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/August 2007 Issue Number 91

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 23-25, 2007 Atlanta, GA. Linda Willing will be teaching the following workshops at this conference:

Leading Diverse Teams Pre-conference seminar, Wednesday August 22

Leading Diverse Teams-- Company Officer Symposium Thursday, August 23

Unite and Conquer: Finding Common Ground in the Diverse World at Work Sunrise seminar, Friday August 24


In the News

Speaking the Language

About fifteen years ago, I was a fire officer in Boulder, Colorado responding on a medical call to an apartment building just two doors down from the fire station. When we got there, a frantic man told us in very broken English that his friend was sick. When we entered the apartment, it was full of young people talking a mile a minute in what turned out to be Russian. As we began treatment, hindered by the language barrier, all I could think was, "Where did all these Russian people come from?"

We were used to dealing with languages other than English. Spanish was common, as were various languages of southeast Asia. But Russian? Ukrainian? Sub-Saharan dialects? That medical run was a wake up call for just how diverse our community had become.

Nowadays it is common for fire departments in every part of the country to be dealing with dozens of languages other than English. These language differences can cause misunderstandings and even errors in decision making, as important information might not be accurately conveyed. How can your organization do better when faced with the challenges of serving an increasingly multilingual community?

Many approaches have been tried. Some departments pay a premium for language ability or use it as a factor in hiring. Others provide on-duty language classes or create programs of on-call translators. Some fire departments, like the one in Kissimmee, Florida, provide "cheat sheets" or flash cards with the most commonly used phrases spelled out phonetically. Some departments tap into community resources and form partnerships with advocacy groups.

Kissimmee firefighters have found that their laminated cards of common Spanish phrases (the service community is now 42% Hispanic) not only allow them to collect critical information from patients, but also have the effect of calming people whose language differences contribute to increased fear and stress. Fire Chief Robert King said, "Anything you can do to make customers feel a little more comfortable is important."

Resort communities often hire seasonal workers from around the world, and these young people can make excellent translators. Grand County, Colorado fire departments have partnered with international employees at the nearby Snow Mountain YMCA facility who have volunteered to assist with translation as necessary.

And don't forget the children. Young children pick up languages readily and can often act as translators for their parents or older relatives. Even children as young as four or five years old can sometimes serve in this critical role.

Dealing with increasingly diverse language communities is a challenge for all fire departments these days, whether they are in metropolitan New York or rural Iowa. Many creative approaches exist, and a little effort goes a long way.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, June 18, 2007

News Brief

A New Jersey man who was denied the opportunity to become a firefighter because of a partial leg amputation has recently graduated from the Passaic County Public Safety Academy and has begun duty as a career firefighter (see Spring newsletter 2007.) Isaac Feliciano lost part of one leg due to infection as a child, but has been a competitive athlete his entire life and scored in the top 20% on the physical abilities test for the fire department. He was initially denied the job despite his demonstrated ability because a city medical consultant had deemed him incapable of doing the work due to the use of a prosthetic leg.

Source: Associated Press, July 2, 2007

Sexual Harassment Update

The Catch-22 of EEO Filing Limits

A recent Supreme Court decision (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company) has made a clear distinction between hostile environment harassment, which is always an aggregate of behaviors over time, and pay inequities, which the court has decided are to be considered only as discrete acts, even when there is a cumulative effect of the discrimination. At issue was a woman who had worked for 20 years at the Goodyear plant and over the years was given pay raises that were less than her male counterparts. When she retired, her pay was 40% less than the next lowest paid man in a similar position. Because none of the pay decisions was made within 180 days of the complaint being filed, the court ruled that any discrimination was timed-barred from remedial action.

The decision was a controversial one for a number of reasons. One of the less obvious effects of this decision relates to a Supreme Court decision of a few years ago, Clark County School District v. Breeden. In that case, the court decided that someone making an internal discrimination complaint is only protected from retaliation from that complaint if he or she has a "reasonable belief" that the practice that was opposed in fact violates Title VII. Ms. Breeden had complained about a single, fairly ambiguous comment by her male co-workers, and then claimed that she had been retaliated against because of the complaint. Because the complaint was deemed by the court to be unreasonable, the subsequent claim of retaliation was also dismissed.

In light of the most recent ruling in Ledbetter, a kind of Catch-22 may exist for those who feel that they have experienced pay discrimination based on Title VII protection. If an employee complains about pay disparity too soon, when no discrimination may have actually taken place, and then experiences retaliation because of that complaint, there may be no recourse. But if the employee waits until a pattern of behavior emerges over time, most of the discriminatory acts will be time barred as being discrete acts.

It seems that the only way around this dilemma is for an employee to immediately file a claim of pay discrimination with the EEOC when he or she first suspects it, but otherwise to say nothing to anyone about it. Once a formal EEOC charge is filed, protection from retaliation kicks in, regardless of whether the plaintiff reasonably or unreasonably believed that a violation had occurred.

There are many bad effects from this approach. Workers are discouraged from resolving conflict at the lowest possible level, and problems are thus automatically escalated. Secrecy and poor communications become the norm. What might be a simple misunderstanding quite literally becomes a federal case. And that is ultimately bad for everyone.

Source: The Supreme Court Slams the Door on Pay Discrimination Claims: The Ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. by Joanna Grossman and Deborah Brake. On June 4, 2007

© Linda F. Willing, 2007

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