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5 reasons firefighter training on harassment fails

Be proactive and intentional, with a facilitator who understands fire culture and sexual harassment law when providing firefighter training


Sexual harassment is in the news lately, with another high-profile story about bad behavior in the workplace appearing daily.

All this attention has led organizations to either institute or reinforce the training they do on this topic. The U.S. Congress has mandated sexual harassment training for all members for the first time ever.

Most fire departments do some sort of training on sexual harassment. However, if you ask firefighters who participate in this training, they often report less than satisfactory results.

Sexual harassment training is important and necessary, but it must be done thoughtfully and intentionally, not treated as an afterthought, a threat or a joke. (Photo/City of Lubbock)
Sexual harassment training is important and necessary, but it must be done thoughtfully and intentionally, not treated as an afterthought, a threat or a joke. (Photo/City of Lubbock)

Here are five reasons why harassment training so often fails to meet its objectives:

1. Bad timing: reactionary training

Many fire departments see harassment training as an extraneous thing, even non-essential. As a low priority, it tends to get postponed or deferred.

Then there is some sort of crisis – a firefighter is accused of sexual harassment, a fire officer is arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. Everyone panics, and one of the reactions is often to institute department-wide training as quickly as possible.

Training mandated in this way is often not well thought-out and is seen by everyone as reactionary and situational rather than proactive and essential.

2. Wrong facilitator

Sexual harassment is a complicated, sensitive topic. Anyone teaching a class on the subject needs to be knowledgeable, not only on the specifics of the law, but also about the culture and practices of the target audience.

Fire departments often bring in facilitators who err on one end or the other of this spectrum.

They may use in-house facilitators who fully understand the organization they are addressing, but may be less-than-fully knowledgeable about more global aspects of harassment law and its application.

Or they hire outside instructors who may be experts in the general field of human resources, but lack insight into the complexities of the fire service.

3. No facilitator

Some fire departments choose to “check the box” on sexual harassment training by having members watch videos. While this type of education works well for some topics, sexual harassment is not one of them.

Sexual harassment is a subject most people would prefer to avoid talking about. As a result, people are likely to minimally engage with any remote or online format for the subject. In some cases, this approach can even turn into a joke, having the opposite of its intended effect.

People need to have their questions answered when it comes to sexual harassment. They need to think critically and hear how others see and address issues. This type of engagement can only happen in a live setting with a skilled facilitator.

4. Wrong focus

A lot of sexual harassment training focuses on the extreme cases – blatantly illegal behavior and those people who deliberately act in this way. But the vast majority of people are not deliberate harassers, and resent being treated as such. When a class focuses on this aspect of harassment, much of the audience will tune out because they don’t see it as applying to them.

However, harassment does not exist in a vacuum. It can only continue and escalate when the prevalent culture actively ignores it, tolerates it, allows it or enables it. It is in this way that everyone in an organization can play a role in harassment occurring, and this should be the main focus of any effective harassment training effort.

5. All talk, no action

Giving people information is important, but it is not enough. If you want things to change, you also must teach them skills to do things differently in the future.

Provide firefighter training on the following:

  • How do you let someone know you don’t like something they said or did, without escalating the situation?
  • How do you stand up to someone who is acting like a bully?
  • How can you be an ally for someone who is being targeted?
  • How can company officers model appropriate behavior?
  • How does the complaint process work within the organization?
  • What alternatives exist to filing a formal complaint, and when is it appropriate to use them?

It is possible to teach people to listen better, to confront issues in a constructive way, to provide useful coaching and counseling. Teaching and practicing such skills is the only way things will really change in the long run.

Sexual harassment training is important and necessary, but it must be done thoughtfully and intentionally, not treated as an afterthought, a threat or a joke.

Department members need to have clear, accurate information presented in a way that makes sense to them in the context of their work. They also need to develop skills to do things better in the future. Only then will things really change.

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