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Dealing with Unlawful Harassment in the Workplace

The world of fire and EMS services has long been considered a boy’s club, but that’s starting to change. Gone are the days when the white, male-dominated profession remains unchallenged by minorities who have been discriminated against by its members. The crude behavior that permeates the industry would swiftly be addressed and banished in any other corporate environment today, so why is it still the norm in EMS?

The problem, says W. Ann Maggiore, Esq., EMT-P and Steve Wirth, Esq., MS, EMT-P, is the “boys will be boys” mentality. The two discussed the issue in their session “Culture Shock: Dealing with Gender and Harassment Issues in EMS” at the EMS Today Conference and Exposition Feb. 21 in National Harbor, Md.

Part of the hurdle of disrupting discrimination in EMS is getting the industry over the bridge of believing minorities need to be tolerated rather than actually welcomed and accepted.

“We’re in a period of real flux right now,” said Maggiore. “I’d like to think we’ve come a long way, but these stories [of discrimination] continue to emerge. What is it that folks aren’t getting? What about leadership is not getting these ideas through?”

Wirth and Maggiore said boundaries are often crossed because not everyone actually understands what’s considered harassment, and the law doesn’t keep up with the changing times to express that. Claims of harassment against women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community are on the rise, but not because there is more of it today than there was 30 years ago—it’s because the bigotry is no longer being tolerated. “Things are changing now, and we have a shot at changing this macho culture and making it a tolerant working environment for all of us,” said Maggiore.

“The culture of the fire service is still quite Neanderthal,” added Maggiore. Issues of harassment like quid pro quo, when a person in leadership offers professional benefits (e.g. a raise or promotion) to an employee in exchange for sexual favors, are commonplace even though they are completely unacceptable in most other work environments. Why is this so?

Wirth and Maggiore list five things that make EMS prone to this culture of harassment:

  • The homelike atmosphere—people forget it’s a workplace
  • Lack of direct supervision
  • Stress of job
  • Idle time
  • Predominantly male (getting women into leadership positions stops a lot of harassment in its tracks)

But just because these qualities exist and lend themselves to a discriminatory culture in EMS doesn’t mean that it’s one that can’t be abolished. “By these attitudes, we push people out who would otherwise be very good in the profession,” Maggiore said.

So what are the recommendations for tackling harassment in your agency? Wirth and Maggiore provide critical “do's and don'ts” to follow.

A big mistake Wirth sees leaders make in these situations is believing the initial complaint must be in writing. “That goes back to a paramilitary mindset,” he said. “You can’t pretend you don’t have information on an incident because someone just came to talk to you in person.” When an employee files a complaint against another, ensure a good investigation follows. Interview the harassed and the harasser as well as any other witnesses.

“Make good credibility determinations, and then make a decision as to what to do,” said Wirth. “The law simply says to rule out unlawful harassment, stop it and prevent it from happening in the future.”

Maggiore and Wirth said top-down support is absolutely essential when navigating harassment in the workplace. Provide your crews with new training strategies to help stop it when they see it—a lot of people want to but are afraid because they’re unsure of how to go about it. Wirth said he even sees frontline supervisors look the other way because it’s too uncomfortable to confront people or they’re too “busy.”

It’s all about “empowering the bystander and encouraging civility so people can address it on the spot,” said Maggiore. Below are three ways you can interrupt harassment when you see it:

  • Bystander comment: Just calling out a harasser in front of others can be enough to dismantle their behavior. “That’s how you change the culture,” said Wirth. “Not accepting inappropriate behavior in front of others instead of walking away shaking your head.”
  • Bystander disruption: Calling the victim away from a situation (“Hey, I’m going to grab a coffee, want to join?”) or something as simple as dropping a book to pull the harasser’s attention away from the victim can stop them from continuing.
  • Bystander talks to harasser: The most direct intervention is to flat out tell the harasser that their behavior is inappropriate. Lack of confrontation from others is the best enabler for the harasser, so exposing them outright is an effective way to deter them.

“Being one of the boys is not how we are going to change the culture. That’s not where we are today,” said Maggiore.

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