Achieving positive discipline without destroying trust

A 3-step guide to disciplinary action that demonstrates good faith, while putting the responsibility for their actions on employees


In a field where members rely on each other to work on critical cases in tandem, to survey the scene to keep each other safe, and to lend a listening ear after a traumatic call, maintaining the integrity of the department and trust between members is essential. This EMS1 special coverage series identifies the top disciplinary issues facing EMS leaders and what they can do to prevent and mitigate bad behavior while preserving trust among the community and members.

By Jay Fitch, PhD

It was a hot afternoon in St. Louis a number of years ago. I was the EMS director, following the city’s progressive discipline policy by handing out a week-long suspension to a medic. I remember telling him the next incident of any kind would result in his termination. He looked me in the eye and said, “Boss, I’ve been wrong, but the only thing that suspending me does is make it more likely that my family will get evicted this month. I’ve been chronically late because I’ve been working three jobs.” [At the end of this article, download a 3-step process to improve your discipline efforts]

At that stage of my own leadership development, I thought positive discipline was an oxymoron like jumbo-shrimp or interagency cooperation, and was only practiced by bleeding hearts. Those early encounters helped me realize that punitive progressive discipline often didn’t achieve the desired behavioral change, and frequently built resentment and destroyed trust.

"Performance coaching works to resolve performance problems by building relationships and creating growth," writes Jay Fitch, PhD. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

In my next position as director, I advocated for an alternative to this ineffective and disrespectful approach. Rather than relying on punitive and threatening discipline, I found that using a problem-solving approach to undesired behavior often led to sustainable positive change. This approach moved faster, set optimistic expectations and facilitated cooperative progress that was rooted in mutual respect. Performance coaching works to resolve performance problems by building relationships and creating growth.

There are several aspects of this approach that sets it apart from traditional progressive discipline. The traditional approach creates an "us against them" mentality, which is counterproductive when it comes to working to build a culture of organizational teamwork. The traditional approach also forces the supervisor to take on an adversarial role. Many new supervisors are uncomfortable in that role and don't really see the disciplinary procedure as a corrective tool. More often, they see it as hoops that administration makes them jump through in order to fire an employee. As a result, many supervisors don't begin the discipline process until they have given up hope of correcting the employee's problems.

The punishment approach, with warnings, reprimands and suspensions without pay, seems like a tough way to make sure caregivers are compliant with agency standards and policy, but it does not gain employee commitment. But public safety/EMS organizations today need more than compliance if we are to be competitive – we need commitment! We can punish people into compliance. But we cannot punish people into commitment.

So what is positive discipline in EMS and how does it work?

Unlike the traditional approach, positive discipline begins with informal discussions about what the caregiver is doing right and then moves into performance improvement discussions, usually in the form of coaching or counseling.

  • Reminder I. When coaching or counseling is unsuccessful in solving a performance or behavior problem, the first step of formal disciplinary action is Reminder I. The supervisor reminds the caregiver of the performance metrics that must be met and that it is the caregiver’s responsibility to meet those metrics, and gets a commitment that they will be met. The term "reminder" is used for a reason. Unlike a warning or reprimand, the supervisor is reminding the caregiver of two things:
    • 1. That there is a gap between current performance and the performance expected
    • 2. That it is the caregiver’s responsibility to perform as expected
  • Reminder II. Should the first step not bring about the desired outcome, the supervisor would meet with the caregiver again (Reminder II) to reiterate the points made during the first discussion and include a written memorandum of that meeting with a copy of the memo placed in the caregiver’s personnel folder.
  • Decision-making day. A third step in this approach is a decision-making day. The caregiver is given a paid disciplinary suspension for 1 day with the intent to have the employee reflect on past behavior and consider a response. The caregiver returns to work the next business day and either offers a resignation and leaves the organization or agrees to make the required changes.

    If the caregiver agrees to change, a meeting takes place with the supervisor to discuss what steps would be taken to improve performance or behavior to meet satisfactory levels.

Those organizations that have adopted the decision-making leave process report significant benefits. The second edition of Dick Grote’s classic book, “Discipline without punishment,” outlines the following key benefits:

  • It demonstrates good faith. It sends the message that when you say you want the individual to use the time seriously to think through whether this is the right job fit, you're serious.
  • It transforms anger into guilt. This method sends a wake-up call, to get personnel to take responsibility for their own behavior and performance.
  • It makes life easier for supervisors. Using a decision-making leave allows supervisors to handle even the most serious disciplinary problems without the need to apologize or further alienate the worker.
  • It gets rid of money as an issue. While the employee is suspended, you want the time away to be spent thinking about the requirements of the job and whether those requirements are compatible with the worker's occupational goals. You don't want the worker to worry about the pay that is being lost and how to make it up.
  • It makes the organization look good to a jury. If the disciplinary process results in terminating the employee’s contract, almost every termination can be challenged. The most important issue, regardless of the law, is whether you were fair. If you can show that you not only had progressively more serious discussions with the worker, but that you paid the employee to think about performing at a minimally acceptable level, you have made a strong case for termination.

Over the years, I’ve found that one of the greatest advantages of a non-punitive approach is that it is a self-management technique, shifting the responsibility for performance management from the leader directly to the caregiver. As Grote notes, instead of reprimanding the employee for misdeeds, “the supervisor now insists that the individual make a choice: change and stay with the organization or leave and find greener pastures elsewhere. The dignities of both parties are preserved, but the demand that everyone adhere to the organization's standards is reinforced."

Not every use of positive discipline has a favorable outcome. However, for the most part, those organizations that adopt the positive discipline approach discover that problems get resolved faster, supervisory stress is decreased, and the legal challenges related to discipline and discharge actions are significantly reduced. Coaching for success and moving to a responsibility-based discipline system is increasingly being accepted as a best practice in EMS organizations at all levels.

About the author

Jay Fitch, PhD, is a founding partner at EMS/public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. He has been involved in the development of thousands of EMS leaders. Jay was responsible for the first leadership development program sponsored by NAEMT and was instrumental in the development of the American Ambulance Association’s leadership development programs. Fitch and Associates is the sponsor of the Ambulance Service Manager’s certificate program. Jay also serves as the co-chair of the Pinnacle National EMS Leadership Conference, now in its 15th year.

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