Being an emergency responder involves taking risks, and we are taught to continually monitor conditions and analyze specific situations based on a risk-vs.-benefit ratio. We do this on the foreground by having teams work in unison under a single command system. At most fire scenes, a chief officer sets up a command post to coordinate activities and keep track of the resources. The fire attack group advances the hoseline, assesses tininterior, and extinguishes the fire while the ventilation group performs the necessary tasks to alleviate the pent-up heat and gases The key to a safe and successful operation is groups working together. Cooperation, communication, and teamwork are vital for achieving our mission.
This same foreground approach also should be used with regard to management-related risks —such as those associated with sexual harassment. This problem threatens the cohesiveness of a group by dividing its membership. For this reason, fire executives, company officers, and firefighters must understand the pragmatic and legal ramifications of their personal conduct before lives are ruined, a department’s reputation is tarnished, or an organization is left in chaos after battling discrimination charges.
From a practical view, upper management’s attitude toward sexually suggestive or rude behavior varies from very serious concern to a complete lack of knowledge and caring. Yet, whenever a crisis erupts or a complaint is filed, anger, frustration, and outrage against the accuser and the accused abound in the department.
Upset morale, even in the short term, and the rumors and discontent stemming from such charges make it reasonable to expect that overall organizational productivity will decrease. Career departments can experience an increase in the use of sick days or medical leave, while volunteer departments may see a premature exodus of active members.
The legal cost of sexual harassment can be astronomical. Charges must be fully investigated. Court hearings can be drawn out. Civil penalties can have a major impact on limited budgets. Thus, all department members should be familiar with the issue of gender discrimination, especially because in these tight economic times money, materials, and personnel cannot be wasted.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains Title VI1, the “muscle” of this federal law. It prohibits discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In 1972 the Equal Employment Opportunity Act amended Title VII in several ways. The most profound effect on the fire service was that state and local governments no longer were exempt from mandates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1974 the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), established 10 years earlier to investigate civil rights violations, prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex and emphasized that sexual harassment was unlawful.
In addition to federal statutes, many state legislatures have passed their own “Human Rights Acts” or “Equal Rights Acts,” which prohibit subtle or overt discrimination on the bases of sex, pregnancy, and marital status.
Since last year, the topic of sexual harassment has been part of every workplace and many editorial pages, due to the controversy surrounding the State Farm Insurance Companies, Boston Herald sportswriter Lisa Olson, minor league baseball umpire Pam Postema, and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Certainly, Professor Anita Hill’s allegations during Judge Thomas’ nomination hearing have forced fire service leaders to take a closer look at their current policies and practices. Without question, fire department managers are liable for subordinates’ actions, speech, and conduct. Tougher federal guidelines and broader court rulings have changed the meaning of “joking” while on duty. In fact, many attorneys believe that sex discrimination will be the most litigated and costly personnel issue of the next decade.
Sexual harassment is a significant national problem because 40 percent of women in the workforce have encountered it in some form. However, only four percent say that they had reported the incident, according to a New York Times-CBS television poll taken October 1 1, 1991. Another poll taken in 1990, cited by Terese M. Eloren, executive director of Women in the Eire Service, revealed that 74 percent of women in the fire service have reported that they believe they had experienced some form of harassment in their departments.
Sexually oriented conduct can be considered harassing if it creates an “unwelcome, intimidating, or hostile work environment” and interferes with a member’s ability to properly perform assigned duties (Meritor Saving Bank vs. Vinson— 1986). Supervisors. therefore, must be committed to rules that eliminate demeaning “fun and games” around the firehouse.
This can include banning pornographic pictures, posters, and graphics; reprimanding those who resort to catcalls and suggestive gestures; and even terminating members to prevent blatant discriminatory pranks.
Although sexual harassment has not been precisely defined, a consensus emerging in the courts holds that workplace behavior should be judged by the woman’s instead of the man’s standards of offensiveness. A 1991 ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco states that the traditional “reasonable man” standard is not appropriate in cases of sexual harassment.
