Bullying on the Job: A New Threat to the Fire Service

By Scott E. Crandall

There is a frightening new behavior sweeping across the country that could wreak havoc with the core fire service concepts of teamwork and brotherhood. It can be initiated by any member of the service, regardless of rank. This new behavior is workplace bullying.

No doubt, you have seen media reports on the subject of "school bullying." Many kids have taken their own lives because of this atrocious behavior.

The statistics on school bullying and suicide are alarming:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. More than 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
  • Bullying victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.
  • A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
  • 10- to 14-year-old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above.
  • According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

This same type of bullying that exists in schools also exists in the fire service. Unless we begin to recognize it and do something to stop it, the fire service will likely suffer significant loss in productivity; team unity; and, in the worst of cases, suicide.

Workplace Bullying: What Is It?

Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute [1] defines workplace bullying as a systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction that jeopardizes your health, your career, and the job you once loved. Bullying is a nonphysical, nonhomicidal form of violence, and, because it is violent and abusive, emotional harm frequently results.

Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — that prevents work from getting done.

Workplace Bullying: Who and What

  • Is driven by perpetrators' need to control the targeted individual(s).
  • Is initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods.
  • Escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.
  • Undermines legitimate business interests when bullies' personal agendas take precedence over work itself.
  • Is like domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.
  • Thirty-five percent of the workforce in the United States report being bullied at work; this translates to 53.5 million Americans who are suffering at the hands of a bully.

The Relation to Domestic Violence

Being bullied at work most closely resembles the experience of being a battered spouse. The abuser inflicts pain when and where she or he chooses, keeping the target (victim) off-balance, knowing that violence can happen on a whim but dangling the hope that safety is possible during a period of peace of unknown duration. The target is kept close to the abuser by the nature of the relationship between them--husband to wife or, in this case, boss to subordinate or co-worker to co-worker.

The Impacts of Workplace Bullying

How Bullying Can Affect Your Body

Stressors, aspects of the work environment, and the behavior of people working there can generate stress. Stress is a biological human response. It is physiological and real, not just imagined. Low-level stress may be necessary to compel people to act. However, severe stress--which prevents rational, controlled action--has overwhelmingly negative consequences.

Psychological-Emotional-Mental Injuries

Bullying is often called psychological harassment or violence. What makes it psychological is bullying's impact on the person's mental health and sense of well-being. The personalized, focused nature of the assault destabilizes and disassembles the target's identity, ego strength, and ability to rebound from the assaults. The longer the exposure to stressors like bullying, the more severe the psychological impact. When stress goes unabated, it compromises a target's physical and mental health.

Coworker Ostracism: Shunning, Rejection, Abandonment

Humans are social animals. We need validation and confirmation of our humanity and normalcy with others. That's why social norms and the pressure to conform determine so much of our behavior (though we like to think we are rugged individualists, masters of our own universe). Thus, when we have the bonds with others stripped away, we suffer a loss.

Kip Williams, the Purdue University expert on ostracism, writing in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2007, found that when an individual is exposed to social exclusion in a simulated game experiment, responses follow a predictable sequence: (a) a reflexive painful response; (b) increased sadness and anger stemming from threats to our need for belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence; (c) a reflective, cognitive stage to appraise the situation, the reasons for and sources of ostracism, with individual differences guiding the resulting conclusion. If relational needs (belonging) are most thwarted, then the person might behave in a prosocial manner. If one's need to be recognized is most affected, then the person may result in attempts to regain control through provocative or antisocial actions. With repeated incidents of ostracism, the ability to respond at all is depleted, leading to feelings of helplessness, despair, and alienation.

There is also evidence from the discipline of neuroscience that social exclusion triggers pain and trauma pathways in the brain. In 2011, there was an explosion of research on the feelings of physical pain related to breakups in romantic relationships. The findings were consistent with Williams' work. Advice for dealing with love lost was to take two ibuprofens! It helps.

Financial Devastation

Workplace bullying, by definition, happens at work. It interferes with the target's confidence that her or his livelihood is assured. Broad societal economic crises threaten millions of workers at the same time, but this danger is impersonal. Bullying is a laser-focused, personalized economic crisis affecting the target and her or his family. When bullies have control over the targets' livelihood (as occurs in 72 percent of situations), they have tremendous leverage to cause financial pain. Single-parent workers are the most vulnerable.

Controlling bullies can block transfers to a safe job; can make targets so miserable that they quit (constructive discharge), or impair target health to the extent they have to quit to stop the stress from a campaign of interpersonal destruction. In the United States, losing work means losing health insurance. No job means getting even sicker and losing the ability to seek medical help.

What Bullied Targets Can Do

These things seem like a simple list, but they are very difficult to accomplish. It's an uphill struggle.

Step One - Name it! Legitimize Yourself!

1. Choose a name--bullying, psychological harassment, psychological violence, emotional abuse--to offset the effect of being told that because your problem is not illegal, you cannot possibly have a problem. This makes people feel illegitimate. The cycle of self-blame and anxiety begins.

