Imagine you_re sitting in your office and everything seems calm. You make your way through e-mails, sign some documents and return a few calls. There aren_t any meetings scheduled. The radio is quiet. This may be a good day to start working on some of those projects that have been pushed to the back burner.
But, much to your disappointment, an e-mail pops up in your inbox that says one of your paramedics has filed a complaint with their supervisor claiming they_reworking in a hostile work environment. As you scan through for details, it seems the paramedic is tired of hearing their partner preach about the Bible. Does this constitute a hostile situation?
What It Is
"Hostile work environment" is a legal term to describe a workplace where any employee cannot reasonably perform their work because behavior by management or co-workers createsan environment that is intimidating oroffensive. But what does "hostile" mean inan EMS context?
Is it considered hostile if a paramedic parks on station property and has a large confederate flag sticker of the rear window of his truck? Does it make a difference if an African-American works at the station? Should the paramedic be allowed to flaunt the sticker given that Americans have the protected right of freedom of speech and self-expression? Should he be able to display it only off work premises?
Most hostile work environments are defined by just a few scenarios. Many involve an unwanted sexual act on the partof a supervisor or co-worker. Unfortunately, EMS organizations and fire departments are at greater risk for this because employees work in close quarters with small sleeping facilities, provide emotional support to each other and sometimeshave minimal direct supervision.
I think we_ve all known a male paramedic at one time or another who hits on every female provider and nurse at the hospital. Sometimes, they almost wreck the ambulance as their head twists to catch a glimpse of a woman walking down the street. This type of individual creates a hostile work environment with their comments, gestures and actions.
Other behaviors that can lead to a hostile work environment are any act or remarks that can be considered discriminatory toward age, race, sexual orientation, disability or religion.
It can also be considered hostile if a supervisor or manager acts in a manner designed to get you suspended or make you quit, all in retaliation for something you may have done. For example, if an EMT reports safety issues to the federal OSHA office and an inspection confirms safety violations in your agency, and then their manager gets revenge through discipline, poor work assignments or unreasonable shifts, etc.ƒthat_s a hostile work environment.
An employee may also perceive a hostile atmosphere if their physical well-being is threatened by another co-worker, either through violent behavior or threats. Situations of this type may be considered criminal acts as well.
How to Stop It
Leaders have to set the tone and not allow these types of environments to exist. They need to ensure policies are in place that clearly state what is and is not acceptable in the workplace. The document should also include a section on how to report a hostile work environment.
Training programs that educate the staff about what is considered a hostile work environment should also be in place. These programs should be required for new employees, ongoing for everybody in the organization, and available to management, with an emphasis on how to deal with these types of situations.
If a hostile work environment is recognized or reported, an immediate investigation should be conducted. Don_t let something sit in your inbox until you come back from vacation. Your organization can be put in jeopardy if a formal complaint is filed andnot immediately acted upon.
If an investigation reveals a breach of your policy, disciplinary action against the employee who_s producing the hostile work environment is often necessary. If this doesn_t change their behavior, more severe measures will need to be taken, such as terminating their employment.
As a system leader, it_s incumbent upon you to provide a hostile-free work environment. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a court case, with expensive attorney fees and damages to the plaintiff (if awarded), plus the indirect cost of your agency_s marred reputation.JEMS
Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire and rescue experience. He_s chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and can be reached atwww.garyludwig.com.
Learn more from Gary Ludwig at the EMS Today Conference & Expo, March 2Ï6 in Baltimore.