About 20 to 25 years ago fire services began the process of cleaning up the physical work environment. Cartoons and photos came off of walls and lockers and explicit magazines were removed from common areas. For those of you who experienced this transition you know it generally did not happen overnight but the result is that today most of our fire stations are free from such unprofessional displays and materials.

Fire services across North America are now in phase two of the professional work environment process. This phase is much more difficult but no less necessary. Phase two involves addressing unprofessional language.

Ask just about any Chief, HR professional, or legal counsel if it’s ever ok to use a derogatory term for a gay man in a fire station and they will immediately say “no!” Now ask yourself when was the last time someone uttered a derogatory term for a gay man (or any protected class employee for that matter) in a fire station. I’m guessing there’s a gap between the expectation and the application.

We tend to allow good natured “banter” of otherwise restricted language because in that context the language doesn’t seem to fit the definition of existing harassment/discrimination policies.  In fact, the language is frequently used in a “locker room” application of attempted comradery.

This issue frequently comes to light during the intense scrutiny of a workplace environment claim or law suit. During these processes the claimant/plaintiff will describe a hostile workplace based on aggregate behavior (every single time a derogatory term for a protected class employee was uttered) and then pounce on the fact that the Captain in the station did nothing to stop it, or worse, was the one using the language.

Remember, “prevalent” behavior (the unabated use of derogatory language – regardless of intent) is, in and of itself, a “hostile work environment.” Check your own policies and you will not find the “nobody meant anything by it” exception to this rule. The result of such claims/law suits is frequently a significant pay-out and demotion/termination/retiring in-lieu for those supervisors/managers identified as failing to maintain organizational expectations.

It’s clear that such “banter” conflicts with professional work place expectations and poses a career threat. Career Survival is about recognizing and responding to dangerous behaviors. Supervisors absolutely have discretion in their response to these issues but they must respond!

Responding to the typical “banter” use of otherwise inappropriate language is as simple as a “knock it off, we’re better than that” verbal counseling. If the behavior continues the supervisor might use non-disciplinary documentation and/or initiate the Department disciplinary process.

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