Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
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Consider This...

July 2008 Issue Number 100

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  

Executive Development, National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. Linda Willing will be teaching this class July 7-18, 2008.

Fire-Rescue International August 12-17, 2008 in Denver, CO. Linda Willing will be teaching as part of the pre-conference Company Officer Development track. Go to for more information.


In the News

Longevity and Problem Employee

The story was all too familiar. A firefighter lost his job after a series of inappropriate behaviors on the job: harassing female coworkers with denigrating nicknames, making sexual jokes when referring to the events of 9/11, viewing and sending pornography on station computers. The worst part of this familiar story? The employee in question was an officer, with nearly 15 years on the job.

Whenever I teach conflict resolution classes, I always ask participants to think of a so-called problem employee from their organization. I tell them to think of a specific person, and then I ask: How long has this person been on the job? The answers are always the same: ten years, fifteen years, more than twenty years. Then I ask, Did this person give any indication of having these problems in the first two years on the job? The answer to this question is invariably yes.

So why is it that someone can be on the job for nearly fifteen years and be promoted at least once, and never have his or her tendencies toward inappropriate behavior dealt with in an effective way? There are two possible answers to this question. It might be that members of the organization have tried to deal with the problems, but have not been successful in doing so. Or it is equally likely that no one confronted the problem until it reached a crisis level.

There are firefighters (or people in any organization) who seem to make a career out of skating as close to the edge as they can. These people are usually very smart and know how to work the system. Everyone knows they are problems, but the few people who have tried to discipline them over the years have found themselves on the losing end of grievances or lawsuits. This record makes others gun shy, and as a result, the problem person seems to act with impunity.

But even with such career problem employees, there was always a beginning to the story. When they came on the job as rookies, they wanted to succeed the same as everyone else, and those in charge had many options for taking action if behavioral standards were not met. When a new firefighter says or does something inappropriate, it is possible to make sure that person knows never to say or do that thing again.

So what happens over the years? In many cases, the organizational culture will enable the employee who lives on the edge. In some departments, such people are looked at as heroes. In any case, there is often little incentive for those in supervisory positions to confront bad behavior. Some officers don't want to be seen as the bad guy, others have no skills or training in dealing with problem subordinates, others are so out of touch they may not even be aware of just how serious the problem has become.

People are responsible for their own actions, but whenever a crisis occurs that has been 15 years in the making, those in leadership roles also need to look at themselves, and ask, What could I have done 14 years ago that would have made a difference today?

Source: The American Statesman, June 17, 2008

News Brief

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has made it more difficult for employers to legally access the e-mail and text messages that workers send from their employer's account. The case originated from a lawsuit filed by four Ontario, CA police officers. The ruling requires that outside contractors who transmit text messages cannot read them without the worker's permission. In addition, the court said that employers may access employee e-mails only if they are kept on an internal server. The City of Ontario will likely appeal the ruling.

Sources: Associated Press, June 19, 2008

Sexual Harassment Update

The Limits of Privacy

Do you think that off-duty, consensual, legal sexual conduct is nobody's business but your own? Better think again.

Consider the case of Sharon Johnson, a police officer and SWAT team member from Utah. Ms. Johnson had initiated divorce proceedings against her husband and had filed a restraining order against him after he had threatened to kill her and himself. While separated from her husband and waiting for her divorce to be finalized, Ms. Johnson was sent to an out-of-town weekend training seminar that was partly paid for by her department. After hours that weekend, she had a brief, consensual affair with a police officer who was attending the training from another department.

Somehow Ms. Johnson's estranged husband became aware of the affair and falsely reported to her department that she had been raped during the weekend conference. When Ms. Johnson's chief investigated this allegation, he learned that the affair had been consensual. The chief took no further action against Ms. Johnson, which incensed Mr. Johnson. He responded by falsely accusing his ex-wife of having an affair with the police chief. Mr. Johnson conveyed this false accusation to a city council member, and claimed that it was due to the relationship that the police department was pursuing domestic violence charges against him.

As a result of this accusation, the city council voted to place both Ms. Johnson and the police chief on administrative leave pending an investigation. Ms. Johnson was also dismissed from the county SWAT team. Only after Mr. Johnson publicly recanted his charges were the chief and Ms. Johnson reinstated to their positions. However, as a result of the investigation of the false charges, Ms. Johnson's consensual affair came to light, and she was formally reprimanded for it. She was also not reinstated to the SWAT team. All of the proceedings of this matter also appeared widely in local and regional news coverage. As a result, Ms. Johnson left her job as a police officer.

Ms. Johnson and the police chief sued the city based on perceived violations of their constitutional rights in the areas of due process and privacy. They lost in lower court and again in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The rationale for the court taking the city's side in this matter was that Ms. Johnson had no fundamental right to privacy for her sexual conduct, even if it was off-duty, consensual, and legal. The court stated, "We think it reasonable for the police department to privately admonish Ms. Johnson's personal conduct consistent with its code of conduct when the department believes it will further internal discipline or the public's respect for its police officers and the department they represent."

Is it fair that Ms. Johnson should bear the burden of her estranged husband's unstable and possibly criminal behavior in this way? One has to wonder how many men have had similar consequences for the same behavior. But fair or not, the law has spoken. It is uncertain whether this decision will be appealed.

Source: Kim Seegmiller and Sharon Johnson v. La Verkin City, Doug Wilson and Heath D. Johnson, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 07-4096



© Linda F. Willing, 2008

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