In Fire Service, we tend to become complacent about perceived minor policies violations based on the belief that infractions will stay in the unit or, at worst, be handled at an administrative level within the agency.
This unrealistic sense of security is quickly exposed via subpoena or sworn testimony during the legal precedings arising from harassment/discrimination lawsuits. What were initially perceived to be “minor” violations do not seem so small when are uncovered and presented to the “outside world.” In other words, taxpayers!!
For example, a common legal strategy for a plaintiff’s attorney is to wait a few weeks after a suit has been filed before issuing subpoenas requesting all agency emails containing the plaintiff’s name as a subject line or in the body of the text.
Certainly, they are interested in anything they may find from before the suit was filed that supports their suit. However, the icing on the cake is anything they find dated after the suit was made public. Particularly interesting to the plaintiff, and what will assuredly lead to the sender/receiver being subpoena’d as a witness, are those those emails “trashing” the plaintiff and/or tending to support the plaintiff claims of a hostile work environment. In some cases, emails have been found that actually suggested a cover-up.
As case law becomes more prevalent in the area, it is increasingly more likely that subpoenas will extend to personal email accounts, as well as messages from personal devices that were sent/received while the employee was on-duty.
Knowing this, agencies should stress the importance of existing professional communications policies and, from time to time, audit agency emails. The age of personal devices seems to have lessened the emphasis on department audits. However, we can see from our continual review and analysis of harassment/discrimination cases that subpoena’s, public records requests, and even agency “leaks” still reveal embarrassing violations of policy at the highest levels of the organization.
Finally, claims of harassment and discrimination are frustrating and very stressful. The best defense is to maintain workplaces that are free of such behaviors and the Career Survival Group is here to help you by providing the most meaningful training available in Fire Service.
Be safe, CSG