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The Toxic Member in the Volunteer Fire Service

Have you ever pulled into the parking lot of your station and saw that one car in the lot that caused you to dread going inside? Have you ever turned back around and went home because of that one car in the lot?

I believe I can safely say that anyone who has been involved in the Volunteer Fire Service for any length of time has experienced a toxic member. These are the members who are mean-spirited, manipulative, annoying, and sometimes bullying, unethical, or even unlawful. They are the member who caused you apprehension when you saw their car in the lot. They are the ones that caused you to go back home.

They are a destructive force within an organization. The toxic member negatively affects the viability of an organization. The presence of one toxic member can spread to others and can lead to an entire toxic organization.

As a leader, you have the duty to nurture a positive culture in your organization. The top threat to a positive culture is the presence of a toxic member(s) in the ranks. There are multiple behaviors to look for to identify a toxic member. Here are some behaviors to monitor for in your organization:

● Spreading rumors and gossip

● Creates or fans drama

● Negative attitude

● Continual complaints

● Not cooperative

● Avoid taking responsibility

● Resists change

● Direct or indirect bullying and harassment

Once you have clearly identified your toxic member you need to promptly deal with them. Failing to do so will likely result in a deterioration of your ability to retain members. Protect your organizational culture!

Here are some tips for dealing with a toxic member.

● Start by meeting with the member. Most times a member does not realize they are as destructive as they are. Give direct and honest feedback so they understand the problem. Be specific and give examples. Clearly define what they need to change and set measurable goals. Let them know you are trying to work with them but there has to be change. This meeting should also serve as the first step in the progressive discipline in the event their behavior does not improve.

● Monitor the member’s progress. Reinforce positive behavior. However, if the toxic behavior continues then it is time for more progressive discipline. The toxic member should be separated from your other members. This second phase can include a suspension of a defined period to accomplish the separation. Be careful and document everything thoroughly.

● Accept that some people just will not change. Coaching, counseling, and suspension just will not work on some members. When you have come to the end of the line, it is normally time for separation from the organization. As long as you have followed your progressive discipline policy as defined and have fully documented all the steps along the way, it may be time to simply part ways.

A major pitfall to executing discipline on any member is the fear that your organization cannot do without them. Do not fall into this trap! Even if one of your top responders presents themselves as a toxic member, you have to act. Your organization may be temporarily impacted by that member’s absence but in the long haul, it is members like these that are causing your organization great harm. In the long haul, your organization will benefit greatly when a toxic member is remediated or removed.

Perhaps a quick read on conflict resolution will help you navigate this situation as well.

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