your chain of command looks under each and every rock before making an official comment. And, make doubly sure that everyone under you carries out this level of observation before presenting the "facts" to you.

Consistency is our second concern, although it may be the first in actual impact. Given a similar set of situations, any employee who violates the same rule should receive equal punishment. While this sounds simple on the surface, this statement requires further definition. Notice that I said "similar set of situations." This presumes similar incidents, with similar outcomes, and similar employees with similar tenure and similar disciplinary histories. A significant change in one or more of these variables throws us back to square one.

While the end result of this Consistent disciplinary action must be identical, the path taken to arrive there doesn't have to be. Throwing political correctness aside, in the real world very few of us deal with men and women in exactly the same way. And, since discipline is designed to achieve better results in the future, it's also pretty clear that the motivational techniques used for baby boomers, Generation Yers and Generation Xers are not necessarily universal. If you intend to spend any time whatsoever in management you probably need to realize that there is no single technique that works for every person; sex and age become solely a means of placing people into categories based upon visible attributes. Managers deal with individuals - not with stereotypes. As long as your discipline stands up to the test of fairness, how you approach it need not be so narrowly defined. What is vitally important is that employees perceive the results as equitable.

Timeliness becomes our final attribute in the ACT of discipline; and for good reason. Taking corrective action as soon as possible after the infraction has a much greater impact than delaying the inevitable. Again, while an adequate period is required to collect facts and to appropriately investigate any allegation, once the judgment is made it's time to ACT. Quick and positive ACTion sends a clear message to the offender - and to the entire staff - that a certain standard of behavior is expected, and that violations will come with consequences. Failure to respond can allow problems to continue and potentially escalate. One situation where immediate ACTion to the offense may not occur is when the issue is discovered as part of a review or information request initiated well after the fact. In such cases, the clock upon which to ACT starts ticking at the time the complaint first comes to light.

However, other than in those isolated cases, everyone involved is best served by a timely application of any discipline, enacted as quickly as possible after the original incident. While personal in nature and in application, discipline can and does have a wide-reaching effect across the entire organization. Your success or failure in maintaining discipline also has a wide-reaching impact upon your overall ability to supervise or manage. While some new to their responsibilities make the mistake of writing up every perceived error, others may take the opposite approach. As always, the most successful path lies somewhere near the middle.

Even experienced supervisors can suffer from the need to be everybody's friend. Unfortunately, friends are not always leaders. And leaders are never afraid to ACT; especially when it comes to discipline.

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