Do Organizational Processes Affect Individual Firefighter Ethical Performance?

Clearly, public service ethics has become a very broad and often ambiguous category that sometimes generates controversy as to what constitutes the term” (Zamor, p.1). Yet in the realm of public service, it continues to demand individuals of higher moral character and behavior while failing to produce a consistent example or mechanism of enforcement. Why is this so? One begins to wonder, with all of the emphasis on the individual how much of their ethical performance is determined by the organizational processes or culture?
Let us consider these questions:

• Will the members of higher moral character tire of doing the right thing because the organizational climate is ethically absent? Or ‘if the opportunity presents itself, and the risk of getting caught is low, and if the organization does not foster an ethical climate, then chances are fairly good that corruption will take place” (Zamor, p.6).

• Will a devout religious individual fail ethically if forced to choose between their principles and their paycheck? If socioeconomic pressures continue to remove an individual’s ability to freely communicate their personal beliefs will we see a decline in the profession or in the pulpit?

• Will a compliance based ethical employee fail the organization if not given proper boundaries such as codes of ethics and organizational controls? What if the ethical fence has been well defined but is continually moved for certain individuals in the event of ethical disasters?

Why are ethics important to the fire service?

It has been said that ethics are “the process by which we clarify right from wrong and act on what we take to be right’ (Zamor, p.1). The phrase that grabs our attention is deemed ‘bureaucratic discretion’; wherein the public servant exercises his or her ability to make the proper decisions within the framework of organizational controls and codes of ethics. In firefighter terms, this is when an individual faces down an incident and has to make a decision.

As a firefighter we have our framework, the incident command system, and we understand our response protocols thus knowing our resource capabilities. We size up the problem, formulate the incident action plan, and move into action. On the average, firefighters are statistically consistent in these areas because of the constant training, accountability measures, and the constant practice of these skills.

Yet in the realm of ethical decision making we seem hesitant and treat the decision as if it were a hazardous materials incident. We recognize, notify, identify/isolate, and protect if necessary because we know what we are dealing with may have consequences that outlive us. We sometimes put off making the decision or avoid it altogether which goes against the very nature of firefighters. Thus we return to the title and question of this article: Do organizational processes affect a firefighter’s individual ethical performance? I believe that the individual’s ethical performance is impaired or affected by the organizational processes for three main reasons:

• Claim without consistent conduct.
• Fears of financial loss.
• A lack of organizational controls and codes of conduct.

First, any individual who is employed in an organization that supports ethical behavior in policy but their organization fails to truly exemplify it in its daily actions will be setting the stage for ethical dilemmas. Policies without practice are mere words without meaning. Many organizations fail to recognize the critical nature of an individual’s spiritual beliefs, their impact on their behaviors, and their daily decisions. “An individual’s spirituality is critical to his/her comprehension and perception of ethical behavior” (Zamor, p.6). The prophet Isaiah sums it up well: “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).

And the inherent nature of an individual to ignore the code of conduct is explained well here:
‘Operational enforcement structures and procedures’ hence end up taking ‘the form of elegant plaques that are hung on the office walls and thereafter ignored. They may be quoted on ceremonial occasions, but never taken seriously enough to use in assessing the conduct of individual members” (Zamor, p4).

In firefighter terms, the organization’s member’s talk must match its talk. In all of the research it comes back to integrity. “It is the public servant’s internal moral character and individual conscience that is critical in ensuring that actions are ethical and are in line with the ethics codes, and that they are carried out with integrity and morality. Carl Friedrich (1935) stated that internal control and individual conscience are the core of ethical behavior and standards in the public service.” (Zamor, p.4). In short, if those who create the policies fail to follow the policies it breeds apathy and anarchy. Its members will stop believing in them and they will have lost all credibility.

Secondly, individual ethical performance is often compromised for financial reasons. Many employees have failed to speak up on matters of principle, unfair treatment, or other issues for fear of losing their job. An organization that persecutes those who stand up for their beliefs has gained compliance through fear and intimidation.

Lastly, we come to the compliance based ethical individual. The policies, procedures, and general statutes are specifically for these individuals and without them they would wander off. “Left to their own, some public servants may engage in selfish behavior. This is where external controls like rules and regulations, penalties and punishments that impose constraints on the conduct of public servants find usefulness” (Zamor, p.6).

Many departments fail to publish their code of ethics and S.O.G’s believing that they are common sense. These departments fail to be proactive and often react by writing a policy based upon an ethical breech. Thus the “Your name here-S.O.G.” is born. Each time an ethical dilemma is faced a new policy is written and each year the policy book grows thicker and the offenses continue. An organization must endorse, train, and educate its employees on its policies and processes. ‘When ethics training is successful, employees become aware of ethical choices and have the knowledge and resources to choose and carry out the right choices’ (Zamor, p.8).

Despite the organizational processes that may impact individual ethical performance “ultimately, public service ethics depend on the individual conscience of the public servants and the organizational constraints that may take the form of rules and regulations, codes of conduct, organizational process, structures, and culture” (Zamor, p.8). The ethical performance of the individual resides with the individual but the organizational processes can be a test of one’s moral character. The power of petition is based upon the depth of the relationship thus the ethical performance of an employee is based upon the depth of their conscience and beliefs. An individual will do the ‘right thing’ in the difficult moments if their values are deeply rooted. Such “values are formed long before people enter public service” (Zamor p.8).

Another process that is critical to individual ethical performance that is often overlooked is the hiring process. Each organization would do well to conduct more research to discover if the person’s ethics they are about to hire truly align with the values of the department. Some employers are already using Emotional Quotient Testing in their hiring processes. Certain departments are using these processes with great results. One department that was interviewed currently use a service called Zero Risk HR for Emotional Intelligence Pre-employment Assessment ( This is another type of organization control to insure the department is hiring those who value align with the organization. Chief Dennis Rubin, states it well in his class “How not to hire idiots, thugs, and misfits.”

“It would be interesting to “dollarize” all of the costs associated with the discipline process that a department spends during a single year. Some examples are the personnel needed to investigate bad behaviors; the time and effort to document same; the cost to consult with outside agencies such as police or attorneys; if a member is suspended or terminated, calculate the replacement overtime costs; the aspect of spending time with the media explaining the situation and so on.” (Dennis Rubin)

In conclusion, the ethical performance of an individual can be affected by organizational processes but it is ultimately up to the individual’s values. These processes are in the news daily such as ‘Firefighters vote no confidence in Fire Chief’, “Former employee alleges firing was based on her whistle blowing efforts”, and “Firefighter fired for social media post.” The examples given in this article show how the informal cultural processes of an organization can affect an individual’s ethical performance. The fire service would be wise to begin to evaluate the organizations ethical performance regularly, train employees on proper ethical behaviors, and continually monitor the health of the organization by the ethical behaviors of its members.

Works Cited:

Casey, Michael P. (2007) Emotional Intelligence for Emergency Service Leaders.
Retrieved from:

Genevieve Enid Kyarimpa & Jean-Claude Garcia-Zamor (2006): The Quest for Public Service Ethics: Individual Conscience and Organizational Constraints, Public Money & Management, 26:1, 31-38
Rubin, Dennis. (2012). How not to hire idiots, thugs, and misfits. Fire Rescue1 magazine. Retrieved from:

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