Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Consider This... August/September 2002 Issue Number 38

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 areas of leadership development, workplace diversity, change management, and conflict resolution will be discussed.

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Upcoming Events

Fire-Rescue International August 23-26, 2002. Kansas City, MO.

Fifth Annual Women Chief Fire Officers Fire Service Leadership Conference November 8-10, 2002 at Motorola University, Schaumburg, Illinois. Call 630-990-2390 or email for more information.

10th International Conference of Fire Service Women April 23-27, 2003. Denver, CO. Contact for more information.

In the News

Firefighters Behaving Badly

Three New Jersey firefighters were suspended when they allegedly threw a late-night party in the firehouse and let members of a punk band wear their turnout gear and ride around town in the firetrucks with sirens blaring. In Colorado, two firefighters were suspended when a crude fire station game ("butt ball") was reported on the evening news. In Vermont, a fire chief defended the consumption of alcohol in the fire station, saying, "Of course we're doing it. There are a lot of studies that show alcohol in moderation is good for you."

What on earth is going on here??

In the aftermath of the terrible losses of September 11th, firefighters across the country were universally lauded as heroes. People suddenly woke up to the sacrifice that firefighters are prepared to make every day, and communities openly expressed their appreciation. In newspaper columns, on television, in books and magazines; firefighters became icons of something noble and pure about being human.

And then there are stories like the ones mentioned above, all of which occurred after September 11th. To say that such stories tarnish the image of firefighters is a significant understatement. Noble public servants turn into crass fraternity boys overnight in the public's eye. The respect that is so hard earned, and at long last given, can be lost overnight when one of these incidents comes to light.

Of course these incidents of bad behavior are isolated. It is not fair that people may generalize about all firefighters from hearing one case of inappropriate conduct, but it is also human nature that they will. But these types of incidents are perhaps not completely aberrant. The fact that one volunteer chief is willing to go public in favor of drinking in the fire station says that many more support the practice silently. The "butt ball" game occurred in a highly professional and respected career department. Certainly the officers on that department knew better than to allow such behavior under their watch. Yet still it happened, with terrible results from a public relations perspective.

One reason such bad behavior continues to occur may be the blurred line for some firefighters between their work and their private lives. "This is our home," firefighters say about the fire station, usually as a way of justifying less-than-professional standards of conduct. "We're off duty now," they say, although they are still in the firehouse, just enjoying "down time."

It's true that the fire station is different from other workplaces. Firefighters live and work together; they eat, sleep, watch television, and just hang out together for much more extended periods than any other workers. Firefighting is different, but it's not completely different. Professional standards still apply, whether a person is fighting a fire or eating popcorn with co-workers. Just because the station door is closed does not mean that anything goes.

When firefighters behave badly, it is always about breakdowns in leadership. Officers who set professional, clear, and consistent standards of conduct do not have the types of problems that eventually show up on the evening news. You can still have fun, you can still form strong bonds of camaraderie, you can still be a little crazy sometimes. As long as you always remember; you're still at work

Sources: Vermont Times Argus, April 17, 2002
Denver Post, April 13, 2002
             Associated Press, May 15, 2002.

News Brief

The Justice Department has investigated 350 reports of crimes against people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent since September 11th. This is a significant increase from recent years. The crimes included threats, assaults, and acts of vandalism. Prosecution has begun in 70 cases, including an alleged plot to blow up Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif) district office.

Source: Associated Press, July 5, 2002

Sexual Harassment Update

Discrete Acts and Hostile Environment

A recent Supreme Court decision has potentially expanded the basis for workplace harassment claims, as well as clarifying reporting standards for harassment.

The case before the court concerned Abner Morgan, an African-American employee of Amtrak. Mr. Morgan claimed he had been racially harassed continuously throughout his employment, but when he went to court, most of his claims were thrown out because he had not filed his complaint in a timely way. EEO law states that you must file a complaint within 180 or 300 days of the incident in question (the time varies depending on the jurisdiction). The lower court found that most of the incidents Mr. Morgan claimed as a violation of Title VII occurred prior to the required time period for filing a report.

Mr. Morgan appealed the ruling, saying that the separate incidents were actually all part of one pattern of harassment, which lasted into the timely filing period. The appeals court reversed the lower court's decision in Mr. Morgan's favor, and his employer appealed to the US Supreme Court.

In its decision, the Supreme Court clarified the difference between "discrete acts"; those offensive acts that are singular and not linked to a pattern of behavior, and hostile environment. The court stated that by definition, hostile environment harassment is a series of behaviors, some of which may not initially be recognized as harassment. The court said that it is reasonable to include incidents which occurred outside of the legal filing period if they can be clearly linked to subsequent behavior in a pattern that constitutes hostile environment harassment. Such links might be that the actions were all initiated by the same person or within the same workplace context.

The courts have set a high standard for allowing singular discrete acts to be seen as illegal harassment (see Archives May/June 2001 and November/December 2001). Some employers may feel that these decisions protect them from employee complaints. However, this recent decision expands the time limits for reporting harassment to include acts which are no longer reportable as discrete acts, but which may serve to build a case for the existence of hostile environment harassment.

Source: National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan USSC 001614

Linda F. Willing, 2002

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