Practical Support for the Changing World at Work 
Linda F. Willing
P.O. Box 148
Grand Lake, CO
80447
970-627-3732
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Consider This...  May/June 2001 Issue Number 23

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 area of sexual harassment, diversity management and conflict resolution will be discussed.

We hope that you find the information here useful and provocative.
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Upcoming Events

Executive Development: May 21-June 1, NFA in Emmitsburg, MD. The first course of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Linda Willing and Toby Drabczyk will be facilitating this class at NFA in Emmitsburg, MD.

Women Chief Officers' Luncheon: August 25, 2001 at Fire-Rescue International in New Orleans. Call 630-990-2390 for more information.

In the News

Speaking Up: The Reality

On February 9, 2001, the American submarine, Greeneville, accidentally surfaced directly under a Japanese trawler, the Ehime Maru. The fishing boat quickly sank, and nine lives were lost, including four high school students. The captain of the submarine, Commander Scott Waddle, has seen his military career ended as a result. Bitterness remains among the grieving Japanese families.

Many factors led to this tragedy. Many opportunities existed for junior officers to express their concern about the way things were going that day aboard the submarine. In fact, at least one junior officer did speak up to his superiors. But no action resulted from this communication.

What went wrong? The Greenville, like many Navy submarines, had a policy in place that encouraged subordinates to speak to their supervisors, even if the supervisor might not like what he would hear. "This was not a ship where you would be shot for talking to the commanding officer," said the admiral in charge of the investigation. In fact, the sub's captain, Commander Waddle, was highly respected among his peers and crew members, and also well-liked.

The policy told the crew to speak up if something seemed wrong. One officer did so, and the answer he received was, "I have it under control." None of the other junior officers said anything, despite their misgivings. Had even one person insisted on being heard, it might have averted this terrible accident.

Why didn't anyone follow through? Was it because the one person who did speak up was ignored? Was it because, despite the official policy, such confrontation with a superior officer in the military simply isn't done? Was it because the sub's commander was so well-liked and respected that no one imagined he could be wrong?

Telling people that they can speak up in opposition to their superiors is one thing. Actually creating a climate and culture where that is possible is quite another. The Navy has good intentions with its "speak up" policy aboard submarines. But good intentions will never translate into action without fundamental changes in organizational culture and expectations.

Source: The New York Times, March 12, 2001

News Brief

A study released last fall by the Army concludes that captains are leaving the service in unprecedented numbers due largely to a generation gap between baby boomer generals and Generation X junior officers. In 1989, 6.7% of Army captains left voluntarily, but by 1999 that number had climbed to 10.6%. An internal Army forecast predicts that the rate of attrition will rise to 13% this year.

Source: The Washington Post, November 11, 2000

Sexual Harassment Update

Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Sexual Harassment Law

A single crude remark does not constitute sexual harassmentö Without debate, and in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court handed down a decision on April 23rd that serves to clarify the scope of sexual harassment law.

The case in question, Clark County School District v. Breedon, involved a woman who had filed a sexual harassment complaint against her employer based on the sexual innuendos exchanged between two male co-workers in her presence during a meeting. After making her complaint, Ms. Breedon felt that she was retaliated against by her supervisor.

The Supreme Court cited its own precedents that sexual harassment is actionable only if it is "so severe and pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment." In its April 23rd decision, the Court said that no reasonable person could have believed that the fleetingly suggestive remark made in Ms. Breedon's presence met that test. And since there was no causation, according to the Court, it is impossible to prove retaliation.

This decision makes no new law, and in fact is aligned with lower court rulings in recent years. In one case, a single act by a worker was so egregious that it led to successful criminal charges. However, a subsequent sexual harassment claim failed, because the incident was isolated and acted upon at the time by the employer.

In recent years, many organizations - out of fear of lawsuits - have adopted "zero tolerance" policies which make even a single rude comment cause for disciplinary action. Such policies have created the impression that the law itself makes such isolated comments illegal, which has never been the case.

The Supreme Court's decision was signed "Per Curiam," meaning "by the court," a designation used to resolve a case that seems so clear that the justices did want to go to the trouble of calling for briefs or sitting for an argument.

Source: The New York Times, April 24, 2001

© Linda F. Willing, 2001

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