Fire Department Personnel Problems: Avoiding Employee Relations Fires

by | February 10, 2021

When it comes to employee relations, you may be thinking, “I didn’t join the fire service to deal with people – I joined to deal with fires.” Regardless, personnel relations are a big part of the job for company officers and leaders. The reality is that the most common lawsuits fire departments face are from those within their department. While many are related to firefighter injuries, a significant number stem from employee relations issues. Fire department personnel problems are far more widespread than we may like to believe, but as Michael Mirarchi explains in his public safety program “Reset the Clock,” it is possible to “replace liability with credibility” through strong leadership, coordination with human resources and consistency in policies and training.

The goal in improving employee relations efforts should not be to win lawsuits, but to avoid them altogether. Even if your department wins the lawsuit, the negative effects of litigation are undeniable. Damaging publicity, employer or personal liability, and internal costs to the agency create significantly greater cost than the time, money and effort required to effectively and properly manage employee relations in the first place.

Minimize the Risks of Leadership

Fire officers by nature are problem solvers,” Loveland-Symmes Deputy Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder explains in a recent webinar on fire service employee relations. “We aggressively want to deal with that problem and in most cases, we’ve been given the tools and the skills and the experience to do that.” But when it comes to the “people issues,” fire service leaders are often left to their own devices, without the proper training and tools to effectively respond.

So, how can you ensure leaders are equipped with the right tools and minimize the risk when it comes to personnel relations? Proper training, expectations and mindset are key to the success of leaders. Do you know how to respond to complaints from personnel? How to address policy violations? When and how to bring an issue to HR? What constitutes discrimination? With clear policies, procedures and training, leaders can be prepared to respond in the right, legally compliant and fair way.

Mirarchi, an attorney and management consultant, shares, “Effective employee relations requires more than complying with the law and policy.” Leaders must use good judgment: Be reasonable and consistent, use common sense and display common decency. Allow the law and policy to guide your actions but know that not every situation you will face can be codified. Mostly everyone in the fire service desires to serve the community well and want to do the right thing – by community members and by their leaders. With this knowledge, you can respond in kind to your employees when a personnel complaint or issue arises.

Matching employee perception of leadership and the reality of compliance is critical to keeping personnel problems from escalating to the courtroom.

Create a Harmonious Work Environment

It’s human nature to resist change. So, of course, there will be times when your employees are resistant to policy changes. A change in attendance, performance or conduct policies is viable as long as it is reasonable, conspicuously presented and announced ahead of implementation with adequate notice. Employees who do not quit as a result of the change have legally accepted the change.

Most leaders want to exercise leadership with fairness, integrity and professionalism, but it’s easier said than done. Employees expect you to treat everybody fairly, to maintain your integrity in the midst of investigations or complaints, and to be an example of the professionalism you expect of them. When faced with a decision between being fair and being consistent, it’s important to err on the side of fairness. Why? “Whenever there’s an employment-related lawsuit, the jury is trying to figure out whether you were fair or not,” says Mirarchi. “There are some things today that are unfair – they’re just not illegal yet. Everything we do as leaders must be both legal and fair.”

Perception & Reality

While emphasizing fairness, it is crucial to understand the impact of perception in fire department personnel relations. Not only do leaders need to actually do the right and legal thing, they need to be perceived by employees as doing the right thing. While being legally compliant means you can win lawsuits, doing the right thing helps you avoid litigation all together. “If you’re being perceived as right, the lawsuits don’t get filed in the first place,” Mirarchi explains. Matching employee perception of leadership and the reality of compliance is critical to keeping personnel problems from escalating to the courtroom.

Good intentions don’t keep employers out of court. Rather, solid employee relations requires good faith effort, which is composed of three things: policies, training and active enforcement by leaders. A compliant workplace with effective leadership and employee management exists when these three things are working in tandem.

Employee relations is one of the most complex administrative responsibilities for leaders in the fire service today. To learn more about handling fire department personnel problems, including specific language to use in employee relations situations and discrimination complaints, check out our on-demand webinar, “Practical Employee Relations in the Fire Service.”

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