EMS leaders must promote a workplace free of harassment

Everyone has the right to come to work without being harassed or hazed

If the police department is the 'finest' and the fire department is the 'bravest,' then EMS is the 'most compassionate.' We develop rapport, we deliver a high quality of patient care and we comfort families. We use words like dedication, excellence and professionalism to define our attributes; we use our strong clinical skills to save lives and comfort the ill and injured.

The spiral of dark humor

When we are not on calls, it is our dark sense of humor that surfaces. Away from the patients we laugh at the horror of other people's trauma, making jokes at others expense. Gallows humor is more of a defense mechanism than anything else, right? At least that is what we tell ourselves to justify this behavior.

We also hear (or use) words like “faggot” and “retard” or other disparaging remarks about people we think are different than us. We find humor in relentlessly hazing our rookies and sexually harassing our co-workers. We tell off-color jokes and have no regard if a colleague or subordinate finds them offensive.

When folks complain about this inappropriate workplace behavior we label them rats and cowards. Now, all of a sudden, we determine the 'rats' do not fit into the culture of our department.

This spiral of behavior becomes a display of the worst of EMS. We do more than our best to handle our citizen’s pains, traumas and discomforts. Yet we alienate the folks on our team that we expect to have our backs, and that want to enjoy the same career we do, but simply do not want to conform to our questionable culture.

The problem: Harassment in the EMS workplace

EMS social networks and websites are saturated with news from our career field of a medic allegedly fired because of sexual orientation, a leader resigning after harassing female employees, and a lawsuit being settled due to an organization not protecting an employee from being harassed.

Of course this type of behavior is not solely an EMS issue, but rather a global issue that needs to be addressed. Last year we were stunned when a 300-pound NFL lineman left his team, because he was being harassed by his teammates. Folks were amazed that this NFL player could leave his position and file a harassment suit with the league.

Safe workplace is a right

Regardless of your size or profession, everyone has the right to come to work and not be harassed or hazed.

During my 30-year career I have witnessed some truly mind blowing decisions. In one case, a department veteran was harassing a female firefighter; she followed the initial steps to get him to stop.

She spoke to him directly which did not yield results. She took her complaint to the Chief, unaware of the significant history between the Chief and the harasser. They came into the fire service together. Her complaint to the Chief was dismissed. She was called a liar and accused of trying to ruin the fabric of the department. She was labeled a snitch and was further alienated from the workforce. Within three months she received consecutive corrective actions and was terminated.

The rumors and gossip around the incidents leading to her termination had reached all the other area fire stations and no one would hire her. Her reward for speaking up and not accepting harassment from her teammates was to never work another day, in a career that she wanted her entire life.

What kind of lesson was conveyed from this incident? We turn a blind eye to what we know is wrong, we don’t want to make waves, and because of our behavior we not only buy into the culture, we perpetuate it.

It’s time we stop this type of workplace culture.

If not us, who? And if not now, when?

The solution: Ensure EMS is safe for everyone

It’s time folks; it’s actually past time, to ensure our career field is safe for everyone. As leaders we have to be the ones to say stop, we have to be the ones to support, we have to create a safe environment for all who joins us.

The workforce is more diverse than ever. Regardless of gender, race or sexual preference, we must invite all to enjoy the same career we do.

It is our responsibility to make sure that anti-discrimination laws are enforced. Not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do.

What you permit is what you promote

Changing an organization's culture is difficult. As the leader, you have to be the one who sets the example. What you permit, you promote. If you are part of a culture that permits or encourages harassment, you have to stop. If you make inappropriate jokes, your team will do the same because you are setting the standard for them to do so.

We are all individuals who deserve respect and the opportunity to have a successful and fulfilling EMS career. As an EMS chief it is my obligation to create and lead a safe workplace, as well as promoting to the emerging leaders in the organization what is acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior.

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