Bullying, Harassment and the Leader’s Responsibility

Most everyone in the Fire Service is aware of the tragic chain of events recently in the Fairfax VA, Fire Department. A young female Firefighter missing, then found dead of apparent suicide amid rumors and allegations of misbehavior among colleagues, cyber bullying and harassment. An internet chat site with cruel and devastating remarks and personal insults possibly written by firefighters. All in all, a horrible and shameful episode in the modern history of the Fire Service and devastating to the many good members of the Fairfax FD if even part of it turns out to be true. Of course there are ongoing investigations both internally and externally to the FD and we should all wait to see what the outcomes are.

Chief Dan = Regardless of the outcomes there are lessons in this tragedy for every Fire Service leader to take away and in fact we should learn from it. Talking junk in the fire station, good-natured hazing, practical jokes and teasing has probably been going on in FDs since the very first fire station in history was built. It is part of the camaraderie of the Fire Service but several cultural evolutions within the Fire Service has made these traditions difficult to defend or support. The inclusion of other cultures, races, genders and socio-economic groups in the Fire Service (I believe a good change) has made these traditions sensitive and inappropriate at best. At worst, they make others new to the Fire Service feel unwanted or resented.

When we talk about the responsibilities of leadership, which applies to every officer and senior person in the Fire Service, the Number 1 responsibility is always protecting and taking care of your personnel. That doesn’t just mean on the fire ground. It means all the time. I personally find it hard to believe that if even some of the allegations of bullying and harassment in Fairfax are true (I have read some of the vile comments on the website Fairfax Underground) some Officer at some level must of known about it. One thing Firefighters are bad at is keeping secrets, they like to talk and tell stories. If any officer (even a company officer) knew of bullying, harassment, bad behavior or personal attacks and did nothing, they were negligent in their leadership responsibilities.

Coach Kelly = Sometimes as leaders, we think we have everyone on the same page on an issue as obvious as bullying and harassing, and then this. In a networked, social media driven world, everyone gets to say what they think and call it “Freedom of Speech”. That can carry over into the rest of our lives. But even if it’s true that we can say anything, should we?

Here are my top three favorite defensive techniques when I ask staff why someone let bad behavior go on at work:
1. Excuse a crew member’s offensive remarks by saying “well that’s just Bob everyone knows he doesn’t mean it.”
2. So we can’t say anything anymore?
3. There were no (women, gays, minorities) in the room so he didn’t offend anyone.
Ask yourself if you have ever said or thought one of these before. You know that they are all false, right?

There are a host of legal issues we are dancing with here and the liability is high for an organization that is shown to have had awareness of a hostile work environment and did not make a worthwhile effort to stop it. But beyond the legal issues, consider how bullying impacts your people. Per the EEOC, here are some things that happen when targets believe that they have been bullied:

–  Some will cut back on work
–  Some will contemplate leaving the job Only 10% do
–  Take it out on innocent family or pets
–  Others will steal from the job, sabotage work, damage equipment, damage personal property of the bully or
–  Contemplate a violent act and carry it out
It’s in everyon’s best interest to stop this now. Bullying is psychological violence.

Chief Dan = Thirty years ago nearly all harassment and bullying had to be in person or by spreading of rumors. Maybe someone would leave an unsigned note somewhere in the fire station was about as anonymous as it got. But nowadays the Internet and social media make bullying, harassment and personal attacks completely anonymous and the perpetrator can hide behind false names or stupid pseudonyms. This has made it much more aggressive, cruel, hurtful and dangerous, and difficult for Fire Departments to control. Many times the perpetrators of this behavior try to justify or rationalize the bullying behavior as pointing out deficiencies or undesirable traits in other colleagues but that is a coward’s way and not their job to do anyway. Fire Officers must be alert to and be willing to correct or help any member who is struggling to fit in or do the job. If a person cannot, will not or does not perform, correct behavior , learn their skills, or physically improve then the Fire Officer has a duty to remove that person from service with an official procedure. Likewise, if the Fire Officer learns or becomes aware of bullying, harassing or personal attacking by any member against another member, that officer also has a duty to correct the behavior or remove that person from service with an official procedure.

Any officer that cannot judge when “good natured kidding” among colleagues has gone too far should not be an officer. Fire house trash talk frequently escalates and Officers should be alert to that escalation and cut it off quickly. Any supervisor that condones or allows such bullying to occur or continue is culpable and might as well approve it. Ignoring it or dismissing a subordinates expressions of concern or complaint is a sure-fire way to destroy your own career. No one is saying that we can no longer laugh, joke and tease one another in the fire house but knowing the difference is a leadership responsibility. Are you protecting your personnel from such harm? What would you do if you learned of such activities among your personnel or within your department? Do you have the leadership spine needed to expose and address this abhorrent behavior? Do you set the positive example by treating all with respect and common decency? Are you a leader or not?

Coach Kelly = In the book The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude, P.M. Forni gives some tips on how to approach someone when you observe bad behavior:
-Try to address the underlying cause of the behavior: I see you are very stressed. Maybe I could help if you tell me what’s bothering you?
– If the conversation remains irrational, then know when to quit
– Recognize whether behavior is a pattern or mistake, conduct or performance; respond appropriately

Finally, realize that you probably aren’t going to change a bully at the core. His or her behavior probably began long before you met. Your goal should be to change or modify the words and actions of the bully in the work environment (and anywhere they are with co-workers or representing the Fire Department) so that morale and productivity are not impacted. Your best employees look to you to see what you will tolerate from your worst.
How many Fire Service leaders or future leaders are willing to take this pledge?

I pledge on my honor to all my Fire Service Brothers and Sisters that I will use my influence, authority, power, personality, example, and my training to identify and root out any behavior of firefighters and officers that is cruel, demeaning, harassing, bullying or exclusionary to any other firefighter regardless of age, gender, race, spiritual beliefs, sexual preference or personal weakness. I will support, encourage, mentor, train, develop, protect and help all of my Fire Service brothers and sisters. I will not ignore, condone, participate in or encourage behavior that is hurtful to any other firefighter but I will do whatever I can within my official authority to terminate any firefighter whose behavior, performance, physical ability, demeanor, competency or attitude is detrimental to the Fire Service and its members, and who does not react positively to efforts of correction, retraining, strengthening or personal improvement. As a leader, I accept this as my solemn duty and responsibility to the greater Fire Service of which I am part.

1SmartCareer: Growing Leaders in the Fire Service
Please feel free to reach out to us on any questions you may have on leadership.
Contact Information:
Website: http://www.1smartcareer.com/fire-departments/
Kelly Walsh Email: kwalsh@1smartcareer.com
Cell Number: (919) 995-4996
Dan Jones Email: chfd1dj@att.net
Cell Number: (919) 697-5976