When is hazing OK? Never. Let me explain.
Some members will simply never have equal power to exercise control over others using the same hazing tactics
Recent reports of fire service hazing have raised the question again: Are there any circumstances where it is appropriate, acceptable or useful to haze new members of the fire department?
The answer to that question is simple. No. Not ever. Under no circumstances.
I know some will disagree. Hazing can be an important rite of passage, they say. It toughens people up. It’s part of a long tradition. People who don’t like it are snowflakes with no business being in the fire service anyway.
But I stand by my position. And I’m here to explain it.
Understanding what hazing is and isn’t
First, it’s important to have a common definition for hazing. Hazing is an initiation process involving harassment, also defined as “the practice of playing unpleasant tricks on someone or forcing someone to do unpleasant things.”
Assigning the new firefighter to clean the bathrooms, a necessary task in the fire station, is not hazing. Requiring that new firefighter to do the job with a toothbrush while only wearing underwear is hazing.
Most people who defend the practice of hazing went through something similar – something they see as a rite of passage. Yes, it was hard, they say, but that made the reward of inclusion and full acceptance all the more valuable.
I sometimes hear that hazing is even more necessary now in an era when new recruits may come to the department with increased and unreasonable sensitivities. Hazing does these candidates a favor, defenders say, by toughening them up and eliminating unsuitable people early on.
The hazing power imbalance
In its best light, hazing is a kind of pyramid scheme. You come on the job as a new recruit and put up with humiliating treatment for two reasons. First, you believe that putting up with that treatment is your ticket to full acceptance and inclusion. It also gives you the right, once you’re in a position of power, to do the same thing to others.
But what if you are someone who, for any number of reasons, will never be as fully included as someone else? Some members will simply never have equal power to exercise control over others. Some will have access to that power but choose not to use it. If someone is being treated badly but gets nothing in return for it, that starts to look a lot like harassment.
Historically, firefighter candidates were young and from similar backgrounds, and the fire department might be their first real job. But the fire service now draws people from much more diverse backgrounds, and it is common for new recruits to span decades in age and have years of other professional experience. This diversity of backgrounds is good for the fire service overall, but older people especially are much less likely to tolerate hazing. A fire department that continues to embrace this tradition is likely to lose good candidates even before they apply.
Some argue that “pranks” played on new firefighters are just fun and that all the laughs that come from them are shared equally. But that is simply not true. I appreciate a good practical joke, and my experience in the fire service is that firefighters can be masterminds of creative energy in this way. But there is an important distinction between such jokes and hazing. If A shift plays a joke on B shift, it is expected that B shift will retaliate in kind. If a friend says something rude and funny to me, I can say something equally rude back to them. But a new recruit does not have this ability, not in the moment and possibly not ever. That creates an imbalance of power.
This imbalance is not just between new recruits and veteran firefighters. Hazing rarely affects all new people equally. Some people tend to be accepted more readily while others make easier targets.
Harassment and hazing are both abuses of power. Of course, a training officer has power over a class of new recruits. It is because of this power that the officer has a higher responsibility to behave professionally and be a good role model.
No one is saying that being a fire recruit should be easy. New people need to meet high standards and prove themselves. But hazing does not need to be part of this process. There are better alternatives.
Accountability should be a commonly held value among all fire department members. New recruits can be held accountable for their actions in both a reinforcing and corrective way. People should be given opportunities to excel and be recognized when they do. When recruits struggle with a task or skill, they should be given support to improve. If a new firefighter violates rules or standards, say by being late to work, you can implement a clear and fairly administered system of progressive discipline – perhaps a written warning for the first offense, followed by probation and if necessary, dismissal. This is quite different from requiring the member to wear a broken clock around their neck as they perform other duties.
It is critical that any system of praise or punishment be clear to everyone involved and be administered fairly and equitably. Every group includes favorites who tend to skate even when not performing at their best. Every group also has at least one person who tends to be the goat.
Equal opportunities to succeed
In a fair and equitable system, not everyone will succeed. Some people are not well suited to the fire service and would be better off pursuing another career or vocation. But everyone must be given an equal opportunity to succeed and equal access to all systems of personal or organizational support.
Some people think that hazing teaches new people about discipline and camaraderie on the job. But what it really teaches new recruits is that unprofessional behavior and abuse of power are OK, depending on the circumstances. Hazing also says it’s especially OK to demonstrate these traits with people who are new and relatively unfamiliar to the organization, and just learning about the culture and values of the organization they are now part of.
The fire service should be at its absolute best when training new recruits. These people are the future of your organization. You want to bring out the best in them and give them the opportunity to aspire to great achievements. A tradition of hazing undermines all these goals. It has no place in the fire service today or in the future.
Editor’s note: Where is the line when it comes to hazing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.