Power plays: Sexual harassment in the fire service is rooted in control

The only way to finally end sexual harassment within our ranks is if everyone speaks up when they see it or experience it

Federal law has prohibited sexual harassment in the workplace for over 40 years. For decades, fire departments and EMS agencies have provided mandatory training on the topic to all members. Some high-profile cases have resulted in large financial penalties and very bad publicity for those departments.

Given this history, you would think that sexual harassment would no longer be a significant problem in the fire service.

You would be wrong.

"Harassment in any form poisons a workplace. It creates fear and anger and divides people among themselves. It destroys trust," Willing writes. (Photo/Getty Images)

Modern-day sexual harassment = power plays

Reports of complaints and litigation related to sexual harassment remain a regular feature of reporting from the emergency services – and a particularly egregious one caught my attention recently.

In December, a Florida fire captain and academy instructor was accused of forcibly kissing a female recruit following a training evolution. The captain, who had 18 years on the job, was also accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward two other female students in the academy.

The captain admitted to kissing the recruit but said he did so because he was proud of her for completing the training exercise, later calling his action “an error in judgment.” He also said his interactions with the other two recruits were a result of being “too complacent.”

No. Unequivocally no.

Sexual harassment is not about complacency or misplaced attraction or puppy love. It is about power, pure and simple.

In this incident, the captain oversaw the recruit academy. He told recruits that he was a member of the interview panel for his department and that he was empowered to recommend recruits for employment. The recruit he kissed told investigators she initially did not want to come forward, fearing that doing so would affect her chances of getting hired when she completes the academy.

The captain resigned a day after his department placed him on unpaid leave, citing “personal reasons.”

Harassment, jokes and hostility

The initial type of sexual harassment that was prohibited by federal law in 1980 was quid pro quo harassment. Quid pro quo (“this for that”) is when the acceptance of sexual advances or other behavior is made a term or condition of employment. In 1987, the law was expanded to prohibit what is now known as hostile work environment harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment, by definition, is done by someone with the power and authority to make employment decisions such as hiring, firing, promotion or work assignments. The captain at the fire academy clearly had this power. The recruits affected by his behavior did not feel they had the power to stop it, as doing so might affect their future employment potential.

Rank or positional power is not the only kind, however. Power can be derived from affiliation, social status or situational role. If someone feels they may be ostracized from the group or denied equal status because of speaking up against inappropriate behavior, this can also lay the groundwork for workplace harassment.

But people who are in actual positions of power and authority are held to a higher standard under the law, and they should likewise be held to such standards as a matter of professional conduct.

I have been teaching classes to firefighters on the topic of sexual harassment for over 25 years. One complaint I have heard frequently over the years is that this law has ruined the workplace because “we can’t have fun anymore” and everyone must fear for their job lest they tell a joke someone doesn’t like.

This fear is misplaced.

If two people of equal status and power are together and one tells a joke the other doesn’t like, the second person can let the first person know how they feel. Then the first person can apologize and not repeat the behavior. If there are no negative repercussions for this interaction on either side, this is merely a somewhat awkward social encounter, not an incidence of harassment.

But if the power is unequal, such as between a captain and a recruit, speaking up comes with risk. And even without such positional power, if the joke-teller takes the response as an invitation to inundate the person with such jokes or uses the incident to feed gossip or as a reason to ostracize the person, that difference in social power will also have a chilling effect on someone’s ability to speak up against unwanted or inappropriate behavior.

Shared responsibility

Sexual harassment is about power. It cannot happen when all parties involved have equal status and power. For this reason, those in formal positions of power and authority have an increased responsibility for preventing and stopping harassment. This is the law, but it is also simply good professional practice.

Harassment in any form poisons a workplace. It creates fear and anger and divides people among themselves. It destroys trust.

It is in everyone’s best interests to ensure that their work culture does not tolerate harassment. Those in positions of authority must take a leadership role by providing education and support to all members, developing clear policies, and making sure those policies are fairly and equitably enforced. But harassment can be mitigated if every member sets the example for acceptable behavior, from the chief to the newest firefighter.

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