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EMS workplaces must treat all personnel fairly, or risk a lawsuit

EMS chiefs set the tone for workplace behavior and harassment; 'what you allow, will continue'


A Colorado paramedic recently filed a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer alleging that he was fired for being gay. In his lawsuit he claims that he was subjected to verbal harassment and threats of physical violence after revealing his sexual orientation.

The alleged threats were humiliating and graphic. He claims that when he complained to his supervisor he was placed on probation and later fired for not being a “good fit.” He stated that he wants his lawsuit to send a message – “it’s not the 1950s anymore.”

Legal protections from harassment and gender stereotyping

This story should serve as a reminder to EMS agencies across the country to evaluate not only their policies that address workplace discrimination, but more importantly, the “workplace culture” that is established by the leadership to ensure that all staff members are treated fairly and without regard to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The legal protections from workplace discrimination and harassment afforded to employees are increasing. A number of states have amended their non-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to the more traditional protections related to age, sex, race, national origin, religion and disability. Just about every remaining state has legislation pending to address this type of discrimination.      

Gender stereotyping, which can be a form of gender-based discrimination, is also prohibited in the workplace. This can include harassment or discrimination because a woman does not dress or talk in a feminine manner, a man enjoys a pastime that is associated with a woman or an employee participates in same-sex dating or marriage. This type of stereotyping must also be avoided in the workplace. 

Adopt and train on a harassment and discrimination policy

All EMS agencies should have a functional policy that prevents harassment and discrimination in the workplace, with harsh consequences for those who violate it, and an effective process for reporting and investigating alleged violations. But a policy is not enough.

All staff members – from leadership to the front line – must be trained on the policy in a meaningful way that emphasizes the importance of proper workplace behavior. In addition, managers and supervisors should be trained on how to properly handle complaints of harassment including investigation, discipline and the prohibition of retaliation for those who make good faith reports under the policy.

Harassment comes in many forms

Workplace harassment can come in many forms. In general it is severe, widespread and persistent behaviors of disrespect toward each other that the employer allows and does not take steps to stop that can create a dysfunctional work environment where illegal discrimination and harassment are most likely to occur. Harassment most often starts with crude jokes or derogatory comments, invasive or disrespectful personal questions, or denial of access to restrooms, sleeping rooms or changing rooms, among other negative behaviors.

Chief sets the tone for workplace behavior

A good phrase for managers to remember is, ‘what you allow, will continue.” Far too often supervisors will look the other way when they see or become aware of improper workplace behaviors simply because it takes effort to confront the offender. But that excuse cannot be tolerated either. Every leadership team member has the responsibility to set the proper tone and to send a strong message that these improper behaviors – though tolerated in the 1950s – are not acceptable in 2015.   

To help ensure all staff members are treated fairly and to reduce potential liability from a discrimination or harassment lawsuit all EMS agencies should:

  • Create and foster a culture that is inclusive of all staff members regardless of differences
  • Treat each staff member as an individual, not as a member of a group
  • Value every staff member and their suggestions and ideas, regardless of individual differences
  • Have “zero tolerance” for discriminatory or offensive words or behaviors
  • Educate staff members about reporting incidents of harassment or discrimination and train managers how to properly handle incidents and complaints when they arise.

Now is the time to evaluate your policies and workplace culture to ensure everyone is being treated fairly within your agency. We often emphasize how important it is to be respectful to the patients we serve and to treat every patient with dignity regardless of their circumstances. An EMS agency that creates a culture where all staff members treat each other with respect and dignity are also most likely to carry that same positive approach into their patient care activities as well.  

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