Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Consider This...March/April 2006 Issue Number 81

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.

We hope that you find the information here useful and provocative.
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Upcoming Events  

Leadership Training Seminar April 7-9, 2006, Phoenix, AZ. Sponsored by Women in the Fire Service. Go to for more information.

FDIC April 24-29, 2006. Indianapolis, IN.

Fire-Rescue International September 12-16, 2006, Dallas, TX. Linda Willing will be presenting a pre-conference seminar on September 13 entitled “Leading Diverse Teams.”

New York State Women Firefighters’ Weekend September 21-24, 2006, New York State Academy of Fire Science, Montour Falls, NY. Linda Willing will be presenting a workshop entitled “Command Presence.”


In the News

Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes

What role should joking play in the workplace? Is it always okay? Never? Who gets to decide what is appropriate? And how can you prevent well intentioned joking from going very wrong?

Consider the case of Marcie Fuerschbach, an employee with Southwest Airlines in Albuquerque. Southwest is known for its informal, fun loving organizational culture, and one of its traditions is that new employees often have practical jokes played on them when they complete their probation. Ms. Fuerschbach was aware of this tradition, but she was not prepared when one day two police officers approached her at the ticket counter in front of many customers and informed her that she was under arrest for an outstanding warrant that had been discovered during her employment background check. They proceeded to handcuff her and escort her to the elevators in the airport terminal.

The arrest was a practical joke, designed by Ms. Fuerschbach's supervisor as a way of celebrating her completion of probation. As soon as Ms. Fuerschbach reached the elevators, other Southwest employees jumped out and congratulated her, and the police officers, complicit in the prank, removed the handcuffs. However, Ms. Fuerschbach, who had started to cry when the police first approached her, continued to cry uncontrollably and later had to leave work because of emotional distress. She was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder arising from the incident, and went on to sue Southwest Airlines, the City of Albuquerque, and the individuals involved for charges which included false imprisonment, battery, and defamation.

There is every indication that this incident was meant to include and honor Ms. Fuerschbach rather than harm her. The supervisor who suggested it had a similar prank played on her earlier in her career and thought it was funny and enjoyable. When asking the police officers to participate, the supervisor assured them that Ms. Fuerschbach would be fine with the prank. But the actual prank had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended.

Some people might take this story as evidence that all pranks and practical jokes should be banned from the workplace. It would be unfortunate if that reaction were the only possible result. Southwest Airlines is a company that has thrived in difficult times, largely as a result of its organizational culture than encourages fun, friendly relationships among workers, and an informal work environment. To ban any kind of kidding around in the workplace would make Southwest into an entirely different, and most likely less successful company.

Is it possible to strike a balance between having fun and being professional and safe at work? In this case, several warning signs were ignored:

  • The supervisor's role should be to moderate and control behavior, not push it beyond its logical limits as occurred in this case. When a supervisor sets a wide standard for such pranks, subordinates will only continue to push the limits, and trouble will be inevitable.
  • It is never wise to assume your beliefs and feelings are the standard by which all others should be judged. The supervisor in this case had experienced a similar prank and enjoyed it, so she assumed that someone else would have to feel the same way.
  • Playing pranks on someone you don't know well is always dangerous. It is impossible to predict how someone will respond to a joke unless you know them. This is not possible when jokes are played on new employees.
  • People are naturally competitive when it comes to jokes and pranks. It is guaranteed that once pranks are deemed to be okay, each new one will seek to up the ante, unless some oversight is exercised. This is where good supervision and reasonable policy come in. Without oversight, going too far with joking is only a matter of time.
  • Being a good sport at any cost is not a job requirement. Nothing in Ms. Feurschbach's job description said she had to be happy about experiencing a false arrest, no matter what the intentions of the act were. The fact that she wasn't as easy going about the incident as some others might have been does not in any way absolve the organization from liability. As the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, "One who plays dangerous practical jokes on others takes the risk that his victims may not appreciate the humor of his conduct and may not take it in good part."

Joking can be a way of including others, which was the intention in the case described above. For this reason, banning all forms of jokes and pranks in the workplace as a way of protecting people may end up having the opposite effect of creating a workplace that is polarized and paranoid. But if joking is to have positive benefits for all workers, it must be monitored and controlled. This is the job of supervisors, through their example and their response to incidents, and is also the purpose of having organizational policies that set limits that can never be crossed.

Source: Marcie Fuerschbach v. Southwest Airlines, City of Albuquerque, et. al. U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 04-2117

News Brief

According to a recent survey, only 4% of human resource professionals, and 14% of employees feel that dating in the workplace should not be permitted. However, 80% of human resource professionals and 60% of employees opposed dating between a supervisor and a subordinate. The study, conducted by The Society for Human Resource Management and the Wall Street Journal, also found that 70% of the organizations surveyed had no policy regarding workplace romance.

Source: Business and Legal Reports, February 9, 2006

Sexual Harassment Update

Oh Boy

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has renewed discussion about who gets to decide what is a derogatory or discriminatory term of speech. The specific word in question was the use of the term "boy" when speaking about or addressing adult men. Anthony Ash and John Hithon, both African-American, were employed by Tyson Foods in Alabama when they were both passed over for promotion in favor of two white candidates. The subsequent lawsuit filed by Ash and Hithon alleged racial animus and a climate of discrimination in the workplace. A specific example of this negative climate was the use of the term "boy" by the plant manager on occasion when addressing both Ash and Hithon.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed that the use of the word "boy" alone could be the source of discrimination, saying, "[w]hile the use of 'boy' when modified by a racial classification like 'black' or 'white' is evidence of discriminatory intent, the use of 'boy' alone is not evidence of discrimination." The U.S. Supreme Court found error with this statement by the appeals court, and cited it as one reason why the case should be remanded for a new trial. The court wrote, "Although it is true the disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign. The speaker's meaning may depend on various factors including context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage."

When teaching a class years ago on harassment and discrimination, I once asked, "When is it okay to call a man a "boy?" I got two very different responses to this question, based on where the class was taking place. In one area, people offered that one might say, "I went out drinking with the boys" or might address a group of male friends, "Okay boys, ready to get to work?" In the other class, the resounding answer to my question was "NEVER!" It shouldn't be any surprise that the first class took place in the Northeast, while the second class took place in Georgia.

As the Supreme Court stated, the words we use are not necessarily malignant or benign in and of themselves. Context and intention have much to do with how language is interpreted. But one cannot ignore history. For a court in Alabama to ignore the negative connotation of the word "boy" when used to an African-American man is clearly wrong, and was recognized as such by the Supreme Court. The decision to reverse and remand the appeals court decision was made unanimously and "per curiam": the strongest type of unanimous decision the high court can make.

Source: Anthony Ash et al. v, Tyson Foods, Inc. U.S. Supreme Court 05-379

© Linda F. Willing, 2006

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