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... March/April 2002 Issue Number 33

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

FDIC West: April 28-May 2 at the Sacramento Convention Center. Call 888-299-8016 for more information.

National Conference of Women in Policing: April 30- May 4, Washington DC. Check www.womenandpolicing.org for more details.

Staff and Command School presented by Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, May 1-8 at the Adams Mark Hotel, Dallas, TX. Linda Willing will be on the faculty for this program. Go to www.mfri.org for more information about the course.

In the News

Promotion Problems: Reversing the Trend

Last month this column discussed an emerging trend in the fire service: declining numbers of qualified candidates testing for certain promotional positions. In particular, the ranks of paramedic and battalion chief have seen fewer people interested in the positions in recent years.

The reasons for this trend are varied and may differ depending on the organization being studied. However, one reason seems to fit for every organization. More and more, people say that promoting to certain positions "just isn't worth it."

Why would qualified people feel that a promotion, which includes both new challenges and a pay increase, is not worth the trouble? Here are some specific reasons people give for shunning promotional opportunity.

For the rank of paramedic, people say:

  • The work is more demanding; in particular, paramedics run more calls, especially at night.
  • There is more personal liability associated with the position.
  • Paramedics are isolated from life in the fire station.
  • Paramedics are treated like second class citizens compared with firefighters.
  • I signed up to be a firefighter, not a paramedic.
  • I don't want to be stuck on the ambulance for the rest of my career.

For the rank of battalion chief, people say:

  • I don't want to lose my union protection by entering management.
  • Battalion chiefs don't have real power; they just run errands for the upper level chiefs.
  • I don't want to take a test every year for a position that may only be open once every ten years.
  • Battalion chiefs have no allies; they're stuck in the middle of any dispute.
  • The job doesn't pay enough for the additional hassles.

What can a department do to mitigate these concerns and encourage its best and brightest to promote through the ranks? Providing incentives is important, but they have to be the right incentives. Just paying more may not be enough. Departments must look deeper at the underlying issues. Here are a few suggestions of places to start:

  • Hire the right people to begin with. If you need paramedics, make sure you hire people who are prepared to fill this role, both through their training, and in their expectation of what the job will entail.
  • Work on creating an inclusive, supportive organizational culture. If people feel like second class citizens, find out why and work to mitigate those influences.
  • Make sure everyone has access to allies. Isolation goes against basic fire department culture, and will almost certainly lead to early attrition, at any rank. Mentoring programs can help with this.
  • Recognize achievement. Let top performers take credit for their work. Let people know in a genuine way that you appreciate their contribution.
  • Give people meaningful work assignments. Rotate less interesting assignments.
  • Let people exercise their power. Battalion chiefs in particular must feel that they have the ability to make decisions without constantly being second-guessed.
  • Provide training opportunities, both internally and externally. Make sure people feel ready for the promotional opportunity. Access to external opportunities for professional development (conferences, seminars, etc.) can be a strong reward.
  • Offer career counseling and alternate career paths. This is obviously easier to do on a larger department, where paramedics might be able to work a few years on the ambulance and then rotate back to an engine company, or battalion chiefs can rotate through different divisions. But even smaller departments can find creative ways so that people don't feel stuck where they are.

All of the above suggestions will help create an environment where promotion is desirable and sought by the best people on the department. Implementing these measures takes time, money, and commitment, but the payoff from the investment will be more than worth it.

News Brief

Job discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC increased by 1.2% last year, the highest level in six years. Discrimination allegations based on age and disability had the highest rate of increase.

Age discrimination complaints accounted for 21.5% of all allegations, and disability cases made up 20.4% of the total. Race discrimination complaints accounted for 35.8% of the total and sex discrimination cases were 31.1% of all claims filed. Some cases alleged more than one type of discrimination.

Source: Associated Press, February 22, 2002.

Sexual Harassment Update

Sexual Harassment: How Much is Enough?

How much inappropriate behavior is needed to justify a complaint of sexual harassment? Most courts agree that a single incident of low level behavior, such as a crude remark, is not enough to create a hostile work environment. The standard changes when the behavior is physical? inappropriate touching or assault. But even in this realm, the courts have said that a single incident, unless extremely serious, is not enough to create a harassing environment (see Archives: November/December issue of Consider This).

In the case Brooks v. City of San Mateo, a single incident of a co-worker touching a woman's breast proved inadequate to support sexual harassment charges against the employer, even though the perpetrator was fired and ultimately served jail time for the assault. However, a recent 7th Circuit decision takes a different point of view. In Worth v. Tyer, the court upheld Ms. Worth's Title VII claim of sexual harassment after a similar incident where Mr. Tyer touched her breast. What was the difference between these two cases? Three significant factors stand out. First, Mr. Tyer was clearly Ms. Worth's supervisor and an agent of his employer. Second, Ms. Worth was fired shortly after she made a police report about the incident, an action that supports her claim of retaliation. Third, Mr. Tyer touched Ms. Worth inappropriately on two different occasions.

The court stated, "There is no minimum number of incidents required to establish a hostile work environment. Harassment need not be both severe and pervasive to impose liability; one or the other will do. Indeed, we have often recognized that even one act of harassment will suffice if it is egregious. Conduct that involves touching as opposed to verbal behavior increases the severity of the situation. We have previously recognized that direct contact with an intimate body part constitutes one of the most severe forms of sexual harassment."

All harassment is not alike. The courts take a much harder line when harassment involves unwanted physical contact, and may impose liability on employers if supervisors engage in this type of behavior even once.

Source: Worth v. Tyer, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals

(C) Linda F. Willing, 2002

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