Harassment and bullying have been in the news lately. And a recent firefighter suicide might have been linked to online bullying. When such behavior exists in any workplace, the outcome is always negative and sometimes tragic.
Many fire departments put considerable resources into preventing and mitigating workplace harassment, yet it may occur even on departments that have made a commitment to eliminating it. Is harassment and bullying inevitable in the fire service? Will it always occur in any workplace?
For more than 20 years I have developed training to eliminate workplace harassment, so it is discouraging to see its continuing impact even in 2016.
What I know from my experience is that workplace harassment is an emotional issue for those who may be targeted, for those who feel unjustly accused and for those who may channel anger and frustration through inappropriate behavior.
Let's step back from emotions for a brief time to talk about some of the core realities of harassment and bullying and how individuals and departments can take steps to stop it.
First, it is important to understand that harassment in any form (and especially bullying) is about abuse of power. This power may be actual, such as with position or seniority, or it may be perceived, such as with popularity, approval or group membership.
This inequality of power is why new firefighters, women and others who may be perceived as different are nearly always the chosen targets of harassment.
Harassment may take three general forms. There is deliberate and malicious harassment, where the intention is to intimidate or hurt another person. Examples of this type of harassment are usually blatant and may include threats, sabotage and even assault.
Then there is unconscious or subconscious harassment, where the person behaving badly does not acknowledge his or her intention to cause harm to another. In these cases, the harasser usually justifies the bad behavior by rationalizing that the behavior actually has a higher purpose.
Hazing is a good example of this second type of harassment. Although the behavior in itself is clearly inappropriate, those doing it may rationalize that it serves a greater good of carrying on a tradition of initiating new members into the organization.
Third, harassment may (and usually does) only occur when it is enabled by those who stand by and do nothing. People may see the crude joking, the mean teasing, the ganging up of the group on the individual, but they rationalize why it is better not to act.
So what should fire departments, and especially individual members of those departments, do to stop workplace harassment?
Fire departments must have clear and fair policies about preventing and mitigating harassment. These policies must be enforced consistently.
Departments must also provide education to their members not only about those policies, but also to build skills in individuals so they can stop harassment before it becomes a pattern of behavior.
Leaders must set the example. That means that chiefs and other supervising officers must walk the talk. They can't threaten members with a so-called zero tolerance policy, and then say or do something that clearly undermines the intention of that policy.
And they must be clear that they will always support their officers and firefighters when they stand up and do the right thing. Firefighters, especially newer people on the job, look to their leaders for what is OK and not OK in terms of behavior.
Strong, informed company officers are critical to maintaining the harassment-free workplace. Company officers need specific training in communications, conflict management and leadership. And they need to be held accountable with these skills.
Why it goes unreported
Finally, every individual from the most senior officer to the newest recruit must understand that they have a personal obligation and stake in eliminating harassment and bullying from the workplace.
All of this is easier said than done. There are real reasons why harassment and bullying go unreported and unaddressed; here are a few.
- Victims are afraid of retaliation if they say anything.
- Victims may doubt themselves and rationalize why the inappropriate behavior is really OK.
- Officers lack skills in communication and confrontation when trying to stop escalating group behavior.
- Higher-level chiefs are out of touch and unavailable to address problems.
To truly stop workplace harassment, you have to create a culture of accountability that includes everyone.
It must be part of the organization's mission that harassment is unacceptable and that anyone who witnesses it must do something, either by taking direct action and/or by documenting and reporting it up the chain of command.
What kind of direct action am I talking about? It can be very simple.
If you see someone apparently being targeted for teasing in an unwelcome way, as a peer you can take that person aside and ask if they are OK with what is going on. Remember that the old adage "We're not laughing at you, we're laughing with you" does not apply when the other person is not laughing.
Individuals have much more power than they may think in stopping harassment, especially the type that arises from a group mentality. They can:
- Talk privately with someone who has behaved inappropriately, and express their discomfort with what has occurred.
- Change the subject when others slip into unprofessional "can you top this" conversations.
- Be clear allies to anyone who might be marginalized.
- Speak up. If someone is using inappropriate language, for example, simply saying, "That's not okay with me" can be very powerful.
- Call out cowardly anonymous online behavior. Forward links for problem sites to department leaders.
- Document and report patterns of inappropriate behavior.
Stopping workplace harassment does not mean that people will never make mistakes or offend one another. In a profession as close-knit and potentially stressful as firefighting, it is inevitable that people will bother each other now and then.
But when fire departments are based on inclusion and respect among members, and people know they have an equal right to respect and expression in the workplace, such incidents may be resolved in the moment, one-on-one, and never escalate to a crisis situation.
Creating a harassment-free workplace should be this easy. It's not.
It requires vigilance and commitment from the top down that every fire department will be grounded in respect and inclusion of all members. Creating and sustaining such a work environment is possible, and is worth any effort it might take to make it happen.