I was training at an agency recently and just before the first break I told the group we would be discussing hostile work environments when we started back. During the break, I was approached by a Captain who offered the following observation, “This all boils down to knowing your audience.” I asked him to hold that thought until after the next segment when I would be walking the class through a recent federal lawsuit against a fire department. 

After the segment, the same Captain approached me, a bit paler then before, and said, “I’m so (expletive’d!)”

If we performed “after-action” reports on fire department lawsuits resulting in the squandering of tax-payer dollars and careers being lost, we would find the following common factors:

Law suits generally involve an aggregate of behaviors spanning 18 to 24 months or longer. 

  • I’ve talked to several firefighters and police officers who have been named in hostile work environment law suits. Many described a sense of “betrayal” towards the employee(s) bringing the suit because the employee(s) didn’t mind the behavior at the time it happened but, many months later, are claiming to have been harmed by it. 

Employees thought they could “waive” policy.

  • The “group think” mentality is a prevalent factor in fire service law suits. For example, “Hey, you folks don’t mind if we watch this movie tonight that depicts nudity and offensive language, right?” 
  • A protected class employee initiated or engaged in the prohibited behavior and co-workers saw this as a “waiver” that the behavior was acceptable. 

Under the intense scrutiny of a lawsuit, what were thought to be a series of in the moment “harmless” behaviors are looked at in the aggregate and redefined as “pervasive” behaviors, or what the federal government defines as a “hostile work environment.” This same scrutiny will establish that there are NO WAIVERS. 

At this point any attempt by employees or supervisors to “justify” the behavior makes adults sound like children. “I know we weren’t supposed to, but everyone else was doing it!”

So, since we know that “you have to know your audience” is a gateway to hostile work environments and notices of termination, please consider adopting this Career Survivalist adage..  

“You have to know your policy!”

Be safe, E

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