Rooting out sexual harassment

Strategies to report and prevent sexual misconduct, so that all employees feel safe at work


By Donald Deardorff, Xavier De La Rosa, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Single, Blake Taylor; Fitch & Associates Ambulance Service Manager Course Spring 2021

What is sexual misconduct? The definition of sexual misconduct is any behavior engaged in, or attention given, that is sexual in nature and done without consent [13]. So, what does that actually mean? That means that anything that makes you feel uncomfortable can be sexual misconduct. This could be as simple as someone touching your hair or telling a joke that is inappropriate.

In EMS, this is something that we see quite frequently. We work long shifts with the same person day in and day out. We become extremely comfortable with these people. With that comfort comes times where we are not afraid to tell each other things that we may not tell others or give each other hugs at the end of shift. These people become our family. But there are times where people in the workforce take things too far. That is when we must recognize this and make sure we do something about it.

Recognition is the first step to resolve any type of sexual misconduct issue. Recognizing inappropriate behavior is everyone’s job in the company. This is not just the job of supervisors and managers. If anyone sees something that is inappropriate, it needs to be brought to the attention of a human resources officer. Every company should talk about sexual misconduct and what employees should do if it happens to them or they witness it. This can just be a short class during the initial training for all employees. The leaders in the company need to dive deeper into sexual misconduct and what we can do to prevent and mitigate it. There are multiple different classes and training programs out there to teach us about what we are going to see and what needs to happen if the case arises. Human resources need to find which class or program fits their organization best.


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Sexual misconduct in EMS

Have we fallen victim to a blind eye?


Reporting: Speaking up

Often, the victims of sexual misconduct feel uncomfortable reporting such incidents due to embarrassment or fear of retaliation. Furthermore, victims often feel like reporting these encounters is futile as no action will be taken by employers and reporting will only cast a spotlight on them as a “problem” employee. Our survey results indicate that of those who did report sexual misconduct, a majority of all parties (male and female) felt like their leadership teams handled the incident poorly and, in most cases, took no action. Of those that responded, 61% felt that the incident was not handled or responded to at all by their leadership members. Our goal is to help those find resources of who, what, when and how to report incidents they feel uncomfortable with.

How to report sexual misconduct

The first step is to consult your organizational policy manual or employee handbook and follow the specific steps or procedures set forth by your company. Be professional, but firm, if an incident does occur that you believe is sexual harassment, and professionally confront the offender. This is especially important if your company requests that employees attempt to work out issues on their own. Everyone’s comfort level is different, and some people have difficulty understanding where boundaries are. If you take something seriously, often others will, too. Statements like, "That’s not funny," or "Stop. You’re making me uncomfortable," can help clue coworkers or supervisors into what you are feeling. Tell the offender what you didn’t like about their behavior or language. Document this interaction with a description of the incident, the date and time, any witnesses and what you attempted to do to resolve the incident. You may need to make a formal complaint if your confrontation did not resolve the situation or if you do not feel comfortable confronting the person or persons making you feel uncomfortable. Write a formal letter to your supervisor and request a meeting with witnesses.

While gossiping about an incident is rarely helpful and can be harmful, if you are aware of other victims of similar circumstances, encourage them to come forward and file their own complaints. Take it up the chain of command if necessary, if after a reasonable amount of time, you are unsuccessful in resolving the issue with your supervisor or if a meeting is refused. Move your way up the chain of command until someone listens and takes action. Your organization’s human resources department can be helpful as well. File a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if necessary, as Federal and state authorities are available to help. Keep in mind there is a 180-day time limit for filing an incident with the EEOC. This should be a factor in determining how much time you allow for a response from your service. You may also be able to claim whistleblower protection. These steps may not apply to a situation where sexual assault or battery occurred. If you have been sexually assaulted or battered on duty, make sure you are in a safe place, call the police and notify your supervisor immediately.

There are other ways to report as well, such as anonymous hotlines, contacting an ombudsman or public resources, such as a YWCA poster with hotline number tear off tab.

Other beneficial sources:

If you decide to report sexual harassment to HR, it’s important that you come prepared. First, think through the incident completely. It’s a good idea to be able to thoroughly answer the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen (dates/times)?
  • Where did the situation occur?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who may have been around to witness or overhear the exchange?

