Bullying by subordinates in the fire service

Firefighter training and an organizational culture evaluation are needed to prevent bullying and harassment in the fire house


Bullying is about power, so it might seem counterintuitive that subordinates might bully a supervisor. Yet this situation exists in many workplaces, including the fire service.

According to research done by the Workplace Bullying Institute, at least 6 percent of all bullying events at work involve subordinates harassing a supervisor or someone of higher position. This number may be greater in the emergency services.

Bullying can take several different forms. The model most people think of when they hear the word is a single individual abusing another individual. But “mobbing” or bullying by a group against an individual is also common. This type of bullying is more common when those of lower rank or position target a supervisor.

Bullying in any form, including bullying by subordinates against a supervisor, is a function of bad behavior by an individual or group that is also tolerated or enabled by individuals and groups. (Photo/USAF)
Bullying in any form, including bullying by subordinates against a supervisor, is a function of bad behavior by an individual or group that is also tolerated or enabled by individuals and groups. (Photo/USAF)

Bullying by subordinates can be subtle and passive-aggressive in its nature rather than overt or violent. For example:

  • If a firefighter knows an officer doesn’t like the smell of a particular cologne, that firefighter might make a point of wearing that scent in abundance around that officer.
  • Firefighters might be deliberately slow to respond to direct requests or orders, saying that they did not hear or understand what was requested.
  • Members of the crew might purposefully choose radio stations or TV programs that they know their officer hates or use language around that person that they know will be offensive.

As with all forms of bullying, a single incident is almost never the problem, but rather a pattern of deliberate behavior.

Colleagues and the chain of command can enable bullying

Although in some cases, these actions may look like they are being perpetrated by a single individual, there is always a group dynamic involved when a subordinate bullies a supervisor. First, since the behavior usually occurs in a public place, other crew members or witnesses either enable or suppress that behavior by their reactions. Laughing, piling on or just actively avoiding are all reactions that ultimately encourage behavior to continue. In contrast, giving someone “the look” or speaking up in any way will likely isolate the bully and quickly diminish the problem.

People higher in the chain of command may also enable low-level bullies. If a company officer is having problems with a particular firefighter and initial steps at mitigation have not worked, the officer might talk to the next higher officer about the problem. How that person reacts often determines how the situation is ultimately resolved.

If the next supervisory officer offers good advice and support for the company officer, the problem can usually be resolved without too much collateral damage. But if that supervisor diminishes the problem, telling the company officer to “just do your job and stop bothering me with your personal problems,” things are likely to get much worse.

How bad can it get? Last year, a fire officer in Rhode Island received a large settlement due to bullying and harassment by her crew members that included refusal to follow orders, malicious gossip and verbal taunts. A fire officer in Ohio has filed a lawsuit claiming that he was harassed by his crew when they insisted on watching a movie he found offensive in the common area of the station, and his requests for help from higher authority resulted in retaliation. When such situations escalate to this level, the entire department is affected.

Evaluate fire department organizational culture

Chief officers and elected officials are not immune from bullying either. A number of fire chiefs have stated that they were targeted in smear campaigns by department members, employee organizations or other individuals or groups. Elected officials have made the same claim on many occasions. When communications and relationships break down to this degree, everyone loses, especially those who are being served in the community.

How can bullying by subordinates be prevented or mitigated? Clear expectations are the place to start. Everyone on the job must understand their personal obligation to maintain professional behavior at work and show respect for their colleagues. Company officers need training on things like conflict management, communication, counseling, goal setting and team building. Chief officers must understand that they have a role in resolving escalating problems at the station level, and not just avoid the issues by labeling them “personal problems.”

The importance of bystander behavior must be included in any training effort. Bullies only thrive when others allow them to. If witnesses stand up against this inappropriate behavior, it won’t last long.

But training individuals in needed skills is not enough. Organizational culture must be addressed, starting with a clear-eyed assessment of what the organizational culture actually is rather than what it might aspire to be.

How can organizational culture be evaluated? Since culture is like the air we breathe, it can be hard to really see it when you’re in it, at any level of the organization. It can be helpful to get assistance from an informed outsider in this area. As a chief officer, it is also useful to do some investigatory work:

  • Listen for gossip
  • Talk to members of other departments or agencies to get a sense of how the organization is perceived
  • Check social media sites that mention the department

In the end, bullying in any form, including bullying by subordinates against a supervisor, is a function of bad behavior by an individual or group that is also tolerated or enabled by individuals and groups.  When the second part of the equation is removed, the first part cannot endure.

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