Leadership Ethics In The Hiring Process

The fire department needs to conduct in-depth background checks.


Even if your department does background checks, you need to do more than just check for entry level test scores, work history and driving record.According to a recent NFPA report, "Regard for firefighters in the U.S. is at an all time high. In fact, in a recent survey, Americans gave firefighters the highest marks for honesty and ethics, above all other professions." In today's corporate climate of scandals (think Worldcom, Enron and Martha Stewart), are fire service leaders doing all they can do to protect the high level of trust the public has bestowed on our profession? What can a fire service leader do to safeguard this level of trust? One answer is to ensure that the department's hiring process does not let an unethical individual slip through the cracks.

Many fire department screen candidates through background checks. Most departments would exclude someone with a criminal conviction history, history of drug abuse or positive drug screen. You might even pass them over for a poor driving record. However, do you screen your candidates for ethical behavior?

One of the very first fire calls I responded to as a 21-year old rookie was to a jewelry store. There was heavy smoke in the building and the customers and employees had fled in a hurry. Expensive jewelry items and watches were everywhere. Not once did it cross my mind to pocket something. Fire fighters were all over the store, and not one item of jewelry was touched.

The public entrusts us with protecting their homes and valuables, and most fire fighters do not violate that trust. But, what do we do as fire service leaders to protect that trust?

Even if your department does background checks, you need to do more than just check for entry level test scores, work history and driving record. You need to check for honesty, integrity and ethics before you pin a badge on someone and make them a fire fighter. The rookie fire fighter hired today may rise through the ranks to higher levels of authority and responsibility. It is better to eliminate a candidate with unethical tendencies than to hire that person and have them ascend to a position of authority and responsibility.

How can you protect your department against unethical behavior?

First, make sure that ethical behavior is part of your department's corporate culture. Does your department's vision statement contain something about ethics? Do all of the senior officers share the same ethical values? Does your department have a standard operating procedure or policy that address ethical expectations?

Second, fire service leaders must set the example for the department. Is it ethical to accept free food from the local restaurant? Is it ethical to cover for your buddy on the other shift who ran 10 minutes late? Is it ethical to leave something broken and then try and blame it on the other shift the next work day? Is it ethical to discuss confidential patient information from a "really good EMS call" with co-workers from another shift? Is it ethical for an officer to overlook an incidence of on-scene freelancing if no harm was done? Answer these questions by the example you set for others in your behavior.

Third, include ethics training in the department's training program. Training topics on fire inspections, for example, can include ethics related topics.

Finally, don't hire ethical problems. Ethical behavior cannot be determined from a r?sum?. Here are several methods to use when interviewing candidates.

Revise the interview process to include behavioral event questions that cover behavior in past situations. Along with standard questions such as "Why do you want to be a fire fighter? and What are your strengths and weaknesses?" ask questions such as "Have you ever been asked to do something that you felt uncomfortable doing? How did you handle the situation?" Another question is. "Give me an example of a situation where you disagreed with your supervisor. How did you handle the situation?" You want to look for the candidate' response to ethical gray areas.

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