Your testimonial is powerful, and the best way for your organization to look into the situation and take action to correct it. Second, you need to gather and bring evidence to your meeting. According to Nikki Larchar, co-founder of simplyHR and Define the Line, this can include “anything and everything that shows that the harassment occurred,” including emails, text messages, social media comments, videos, photographs and a list of people that may have witnessed the behavior. Though, HR shouldn’t require evidence in order for you to simply file a complaint, it can be helpful to let them know that you have materials to support your claim of harassment.

Preventing sexual misconduct

Unfortunately, the number of incidents involving sexual misconduct at the workplace is more than the statistics would lead you to believe. As you can imagine, there are numerous reasons for an incident to go unreported. If the aggressor is a supervisor, the victim may feel helpless or fear for their job. If the victim is fearful for their job or safety, they may just change jobs rather than file any complaint. When incidents go unreported often enough, this develops into an environment that breeds more misconduct with no repercussion.

The next step is potential victims assume their company is not safe and will leave. Potential aggressors will continue, maybe even increase how often they step out of line for the simple fact nothing will happen if they do. Sexual misconduct is an issue like rust on a vehicle. If left unattended and ignored, it will degrade every part of a company. It is vital for any company to be proactive and have a plan set to aid in eliminating or minimizing the risk of future incidents.

One of the single most important ways to prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace is to talk about it. Incidents such as these grow because no one talks about them. The company needs to open lines of communication with its employees about what it looks like, what constitutes misconduct, who to report it to and how to report it when it happens. Adopting a sexual harassment policy is a great step toward preventing it. Just like any policy, it should spell out to the employees what the issue is, what is expected and what happens if policy gets broken. In the policy, the company should define sexual misconduct. Every person should read and understand what it looks like, and that in no uncertain terms will it be tolerated. The policy should also include the procedure for filing complaints and the investigative measures that will ensue. The final bullet point needed in the policy is condemning any retaliation toward the complainant. There needs to be an inherent feeling of safety from your coworkers when at work.

Another method of prevention is training. At least once a year, conduct training sessions for employees. These sessions should teach employees what sexual harassment is, explain that employees have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, review your complaint procedure and encourage employees to use it. At the same time, it is important to train the leadership members in your company. At least once a year, conduct training sessions for supervisors and managers that are separate from the employee sessions. The sessions should educate the managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and explain how to deal with complaints. Some states require your company to have such training. If your state has that requirement or not, it is a good idea to train all employees just the same.

It is imperative that a member of your leadership get out of the office and spend significant time among the employees. Monitor everyone and their actions. Speak with the employees about how they like work and their partners. Look around the station for any offensive posters or notes. Most importantly, make sure everyone knows the lines of communication exist and are wide open. The employees need to know they can safely report anything at any time. With that in mind, it is important to act on all complaints, no matter the severity. Complaints need to be investigated immediately and thoroughly, by speaking to all people involved. Hopefully, the complaint is invalid, but if it turns out to be legitimate, then the action needs to be quick. The company’s response must be consistent, fair and efficient.

Safety

The tone from the top significantly influences employee behavior. Leaders must set the tone. Every employee has the right to feel safe at work. In the end, that is all that matters. The days of “letting it slide” and the “good ole boys” must come to an end. It does not matter if they were a good employee before they harassed another employee sexually. It may just mean they have not been caught until now. Each incident must be handled with the goal of gathering the truth and reacting appropriately regarding all parties concerned.

About the authors

Donald Deardorff, Xavier De La Rosa, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Single and Blake Taylor are members of the Fitch & Associates Ambulance Service Manager Course Spring 2021 Group 3. Group 3 was comprised of four EMS professionals with various leadership experiences in prehospital care from Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

The group decided to take on this daunting subject matter, and though they met resistance when they discussed the project publicly, they decided to pursue the idea in a pursuit to lift the veil of the industry and improve workforce conditions for all providers.  Group 3 was honored and humbled to be selected to present on this subject matter that is at the very least controversial at the Pinnacle EMS Leadership Forum.   

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