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...

December 2007 Issue Number 95

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.

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

"Many Faces, Many Voices--One Dream, One Union" Human Relations Conference of the International Association of Fire Fighters. January 20-23, 2008, Sheraton Hotel, New Orleans, LA. Go to www.iaff.org for more information.

Maryland Fire-Rescue National Fire Service Staff and Command March 12-19, 2008 in Nashville, TN. Go to www.mfri.org for more information.

8th Biennial Fire Service Women's Leadership Training Seminar April 24-27, 2008 Glendale, AZ. Go to www.wfsi.org for more information.

 

In the News

Workplace Bullying: The Gray Zone

When I teach classes about workplace harassment, I often ask people if they agree with the statement: Federal law prohibits any kind of bullying or intimidation in the workplace. At least half of participants usually agree, and are quite surprised to learn that federal law currently has no interest whatsoever with bullying in the workplace. In fact, EEO law is concerned only with discrimination and harassment involving the so-called "protected classes": race, sex, ethnicity, religion, color, age, and disability. Some states and most major cities have added sexual orientation as a protected class, and there are a few other additions that have been made at the state and local levels. But no entity at the state or federal level says anything about bullying generally.

That may now be changing. In 2007 alone, eight states have introduced legislation that would hold employers vicariously liable for workplace bullying. Such bills generally prohibit employers from subjecting an employee to an abusive work environment, regardless of the reason for the treatment, or that employee's protected class status. Washington State's proposed anti-bullying legislation provides a definition: an abusive work environment is one in which an employee is "subjected to abusive conduct that is so severe that it causes physical or psychological harm to the employee. [Such conduct] may include, but is not limited to, repeated infliction of verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person's work performance."

Is such legislation a good idea? Some employers and employees alike feel that adding to the already confusing laws about workplace harassment and discrimination will only lead to bad outcomes. Others fear frivolous claims and lawsuits by hypersensitive employees.

But those who have experienced workplace bullying, either as a target or a witness, know that there is nothing frivolous about it. Genuine bullying leads to poor productivity, increased use of sick leave, worker attrition, and in some cases, workplace violence. When an employee has been picked on for years by a workplace bully, it may be easy to dismiss that behavior as joking around-- until that employee brings a gun to work, or hits the coworker in the face with a chair. But at that point, it is too late to take corrective action.

What distinguishes bullying from the occasional unpleasantness of work that all must deal with? For one thing, bullying is directed behavior, usually by one individual against another. Witnesses are drawn in as silent partners of the bully through intimidation. Second, bullying is pervasive behavior that continues for a period of time-- it is not just a person having a bad day. Third, real bullying has real effects on the workplace in terms of productivity, health, and safety.

Although there may not be laws at the federal or state level to prohibit bullying, individual employers can still develop policies that recognize such behavior as unacceptable and provide sanctions for it. The key is to know it is happening, and to make sure supervisors understand their role in preventing and stopping it. A workplace where bullying is possible is one that is not safe for any employee. Whether through legal action, internal policy, or just the moral imperative to allow everyone equal opportunity to succeed, bullying should never be tolerated in the workplace.

Source: Business and Legal Reports, November 17, 2007

 

 

News Brief

A firefighter who sued the City of Philadelphia for the right to wear a beard, in violation of the department's grooming standard, has lost his case. Curtis DeVeaux said wearing a beard was a religious obligation and that he had not been allowed to prove that his trimmed beard did not interfere with safety equipment. At least one other similar case in another city was found in favor of the firefighter.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 2007


Sexual Harassment Update

The New Age of the First Amendment

How much protection does a public employee have when it comes to the First Amendment? The answer is: A lot less than you might think.

Consider the case of Ronald Vose, a 26 year veteran police officer and supervisor of his department's narcotics unit. In 2004, Officer Vose discovered several examples of inappropriate conduct by detectives on the job: improper searches, the lack of correct procedure for obtaining warrants, the filing of false or misleading affidavits with the courts. Vose reported his findings both to his direct supervisors and also at a department meeting. Later that year, Vose was told to observe a trial involving some of the detectives in question, and he learned that documents possessed by the police department had not been turned over to the defense, as is required by law. Officer Vose also reported this situation to his supervisors.

The result of Vose's efforts to correct misconduct within his department were reprimands, a forced transfer, an internal investigation of him, and ultimately his resignation after a supervisor told other police officers that Vose's "career is history" and that Vose had "burned his bridges."

Vose sued his department for retaliation based on his expression of First Amendment protected speech. He won in lower court, but when the case was appealed to the 7th Circuit, he lost. The 7th Circuit judges were sympathetic to Vose's "honorable attempt to correct alleged wrongdoing," but felt their hands were tied by language from a recent U.S. Supreme Court case regarding First Amendment rights and public employees. That case, Garcetti v. Ceballos significantly narrowed the circumstances under which any public employee is protected in speech made related to their work.

According to Garcetti, a public employee's right to speak as a citizen is protected only under certain circumstances. "When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." The Supreme Court went on to say that "official duties" are not defined by a formal job description, but rather by "a practical inquiry into what duties the employee is expected to perform." In Vose's case, even though he was not in the detectives' bureau, nor did he supervise anyone in that division, his interest in the conduct of the detectives was clearly as an employee rather than as a citizen, and therefore his speech was not protected.

This case is just one of many involving public employees (often police officers) who have found that their speech at work, even when directed at correcting misconduct or safety violations, is not protected, and that they themselves can be disciplined without recourse. Whether this is right or just, the fact is that the courts are reading the Garcetti decision very literally, and all public employees need to be aware of that.

Source: Ronald Vose v. Donald Kliment, Chief of Police of the City of Springfield and William Rouse, Deputy Chief of Police of the City of Springfield. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 07-1792.

 

 

© Linda F. Willing, 2007

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