2. The source of the problem is external. The bully decides how to target and how, when, and where to harm people. You did not invite, or want, the systematic campaign of psychological assaults and interference with your work. Think about it. No sane person wakes up each day hoping to be humiliated or berated at work.

3. There is tremendous healing power in naming. Hard to believe at first, but very true.

Step Two - Take Time Off to Heal and Launch a Counterattack

1. Accomplish five important tasks while on sick leave or short-term disability (granted by your physician).

2. Check your mental health with a professional (not the employer's Employee Assistance Program). Get emotionally stable enough to make a clear-headed decision to stay and fight or to leave for your health's sake. Your humanity makes you vulnerable; it is not a weakness, but a sign of superiority. Work trauma, by definition, is an overwhelming, extraordinary experience.

3. Check your physical health. Stress-related diseases rarely carry obvious warning signals (e.g., hypertension, the silent killer). Read the current research on work stress and heart disease.

4. Research state and federal legal options (in a quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role). Talk to an attorney. Maybe a demand letter can be written. Look for internal policies (harassment, violence, respect) for violations to report, but be fully prepared for retaliation.

5. Gather data about the economic impact the bully has had on the employer. Put dollars and cents to each instance of turnover (at least two times the salary of the person affected) to include all expenses associated with replacement (recruitment, demoralization from understaffing, interviewing, lost time while newbie learns job), and absenteeism, and lost productivity from interference by the bullying.

6. Start a job search for your next position.

Step Three - Expose the Bully

1. The real risk was sustained when you were first targeted (you have a 64 percent chance of losing your job, involuntarily or by choice, for your health's sake). It is no riskier to attempt to dislodge the bully. Retaliation is a certainty. Have your escape route planned in advance. Remember, good employers purge bullies, whereas most others promote them.

2. Make the business case that the bully is "too expensive to keep." Present the data gathered (in Step 2) to let the highest level person you can reach (not human resources) know about the bully's impact on the organization. Obviously, this is impossible in a family-owned or small business, so leave once targeted.

3. Stick to the bottom line. If you drift into tales about the emotional impact of the bully's harassment, you will be discounted and discredited.

4. Give the employer one chance. If the department/company sides with the bully because of personal friendship ("He's a great conversationalist and a lunch buddy") or rationalize the mistreatment ("You have to understand that that is just how she is"), you must leave the job for your health's sake. However, some employers are looking for reasons to purge their very difficult bully. You are the internal consultant with the necessary information. Help good employers purge.

5. The nature of your departure--either bringing sunshine to the dark side or leaving shrouded in silent shame--determines how long it takes you to rebound and get that next job, to function fully and to restore compromised health. Tell everyone about the petty tyrant for your health's sake. You have nothing to be ashamed about. You were only doing the job you once loved.

As you can see, once an individual becomes a target of bullying, professional survival rates are less than 40 percent. This is a data point that makes me want to throw-up!

As a child of the late '50's, the values instilled by my parents were simple: work hard, do the right thing, and do onto others as you would have them do unto you. Accomplish these simple concepts in your professional and personal life and relationships, and you would have a great chance of living a happy, rewarding life.

Step Four

1. Immediately form a policy group in your agency to begin to draft a concise workplace bullying policy that defines the issue, the expectations for all employees and supervisors, and the disciplinary consequences of violating the policy. Employ a cross-section of representation of every rank, gender, and station to ensure you have depth of perspective, generations, and experience.

2. Once the final draft policy has been completed, present it to the chief for review and comment.

3. Once the final draft has been revised to include any input from the chief, forward the policy to the governing body, city council, or board of directors for review, comment, and approval.

4. Once the policy has been approved, educate, educate, and re-educate your employees on all aspects of the policy, the expectations and disciplinary consequences, and have all employees sign an affidavit affirming they have read and understand the policy and the accompanying expectations as well as the consequences.

5. Incorporate the policy into the culture of the organization through zero-tolerance enforcement by supervisors as well as through peer support. We often overlook the power of peers in holding one another to do the right thing for the right reason.

6. Monitor progress of the implementation, and let people know when they are choosing to do the right thing. And discipline those who choose not to.

7. Join the Workplace Bullying Institute's efforts to pass legislation nationally to make workplace bullying illegal. Doing so will go a long way to stopping this behavior. Contact your local and state representatives, and let them know how you feel about how this issue is affecting the fire service and that you are willing to work with them at the agency and state fire service association levels to draft legislation making this behavior illegal. These folks need to know the issue exists, its impact, and, most importantly, that they will have your support during the legislative journey.

8. If workplace bullying is pervasive in your organization, report it to your supervisor.

9. If you simply cannot put a stop to this behavior internally, seek the help of a professional such as Dr. Namie.

 

END NOTE

[1] www.workplacebullying.org

 

Scott E. CrandallScott E. Crandall is the chief of the West Metro (MN) Fire-Rescue District.

 

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