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.
How do the Succession Pathways system and CPG address the problems?
Focus on operational roles – By using assessment exercises that are carefully designed around the NFCC Leadership Framework, set in a recognisable but generic context, the same exercises are easily adapted to different groups: operational, support, on-call, control, internal and external candidates. Candidates perceive assessment processes to be fairer when exercises are set in a fictitious FRS context with issues to resolve that seem relevant. This helps settle nerves and expectations and makes the activities more relatable.
Lack of understanding and transparency of processes – E-learning is a good way to give potential candidates a much better understanding of what to expect and what is required. This type of learning is found to be most accessible to different learning styles, reduce later grievances, improve performance, increase satisfaction with the process, and does not place any additional burden on HR time. The CPG E-learning Course clarifies expectations and behavioural criteria in advance of assessment activity, highlighting what is being assessed and why, plus what results will both look like, and be an indication of. The e-course is not compulsory, but is recommended, and can be adapted for each FRS to include a module on specific information on internal processes.
Concerns about fairness – Analysing assessment data will help determine if assessment activities are measuring what they need to in a reliable way. If you don’t have the capability in-house to do this, gain outsourced support. It is helpful if the data you gather is consistent in format across different elements of your processes. British Psychological Society standards of best practice and ethics should be applied to exercise design and adverse impact monitored, by gathering anonymous demographic data which can be linked to assessment results. Anonymous assessments help to reduce bias, i.e. assessors mark by candidate number only, and do not assess role-play candidates they know.
Build in candidate feedback to every assessment stage so you can identify and act on themes. Using a candidate survey at the point of assessment can give a more accurate overview of opinions. Make sure neuro-diverse candidates are aware of the options available to support them, such as additional time, text-to-speech functions and choice over how information is presented.
VCA monitors CPG data for reliability, adverse impact, candidate satisfaction surveys and adapts exercise format to meet candidate needs.
Insufficient emphasis on identifying future leaders – it simplifies matters to use the same methodology for assessing for promotion to also identify high potential candidates. With strong existing data from hundreds of candidates, the CPG can identify the cut-off score for individuals suitable for accelerated progression.
Inconsistencies between different management levels and methods used at different levels – using the same methods at all management levels is reassuring for candidates and builds confidence in a fair and universal process. It also makes it easier for organisations to organise, facilitate and report on tools that are used throughout the year at different levels. Eligibility requirements will vary according to level, as will later selection arrangements (usually an interview), but a foundation of behavioural assessment as a core at all levels will provide a consistent approach to identifying management and leadership capability.
Inconsistency in development opportunities – a system such as the Succession Pathways System proposed in the VCA flow-chart leads all candidates to a development path, irrespective of outcome. That’s not to say it will be a simple matter to create development pathways for each outcome; however, with core modules for all outcomes and add-on learning relevant to candidate performance, development support can deliver depth and focus within a streamlined model.
Frequent changes to promotion processes – committing to a new system at all levels for at least three years will give HR teams breathing space to act on other priorities, and candidates’ confidence in knowing what to anticipate in order to progress their career. A concern may be that it is too risky to commit to a new process for that period; however, adopting a process that has been a success in other FRSs (and speaking to colleagues from other Services about this) can be reassuring.
Additionally, having a clear assessment schedule provides predictability for individuals looking to manage their career, and a pool of candidates for promotion as required. Choosing a specific month for each level of assessment on an annual basis can work well from Crew to Station, with more flexibility at Group Manager and Strategic levels. Another option is to run a rolling programme of assessments. For instance, the first week of each month is when assessments are held (which can easily be facilitated using systems such as the CPG).
Inconsistent approach to feedback – it can be labour-intensive to create comprehensive feedback reports. An online system does allow an element of automation, and systems such as the CPG and CPG Feedback LITE allow FRSs to determine which level of feedback provision is most appropriate to their organisation. With the CPG, six-page personalised feedback reports are provided at the same time as final results, within a week of the final assessment. The report includes a page of developmental recommendations, which can be supported by the individual’s line manager.
Many line managers have had training in feedback skills, although additional training specific to assessment methods, criteria used, behavioural evaluation and how to support next developmental steps is highly beneficial. Gaining the coaching skills required to deliver this role successfully is a good learning opportunity and provides skills that are useful day to day.
Verbal feedback can be outsourced; VCA’s CPG assessors regularly deliver developmental feedback sessions for candidates across a range of FRSs, drawing on their expertise as psychologists to provide guidance to facilitate meaningful behavioural change.
Unreliable access to the promotions process – this can be simplified with an evidence-based or portfolio approach (after gaining competence in current role) linked to the assessment criteria (often the Leadership Qualities), and with line managers who are trained in guiding applicants to build their evidence, trained to assess the evidence fairly and accurately, and trained to deliver detailed and developmental feedback to applicants based on their application. This support will help line managers deal with this often difficult responsibility, with the tools and guidelines to do it confidently, and improve applicant perceptions regarding the fairness and value of this stage.
The key concepts to creating an effective and streamlined promotions process are simplification and consistency. Apply the same processes and criteria, adapted to level and stage of the process, to create recognisable, predictable and accepted processes, streamlined by technology and supported by training for all involved.
Being open to consulting is also incredibly useful. Explore what other FRSs are doing, share best practice, brainstorm dilemmas, and be honest about challenges. Consider collaborations, share data and seek peer review of your own methods. Creating exemplary mechanisms for promotion is both a science and an art but one which can be made very much easier together.
For more information, go to www.vcaltd.co.uk/career-progression-gateway/