The HMICFRS inspections of the last four years have highlighted areas that many fire and rescue services (FRS) have known for decades: that creating a successful promotions process can be a minefield. VCA Ltd has developed The Career Progression Gateway system (CPG) to help FRS streamline their promotions activities and create fairer and more efficient results.
Applying for progression is a massive event in a firefighter’s career and needs to be managed with sensitivity and care. If the process is handled right, the organisation will identify individuals who have the abilities and potential to have a significant positive impact, improving Service functioning and delivery of objectives. On a personal level, these individuals will feel valued, recognised and supported, contributing to robust morale and an empowered workforce.
On the flip side, handled ineffectively a promotions process can become a niggling source of employee discontent. What HR departments may feel is fair and reliable, candidates may not. Candidates can feel demoralised by what they see as moving goalposts, decisions based on factors other than merit and a lack of clarity on what they are expected to do to succeed. Disillusionment with the promotions process breeds very quickly, with stories of unfair practice or biased appointments rapidly eclipsing efforts towards good practice.
Luckily, the first step to creating fair, effective and supportive methods to facilitate career progression is to understand where the problems lie, which is exactly what the HMIC inspections have done. And there is a great deal of consistency across Fire & Rescue Services in the difficulties both organisations and candidates are facing, which should make tackling them easier.
What are the problems with promotions processes?
Focus on operational roles – a disparity in arrangements for evaluating performance and suitability for progression across different roles creates divisions and inconsistency between different groups of staff.
Lack of transparency and limited understanding of processes – from initial performance review processes to final appointment decisions, a lack of understanding can lead to rumours, false impressions and stress.
Concerns about fairness – whether related to effectiveness of the assessment methodology, impartiality of assessors, relevance of the criteria or bias in how selection decisions are made, suggestions of unfairness undermine credibility and morale. How different FRSs approach promotions and development differs considerably. Given how time-consuming and costly research can be, establishing validity and reliability data is not always prioritised.
Insufficient emphasis on identifying future leaders – mechanisms to identify and support the development of high-potential staff are crucial for organisational progression and success of strong performers.
Inconsistencies between different management levels and methods used at different levels – varying arrangements can lack predictability and imply differences in importance. Whether through focus on the three main levels of supervisory, middle and strategic managers but not ‘in-band’ roles, or more thorough assessments only applicable at, for instance, Station Manager level and above.
Inconsistency in development opportunities – unsuccessful candidates are often left behind, unsure how to act on their results on their own and without clear support to build on their strengths and address their development needs. Consistent approaches to development can also be lacking for successful candidates; most individuals have gaps in their performance to some degree, and performance evaluations aren’t always effectively utilised.
Frequent changes to promotion processes – unpredictability and lack of consistency undermines confidence in assessments and their outcomes, can create confusion and have a negative impact on staff perceptions. This may be the result of shifting agendas or staff simply moving roles, but changes are often poorly understood by staff groups and are frequently a source of dissatisfaction.
Inconsistent approach to feedback – assessment processes have the potential to generate a wealth of insights into a candidate’s abilities, preferences, behaviours and motivations. This opportunity can be under-utilised, with feedback reporting not prioritised and discussion sessions left to managers unfamiliar with the tools used, and without being given the guidance needed to be able to effectively signpost and support structured future development.
Unreliable access to the promotions process – huge variation exists in how applicants are deemed ready for promotion. Criteria for current role competence can be more standardised, but line managers can feel ill-equipped to make difficult decisions regarding a person’s potential suitability for a management role.
Why do FRSs have these difficulties?
Promotion is a big area with a lot of moving parts. Competence in current role needs to be determined, then potential for progression fairly evaluated. Assessment of managerial/ behavioural competencies, with tools or methods to facilitate this in the most fair and valid way needs to be determined. Some FRSs also include an operational skill assessment stage, which might be completion of courses or exams, or a practical, command scenario.
From a pool of successful candidates, selection and development decisions likely then need to be made. Will candidates be developed for the role before applying for promotion so they can ‘hit the ground running’ when appointed? Should only candidates meeting the assessment criteria be put onto development programmes, with later selection into posts? What happens to candidates who don’t meet the criteria this time; how is their development addressed? Will the assessment generate a candidate pool, and if so, how long will this remain current?
Each factor for consideration may involve different personnel from different teams or departments, each having their own influences and priorities. NFCC guidance, such as the introduction of the NFCC Leadership Quality framework, will also come into play.
Lack of clarity or consistency can lead to promotions processes being unpopular, and bogged down in complaints and grievance procedures. New methods may be sought, alleviating immediate pressure, but this success can be short-lived if the underlying difficulties haven’t been fully addressed. Financial pressures can also lead to effective but more resource-heavy processes being discontinued before having enough time to prove their benefit.
It’s a big task to get right, and promotion decisions are always under scrutiny. HR managers are committed to doing the best job they can, but with resource constraints from time to budget, compromises inevitably have to be made.
The Career Progression Gateway (CPG) is an online behavioural assessment used to identify leadership potential. It has been implemented by eight FRSs across the UK to date.
Comprising a written case study and a video (or telephone) role play, these activities are set in a fictitious FRS at all levels from Crew to Group Manager and fictitious alternative scenarios at Strategic and entry level (Firefighter recruitment). Exercises supply background information to inform the context and provide details relevant to the scenario. Candidates have a set time to use this information to generate their own approach to resolve the situation, in writing for the case study exercise, and verbally during a discussion with an assessor in the roleplay.
There are two versions of the CPG: the original, full version, and the CPG Feedback LITE. The ‘LITE’ version uses the same exercises as the full version – the key difference is that assessors select from pre-determined evidence statements rather than generate their own evidence, as they do in the full version. Feedback reports are automatically generated, containing assessor evaluations and personalised developmental guidance. The CPG system can be adapted to suit local needs and services are modular, allowing different elements to be selected depending on requirements.
In order to address the issues outlined with regard to promotion processes, we have embedded the CPG within a wider career management proposal – The Succession Pathways System.