Confronting workplace bullying in the fire service

The IAFC Bullying, Harassment and Workplace Violence Prevention Task Group combats workplace bullying misconceptions and advocates organizational accountability

Workplace bullying is a serious national problem. According to a survey done by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) in 2017, nearly 20 percent of American workers have personally experienced being bullied at work. Another 19 percent have directly witnessed bullying taking place. More than two-thirds of all workers are certain that bullying exists in their place of employment.

The fire service is no exception. Although research specific to the emergency services is still in its early stages, there is no doubt that bullying exists on both individual and systemic levels in many fire and emergency services departments.

In 2016, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) took the initiative to address bullying directly. That year the Bullying, Harassment and Workplace Violence Prevention Task Group was formed to raise awareness about the problem and offer potential solutions.

Although research specific to the emergency services is still in its early stages, there is no doubt that bullying exists on both individual and systemic levels in many fire and emergency services departments.
Although research specific to the emergency services is still in its early stages, there is no doubt that bullying exists on both individual and systemic levels in many fire and emergency services departments. (Photo/Pixabay)

The WBI defines bullying as “repeated harmful abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating [and involving] work sabotage, or verbal abuse.” The IAFC task group defines its mission as addressing bullying, harassment and violence prevention in the fire service. The intention of the group is to treat bullying and associated behaviors as safety issues within the emergency services.

The group includes about 15 members and first met at Fire-Rescue International in San Antonio in 2016. The chair of the group, I. David Daniels is a retired fire chief from departments in Washington and Georgia who has also worked in higher education and safety management. I spoke with Chief Daniels about the challenges to addressing fire service bullying.

Misconceptions about workplace bullying

Daniels pointed out bullying in the fire service has not been previously studied, so the extent of the problem is not known. Although he noted “some organizations have done a good job” dealing with the issue, others have either avoided it or even enabled inappropriate conduct.

Several misconceptions also feed the inability to deal effectively with bullying. The first misconception is that bullying is just one thing – a single individual mistreating another individual. This is one model for bullying, but just as common is what Daniels calls “mobbing” – when a group coordinates either consciously or unconsciously to intimidate and isolate an individual. Daniels describes mobbing as “bullying on steroids.”

Another misconception about bullying is that it is against the law. In fact, in the United States, there is no federal law that specifically addresses bullying that is not directly linked to characteristics specifically named in Civil Rights Law. Those characteristics currently include race, sex, ethnicity or national origin, color, religion, age and disability. Other countries, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many countries in the European Union do have laws that address workplace bullying beyond protected class status.

What this means, Daniels said, is that an individual can be targeted by an individual or a group and be the victim of inappropriate behavior, and it can all be completely legal.

States and local jurisdictions can create laws or policies to address bullying at that level, and many have, although most of these laws are aimed at eliminating bullying in schools, rather than the workplace. A few states are considering legislation that would prohibit workplace bullying that is not tied to protected class status. Tennessee's Healthy Workplace Act prohibits workplace bullying that is not tied into a protected category, but it only applies to public employers. Since Jan. 1, 2015, California businesses have been required to train supervisors on how to identify abusive conduct as part of their sexual harassment prevention training, but so far, there is no private right of action for bullying in the workplace attached to that mandate.

Daniels pointed out that bullying exists across a spectrum, from isolated, inappropriate behavior, to patterned incivility, to the extremes of harassment and bullying. This spectrum can create a slippery slope where behaviors are initially tolerated as being funny or a single inappropriate incident. “No one used to pay attention,” when such behavior occurred, said Daniels, but in a fire service with rapidly changing demographics among its members and service community, different standards now apply.

A top-down approach to ending firefighter bullying

Bullying is about power, and so it is not surprising that the Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 61 percent of bullies are supervisors. Their 2017 study also found that 70 percent of workplace bullies are men. Among bullying targets, women account for 65-67 percent of the victims, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.

What can be done? The initial goal of the IAFC task group is to raise awareness, through research and presentations given to fire service groups across the country. According to Daniels, “Our first step is to answer the question, what is it? What language can we use to describe what is going on?”

The next step is to take clear action to mitigate and prevent bullying behavior in the fire service. The task group is currently working with resources available through the Workplace Bullying Institute to design fire service-specific training and awareness programs that can be delivered at the local level. Daniels described such training as providing tactical skills for fire officers to deal with workplace bullying, the same way officers develop skills to address more technical challenges.

Above all, Daniels stressed the importance of organizational accountability when dealing with bullying. Particularly with mobbing behavior, the solutions must come from the top down to make real organizational change. Bullying is ultimately a safety issue, and while all firefighters must commit to maintaining a safe workplace, it is up to leaders to make clear exactly what that means when it comes to bullying.

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