With approximately 3,000 women now working in career departments in North America and many more devoting their efforts to volunteer organizations, even the issues of dating and “private lives” must be addressed. Although normal social relationships are not likely to be considered offensive, there is a current concern that if a coworker refuses a date and the work relationship deteriorates, legal problems can arise. Attorney Jonathan Segal, who specializes in discrimination cases and has developed a 28-question quiz on sexual harassment, says that “dating a subordinate is risky.” According to Robin Robnowitz, executive director of Women Alliance for Job Equity, the issue of romance can become hazy, but “abuse of power in the workplace” w ill get a person into serious legal trouble. While the off-duty lives of emergency responders cannot be controlled by fire department officials, if activities that occur while off duty begin to affect behavior in the workplace, the appropriate authorities have the responsibility to intercede and correct the situation.
Furthermore, firefighters may be surprised to know that affection is common among men and women in the fire service. Linda F. Willing, author of Love on the Job and a member of Women in Fire Suppression, a network and communication organization for women in the fire service, found in a survey she took in 1985 that 20 percent of all female firefighters were married to male firefighters and that another 10 percent had been involved in long-term romantic relationships with a fire service member.
Numerous forces at work in a fire department can draw male and female members close together or split them widely apart. Working together in a “communal atmosphere” on roundthe-clock shifts where department members are forced to live, train, and respond to emergencies can enhance personal feelings. Fire suppression units thrive on closeness, and it is very common for off-duty time to be shared with fire service peers. Thus the public safety environment tends to support the formation of strong personal ties.
This same “tightly knit” tradition of the fire service, however, also can cause male department members to view female members as “outsiders” because department values and behavioral norms traditionally have been male-centered. This situation causes stress and discomfort and sometimes forces members of the firefighting family to pick sides. This potential for dividing coworkers is a major challenge and possibly one of the most volatile problems facing this generation of fire officers.
Determining what constitutes harassment is fairly “ticklish” and cannot be trivialized. Objectionable behavior can be interpreted differently from individual to individual, state to state, and court to court. Yet, there arc some common threads. The following recommendations may help your department steer clear of the sexualharassment dilemma:
Plan ahead. Preparation is the key. Pattern policies on federal and local harassment/discrimination law’s. Direct practices and procedures at maintaining a work environment in which individuals are treated with fairness and respect and are offered equal opportunity based on performance and capability’.
Awareness. Assign responsibilities to and hold accountable those in authority. Train members to recognize and deal w ith discriminatory issues. Anticipate negative reaction to organizational changes and the falling of long-standing traditions. Allow’ involvement at all levels to reduce resistance and avoid biases.
Learn from others’ mistakes. Listen to real and perceived problems. Leadership can monitor the organizational climate by keeping lines of communication open with frequent formal and informal meetings. Legal counsel can help develop an antiharassment policy, updating department regulations and developing an officer’s handbook. Libel charges will be difficult to defend unless there is an official internal complaint channel to confidentially report, thoroughly review, and promptly resolve a dispute.
Staff. Supervisors set the tone for the unit. They must be aware of what is occurring in the station and at emergency scenes. Standards of conduct must be enforced to stop physical, visual, verbal, and written harassment. Otherwise, the department may find itself settling lawsuits that will cost it in dollars, public relations, and performance.
Sexual harassment is not an upbeat subject, but failing to recognize how this form of employment discrimination can surprise and divide an organization is shortsighted and foolish. Unfortunately, there are no easy or clearcut answers; common sense is not enough. Education and training are necessary because there are many relevant laws, theories, and viewpoints to consider.
All managerial decisions have a risk and a benefit. By putting together a solid proactive planning program that creates a reasonable code of conduct, defines unacceptable behavior, and permits innocent initiation rites and good-natured kidding, managers can reduce risks. Your department can benefit from the lessons of the past, and it can take corrective steps to stop firehouse antics before they get out of control *