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Ending harassment in the fire service is everyone’s responsibility

Harassment is a systemic issue, meaning it’s not simply an isolated issue between two people


Harassment is about power, and most harassment involves people with different levels of power within the organization.

Photo/Stephen M. Dowell via Orlando Sentinel

In reaction to a recent news item about a firefighter filing harassment charges at the end of his career, someone commented dismissively, “I’ve never known someone to stay in a job where they felt disrespected or were harassed in any manner.”

Despite this individual’s personal experience, there are several reasons why someone who is being harassed on the job might not address it or even fully recognize it for what it is while it is happening.

Harassment is about power, and most harassment involves people with different levels of power within the organization. This power might be positional, such as a new firefighter being mistreated by a senior officer, or it might involve more informal status differences among a group. One of the first lessons firefighters learn is that you challenge the existing power structure in your organization at your own peril.

And harassment isn’t just one thing. It is most often a pattern of inappropriate behavior that may occur and change over a long period of time. What might be rationalized at first as rite-of-passage testing or teasing can become long-term degradation and humiliation. It can happen so gradually that even the target may not see it clearly. And if everyone else around that person acts like the behavior is normal, it can be hard to step up and identify it any other way.

The fear of retaliation is a big reason why some victims of harassment fail to speak up. This fear is real enough that there are laws in place to address it. But firefighters are pragmatic by nature. They might know that what is happening is bad but wonder if speaking up will make things even worse.

And along the lines of pragmatism is the fact that most people need the jobs that they have. Making a harassment claim against a coworker or an organization can make a person’s work life untenable, even if their accusations are upheld. Although younger people may be more likely to leave a job when they experience harassment, the majority stay. This is especially true for those who are more deeply invested in their work and who have real obligations and others depending on them for support.

Firefighters know that the job can be hard. It’s what they signed up for. When harassment occurs, they may be more likely to tough it out than deal with it directly.

We are all responsible

Ultimately, the target of harassment should not be responsible for ending it. Harassment, by definition, is a pattern of behavior, and when patterns exist in the workplace, others are always aware of them. So, what responsibility do others have to end harassment, even if they do not seem to be directly impacted by it?

All firefighters have the obligation to take care of each other. They do it on the fire scene. They should do it everywhere. If you see something going on between two coworkers that doesn’t seem right, you should say something.

To the person targeted, you can ask questions: “Were you OK with that? What’s going on? Do you want to talk about it?” They may not choose to share much with you, but they will likely appreciate being asked.

To the person who seems to be harassing another, you can also ask questions: “What did you mean by that? What’s going on between the two of you?”

You can also express how witnessing the interaction made you feel – for example, “I’m really not OK with that.”

Workplace harassment is a systemic issue, which means that officers have a special responsibility for recognizing it and stopping it. Too often, officers will look the other way, avoid confrontation, or even enable bad behavior. But officers must speak up to inappropriate behavior – and the sooner the better.

Officers must hold individuals accountable. They must set clear standards for their crews and lead by example. If an individual behaves in an inappropriate way, the officer must talk to that person one-on-one and be clear about what needs to change.

Officers also have the responsibility for being the grownups in the room when group behavior may begin to go off the rails. Most people have been in a group where something that may have started out being funny crossed over into unprofessional language or actions. Officers must recognize that while they are part of the crew, they are also leaders of that crew and need to set the tone and redirect when necessary.

Harassment hurts everyone

Some people think harassment is a personal problem between two people, and that all that is necessary to stop it is for one person to say something. This perception denies the reality of harassment as a systemic problem based in the abuse of power. Workplace harassment creates environments of polarization, isolation and broken trust. It hurts everyone. And everyone has responsibility for ending it.

Editor’s note: What do you do or say when you see harassment in action? Share in the comments below.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.