Personnel Problem Documentation

Have you ever had the following scenario happen to you? You have a firefighter who has a few performance issues, but they’ve also managed to sprinkle in an attitude problem, just for good measure. You’re the kind of company officer who prides yourself on “taking care of business,” so you’ve had a few talks with this person in an attempt to straighten things out, but it hasn’t been working so well. In fact, you’ve let your battalion chief in on the issue, but you’ve also let him know that you have it under control.  

The next six months seem to fly by, until the day you receive an e-mail from your battalion chief reminding you to complete your problem firefighter’s performance evaluation. The first thing that goes through your mind is, “It’s hammer time, baby. This is where I get to set this guy straight.”

The problem: You haven’t documented a single thing regarding your discussions with this person or all the hard work you’ve put into trying to get them back in line. I guess you thought your incredible leadership skills would turn this problem around before you needed to get serious and write something down. In other words, you didn’t do your job as a company officer, and as a result, this individual is going to skate through their evaluation. In a word, you’re screwed.

Do It Right the First Time, or Else …
Unfortunately, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the fire service; it’s happened to me and countless others. Looking back at some of my mistakes, I would say my intentions were good, but my follow-through was weak. It seemed like I was constantly starting over because I didn’t document all the steps I was taking to try to improve the situation. And I assumed that small improvements were an indication that we were on our way to fixing the problems. Unfortunately, many of those improvements were temporary, and I often found myself right back where I started with the individual.

If I had properly documented each occurrence, discussion, encounter, etc., as we went along, there would have been a much better record of what was really going on. The bottom line: I didn’t do my job, and as a consequence I created a lot of frustration for myself and a ton of extra work. I guess the old adage is true: “When you don’t do a job right the first time, you are destined to do it all over again.”

In retrospect, I learned a cheap lesson, which, in both the fire service and in life, is always better than a costly one. A cheap lesson is one that could have cost us a lot more than what we paid for it. Expensive lessons are those that cost us huge fines from a lawsuit, a good employee’s career or even someone’s life.  

Another thing to keep in mind: When we fail to document a personnel problem, we’re not only doing ourselves a disservice, we’re also doing a disservice to the employee. Our employees deserve to be evaluated honestly and fairly, which can be a challenge to any supervisor. We tend to skirt the truth about problem employees because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or de-motivate them. It can also be uncomfortable or awkward, but remember that you are a company officer–a leader in the fire service. It’s your job to address difficult issues and ensure the safety and efficiency of your crew. If you don’t, the problem will continue and will be felt by your entire crew.

Documentation as Insurance
I can’t speak for how these things are dealt with in every state, but here in California there’s a general rule that says, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.”

An attorney once told me, “Think of documentation as paying your insurance premiums. If you pay your premiums every month and you have an accident, it isn’t a problem; you’re covered. But if you haven’t paid your insurance premiums and you have an accident, you have a problem.”

This concept holds true with the documentation process as well. I used to think that I had to wait until things proceeded to the “next level” before documenting an employee. But that way of thinking was wrong for a few reasons. Employee documentation should be used throughout the evaluation period with every employee, not just the ones who give us gray hairs.

If you only document the employees who are creating a problem, you may be accused of harassing someone or singling them out. Attorneys love to argue that their client is being harassed by a supervisor who “has it out for them,” and you support their argument when the only person you have ever documented, good or bad, happens to be their client.

Important Questions
Other than worrying about getting your pants sued off, there’s a more important reason to document your employees: When you put a personnel problem on paper, you’re acknowledging that the problem exists. This is the first step toward fixing the problem, because once you acknowledge it, your next step is to ask yourself, “What the hell am I going to do about it?”

But we all know that the first step toward fixing anything is realizing that it needs fixing. So why is that question so important? Because one of the first questions your boss is going to ask you when things go bad is, “What the hell did you do about it?” From my experience, a dumb look on your face while you’re shrugging your shoulders doesn’t go over well.  

Training Needed
I’ve had the opportunity to teach in several different places, and I’ve noticed a common theme out there related to employee documentation and performance evaluations: Most company officers don’t have a clue how to perform these very important skills. The fact is that learning the how, what and why of employee documentation isn’t done through osmosis, and it shouldn’t occur through trial and error, which is how it’s occurred for many officers.

But most departments don’t spend time training company officers on how to perform these tasks until they’re forced to after they’ve learned an expensive lesson. Fire departments can’t expect company officers to properly complete an employee evaluation or document to their standards if the company officer doesn’t know the department standards.

A Final Note
In the next Company Officer Development column, I’ll outline a few things to consider when working through an employee evaluation period, and I’ll include examples of both good and bad documentation.

Learning cheap lessons is generally just dumb luck, not skill. Company officers shouldn’t go through their careers relying on luck, because, as we all know, luck tends to run out sooner or later.

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