Fire Law: Firehouse Bullying: How to Recognize Trouble

No one would ever confuse a professional football locker room with a firehouse. However, last fall’s widely publicized episode involving allegations of bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room left me concerned because there are similarities between the two. Undoubtedly, there is a strong sense of camaraderie in a locker room, just as there should be in a firehouse. And, this camaraderie may lead to some of the unfortunate attitudes and values that were reported to have existed in Miami.

A firehouse is not like other work environments. It’s not your typical office or factory or retail space. It is in the firehouse that we build confidence in the people we work since with our life may depend upon them. But, it is easy to imagine how the firehouse culture can lead to inappropriate behavior.

Pattern of behavior

We all recognize the concept of bullying, but our understanding varies from person to person and from one type of workplace to another. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying includes verbal abuse, offensive conduct and/or behaviors that are threatening, humiliating or intimidating. It isn’t a single action, but a pattern of persistent, aggressive and unreasonable behavior that occurs over time.

Other organizations have similar definitions. These definitions sound reasonable, but they are difficult to apply. Actions that might seem harsh in an office may be appropriate in the firehouse. Likewise, actions that may be reasonable in one department might be unacceptable in another.

Legally, neither the courts nor the legislatures have adopted a single clear definition for the term. There is no law prohibiting bullying. Some states, such as Washington, have anti-bullying programs, but they don’t include any statutory enforcement. According to Society for Human Resource Management, at least 25 states have considered bills in the past decade that would make bullying illegal and provide remedies for those who are victims. None has been enacted yet.

The Healthy Workplace Campaign has produced the “Healthy Workplace Bill,” a model law for states to consider. It defines an “abusive work environment,” holds employers accountable for workplace bullying and provides remedies for those who have been bullied.

Those who support workplace bullying bills argue that without laws, employers will condone bullying and not make a significant effort to address it. Opponents argue that the law will lead to frivolous lawsuits. If juries are given the power to pass judgment on claims of bullying, that could lead to very inconsistent verdicts based on how they view the accused “bully.”

Courts generally have been unwilling to intervene in bullying cases unless they involve a discrimination claim or some other type of wrongful conduct, such as a claim of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” But, in those cases the plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly, showing extreme and outrageous conduct that caused emotional distress.

What should you do if you believe you are being bullied? First, recognize that you are being bullied and that you are not the problem. Next, keep a record of bullying incidents and any related documents. Make sure you understand your department’s personnel policies and know what remedies might be available. Find someone you can talk to, either in your chain of command or someone else you can trust. If internal processes aren’t working, talk to a lawyer.

How should the fire service address bullying? Departments need to recognize the potential presence of bullying and address it. It is especially important that the fire service do this itself, so that it isn’t done by courts or administrative bodies that don’t understand the firehouse culture. We must set our own standards and create a culture where bullying is not tolerated.

Establish a policy that reflects your department’s culture. Definitions of inappropriate activity must be made as clear and precise as possible, including specific examples of inappropriate behavior. This may be the most challenging part because of the difficulty in separating those who have legitimate complaints from those who are unhappy, but aren’t really being bullied. Make sure the policy is understood and enforced throughout the organization. Everyone must understand that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.

Provide an appropriate way to respond to complaints of bullying, first through informal channels and then more formal actions. This should include some form of counseling for the person who is being complained about. Then, be prepared to act on the results of any investigation into bullying-type of behavior.

There is momentum to change the ways the legal system treats workplace bullying. The fire service should get ahead of it by making sure our own house is in order. We must avoid the kind of high-visibility incident that occurred in Miami. n