Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Consider This...  April/May 2001 Issue Number 22

Is a monthly electronic newsletter which links current events and issues to the daily challenges faced by fire and emergency services managers. Current topics in the area of sexual harassment, diversity management and conflict resolution will be discussed.

We hope that you find the information here useful and provocative.
Let us know what you think!

Upcoming Events

Executive Development: May 21-June 1, NFA in Emmitsburg, MD. The first course of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Linda Willing and Toby Drabczyk will be facilitating this class at NFA in Emmitsburg, MD.

"Can Sensitivity Be Taught? Rethinking Diversity Training" April 30- May 6, 2001, Sacramento, CA. This workshop will be presented on May 2 during the FDIC West Conference. For registration information, call 888-299-8016.


In the News

The Power of Symbols

The Army recently announced its intention to make black berets part of every soldier’s uniform. Currently, the black beret has only been worn by the elite unit of Army Rangers.

The Army justified the change as a way of boosting morale and promoting unity among all soldiers. However, the decision has had the opposite effect so far. On March 10, two hundred protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC to demonstrate against the proposed change. Additionally, there has been a letter-writing and email campaign against the new policy, as well as pressure put on elected officials to block the new uniform guidelines. Efforts to reverse the decision have even gained the attention of President Bush, who has asked the Department of Defense to review the policy before its planned implementation on June 14.

It is remarkable that the Army, an organization that has thrived on symbols since its formation, could be so blind to the effect of this decision. Even those who have never served in the armed forces know that a beret means something special– the Green Berets were famed in movie and song, and the black berets of the Army Rangers are emblematic of their elite status. "I’ve seen young soldiers almost transformed during Ranger training, " said a World War II Ranger who attended the protest. "To some nice person sitting behind a desk, what will it mean to them?"

Symbols are powerful. What looks like just a hat, just a helmet, just a truck, may mean much more to the people who see it as a symbol of their dedication and achievement. Symbols also speak to tradition that provides a sense of continuity and affiliation.

Remember what happened when some fire departments abandoned red fire trucks? It didn’t matter that lime green was more visible and thus safer. Firefighters mourned the loss of the traditional red trucks, and in some communities, successfully pushed for their reinstatement. What happens every time there is a change in the uniform guidelines? There are always people, often very vocal, who oppose the change based on a desire to respect tradition.

Tradition is not a bad thing. In fact, in times of rapid change, positive traditions should be deliberately preserved as a way of maintaining stability and a sense of history. Leaders that understand this, and who respect traditions that are not in opposition to necessary change, usually have a much easier time earning the respect and loyalty of their subordinates.

The Army is learning this the hard way. They have made a bad decision with good intentions, and now are trying to figure out a way to do damage control. The people who made the decision about issuing berets to everyone probably thought they were just talking about hats. But the effect it has had is to make loyal soldiers and veterans ask, "Why would someone harm such a noble heritage?"

Never underestimate the power of symbols.

Source: The Associated Press, March 11, 2001.

News Brief

The United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the standard of absolute confidentiality within Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), even if the counselors in those programs are not licensed psychiatrists or psychologists. Nationally, 45% of all full time employees have access to EAPs.

Source: Oksana Oleszkov v. State Compensation Insurance Fund

Sexual Harassment Update

White Men’s Groups

A group of officers from the Denver Police Department recently announced their intention to form an organization which emphasized the concerns of white men on the force. Similar groups have formed within police departments in Los Angeles, Houston, and other cities.

The spokesman for the Denver group said the organization would be called the Denver Police Equal Rights Association, and that membership would be open to anyone. However, he also commented that the impetus for the formation of the group was white officers’ frustrations over the hiring and promotion of minority candidates.

Reaction to the Denver group’s formation has been muted. The union president said, "Everybody has a right to start whatever organization they want." The official department spokesperson said, "As long as this organization adheres to the strict guidelines when forming and practicing within this organization, there is no problem." The president of the Black Police Officers Organization observed, "If it’s about equal rights for all, that’s a good thing. If it’s about special treatment for some, that would be a bad thing."

It is to the credit of the citizens and employees of the City of Denver than no one is overreacting to this new group. It would be a mistake to immediately discredit the need for a white men’s association, and much more useful to try and understand why the group is forming and what its mission really is.

Do members of the group genuinely feel that white men are systematically discriminated against and excluded from advancement or other opportunities within the department? Do they feel shut out from organizational culture? Do they have specific needs or interests that are so much in the minority that they are not addressed in any other meaningful way? Are they subject to harassment for being white men? Do they feel isolated because they are always the only white man around? These types of concerns are what have led to the formation of other groups within fire and police departments, groups which may focus on issues of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Or are some men trying to make a point, as the Denver group’s founder seemed to be doing when he said that he thought organizations based on race were divisive. This brings up a paradox. What he really seems to be saying is that he feels organizations based on any race other than white are divisive. It makes one wonder if the new group is not just a provocation toward or backlash against other support groups within the organization.

Whatever the motivation, the best course of action to the formation of any special interest group within the larger organization is to hold it to the same standards of all others, and let it run its course. If there is genuine need, the group may thrive. If communications remain open and positive from the beginning, the group may become a valuable conduit of information and insight. On the other hand, if the group has been formed just to make a point, it probably won’t last very long. The key is to control the urge to overreact. It’s just another group. See what they have to say, and don’t give them undue power through unnecessary response.

Source: The Denver Post, February 11, 2001

© Linda F. Willing, 2001