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... November/December 2001 Issue Number 29

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 areas of leadership development, workplace diversity, change management, and conflict resolution will be discussed.

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Upcoming Events

IAFF Human Relations Conference: January 13-15, 2002, New Orleans.

Leadership Training Seminar: March 8-10, 2002, San Diego Bahia Resort. Sponsored by Women in the Fire Service. For more information call 608-233-4879 or email info@wfsi.org.

 

In the News

Working Together

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on September 11th, the government has created a new cabinet-level agency, the Office of Homeland Security. The mission of this new office, headed by former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, is to coordinate the efforts of many diverse agencies toward the goal of improving domestic security and preventing and mitigating threats, both internal and external. Some of the agencies which will be working with the new government office are the FBI, the Border Patrol, the INS, health services agencies and many others.

Most analysts agree: the biggest challenge to this new office will be getting people among these different government agencies to be able to work together effectively. Some of the anticipated difficulties are technical, such as the use of incompatible computer systems within different agencies. But the most daunting challenges are cultural and organizational. There will be issues of communication: the use of internal jargon that does not translate well outside the agency and protocols about how communication should flow. There will be organizational issues: chain of command, how meetings should be arranged or run, who has authority over whom. Finally there will be the inevitable management of disputes among the various players. As Senator Fred Thompson said, "The good news is that there are many federal agencies working on all of these issues. The bad news is that there are many federal agencies working on all of these issues."

Governor Ridge and his staff will need to call upon their best skills of facilitation, mediation, communication, and conflict resolution for this new office to be effective. But their challenge is not so different from what emergency services leaders face every day. Managing complex operations, whether on an emergency call or during the implementation of a new training protocol, requires much more than technical knowledge. Those who are most successful in leadership roles have both technical skills and skills of human relations.

Technical expertise and competence in interpersonal skills are inextricably joined. It does no good to know what to do if you are unable to communicate what that need is to others. Likewise, a highly trained crew that is distracted by interpersonal conflicts will be ineffective.

There needs to always be a balance between technical solutions and the leadership and management skills needed to implement those solutions. Now more than ever, this balance should be maintained.

Source: National Public Radio, October 2, 2001. Newsweek, October 29 2001

News Brief

Governor Gray Davis recently signed legislation providing enhanced rights to more than 16,000 registered gay, lesbian, and domestic partners in California. The bill allows medical decisions by one partner for another who is incapacitated, allows partners to sue for wrongful death of the other, and for adoption and property inheritance rights between partners. In addition, individuals who move to relocate with a domestic partner will not lose unemployment benefits, and qualifying partners may use sick leave to care for the other. Domestic partners must register with the Secretary of State's office in order to qualify for the new benefits.

Source: Associated Press October 14, 2001

Sexual Harassment Update

Criminal Behavior? Yes. Harassment? Maybe Not.

If someone has behaved so inappropriately at work that sexual assault charges are successfully filed against him, then clearly it is also a case of sexual harassment, right? Not necessarily so, according to a recent 9th Circuit Court decision.

Consider the case of Patricia Brooks, an emergency dispatcher with the city of San Mateo, California. One night, Ms. Brooks was working an evening shift with one other dispatcher, Steven Selvaggio. During the shift, Mr. Selvaggio approached her as she was taking a call and put his hands on her stomach, commenting on how sexy she was. Ms. Brooks told him to stop and forcefully pushed him away. In response to this, Mr. Selvaggio blocked Ms. Brooks so she could not move away, and forced his hand underneath her sweater and bra to fondle her bare breast. Ms. Brooks again resisted his advances, and as he was preparing to assault her again, another dispatcher entered the room, causing Mr. Selvaggio to cease his behavior. Ms. Brooks immediately reported the incident, and Mr. Selvaggio was placed on leave pending an investigation.

The investigation revealed that two other dispatchers had been the victims of similar treatment by Mr. Selvaggio, although neither had reported it at the time. The city's investigation concluded that Mr. Selvaggio had violated the city's sexual harassment policy, and he subsequently resigned from his job after the city initiated termination procedures against him. Mr. Selvaggio later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor sexual assault, and spent 120 days in jail.

Ms. Brooks filed a sexual harassment complaint against her employer with the EEOC related to the assault and what she perceived as retaliation when she returned to work after the incident. She was issued a right to sue letter and continued with her case in district court.

She lost. When she appealed the decision, she lost again. The courts stated, among other things, that Mr. Selvaggio's behavior toward her was not severe enough to constitute a hostile working environment. The decision depended on the fact that the misconduct was a single incident and that the perpetrator was a co-worker (albeit a senior one) and not a supervisor.

Hostile environment harassment is defined legally by its frequency, severity, and level of interference with work performance. Single incidents of misconduct may meet the test, but only if they are extremely severe. How severe? Patricia Brooks didn't even come close. The courts pointed to a successful single incident harassment claim in which the assailant slapped the victim, tore off her shirt, beat her, hit her on the head with a radio, choked her with a phone cord and ultimately forced her to have sex with him. The victim was held captive overnight, and was ultimately hospitalized for her injuries.

This decision is an indication of just how narrowly the courts interpret sexual harassment law. Was Mr. Selvaggio's behavior egregious, even criminal? Absolutely, the courts agreed; after all, he did time for it. But was it sexual harassment under their narrow definition of the law? No, and Ms. Brooks' employer (who was the defendant in this case) could not be held responsible for it.

Other recent interpretations of sexual harassment law further illustrate the specific scope courts are using in their decisions. More on that next month.

Sources: Brooks v. City of San Mateo Al-Dabbagh v. Greenpeace

© Linda F. Willing, 2001

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