Harvey Weinstein. Matt Lauer. Bill Cosby. Al Franken. Kevin Spacey. The list of celebrities accused (and in many cases convicted) of sexual harassment has included a lot of names over the past few years. But it’s not an issue exclusive to Hollywood or TV—sexual harassment can take place anywhere, including EMS agencies and fire departments.
Providing educational training and prevention methods and establishing a culture of respect can help reduce your liability as both an agency and an individual. More important, it can help create a work environment free of bias.
There are many federal laws intended to protect individuals based on their innate characteristics. They include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (amended in 1972), which established protections against discrimination due to race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. Further, nearly every state has additional laws and protections in addition to the federal ones.
Types of Harassment
There are two types of harassment, quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo is Latin for something for something. In legal terms it means offering be a benefit for someone if they submit to unwanted behavior or actions. A hostile work environment is one where an individual is subjected to unreasonable and unwanted interference in their work or treated differently because they are in one of the protected categories.
The first component to a sexual harassment claim is that the behavior is unwelcome and unwanted. The person bringing a complaint must have expressed their objection. Typically claims come not from a single incident but from numerous incidents where employment practices or conditions have been altered on a pervasive basis. This is not limited to paid employees and can include volunteers or interns, and sexual orientation has no relevance.
Typical examples of a hostile work environment can include repeated unwanted date requests or touching (e.g., rubs or cuddling), leering, comments about someone’s looks, displaying suggestive photos (such as nudity or pornography), and discussing sexual activity. Examples that aren’t specifically sexual can include things like gender-based harassment and physical obstruction or intimidation. Quid pro quo involves supervisors granting favors or assigning extra or undesirable work based on responses to their overtures.
Harassment can take place in a variety of areas, including recruitment, hiring, placement, transfers, shift assignments, wages, training opportunities, and promotion or termination.
In 1998 the Supreme Court heard the case of Faragher v. the City of Boca Raton (Fla.), where several female lifeguards claimed they were repeatedly sexually harassed by their male supervisors. One claimed she was told, “Date me or clean toilets for a year.” Others described unwanted repeated physical touching, vulgar comments, and sexual gestures. The court sided with the lifeguards and also ruled that sexual harassment conduct does not need to be motivated by sexual desire.
Possible consequences for sexual harassment include discipline or reassignment at work, possible termination, financial repercussions, the destruction of reputation and relationships, and possible criminal charges and revocation of certification.
As a supervisor, there are several things you can do to keep sexual harassment out of the workplace. First, all employees (paid or volunteer) must understand that work is not home. This means things they might do or say in the privacy of their home or conversations with their friends after work may not be appropriate in the station or ambulance. Having a written policy, effective onboarding program, and mandatory regular training of staff reminds them of this. Additionally, supervisors should maintain authority and avoid close friendships with their subordinates in order to maintain impartiality.
When looking at your own behavior, ask yourself if you would like to be treated the way you are treating someone else. Would you want your spouse, child, parent, or friend to be treated that way? Would you be comfortable with a video of your behavior or a quote of your words being on the evening news? If the answer is no, clearly, change your behavior. “I was only joking” is not a defense.
Having official written department policy, training and familiarity with those expectations, and a quick and responsive reaction to a sexual harassment complaint are “must-dos” for all departments. By having personnel act like professionals at all times with their coworkers and subordinates and creating a culture of respect and a commitment to an equitable work environment, you can keep your department from suffering another #MeToo.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Facts About Sexual Harassment, www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm.
Mellott C. Understanding, Preventing Sexual Harassment in the EMS Workplace. Page, Wolfberg, & Wirth, www.pwwemslaw.com/news/blog/understanding-preventing-sexual-harassment-ems-workplace.
Vermont Emergency Medical Services. Vermont EMS Student Manual, www.healthvermont.gov/sites/www.emsworld.com/files/EPRIP_VermontEMSStudentManualNovember2016.pdf.
Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor. Active in EMS since 1986, he is currently a firefighter with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department and an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad. He is also an SME instructor at the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.