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A Fine Line: Good-natured Pranks Can Easily be Considered Harassment

Rebecca Sedwick committed suicide by jumping from a tower at an abandoned concrete plant after enduring months of harassment and bullying by two other girls aged 12 and 14.

I couldn’t help but to be struck by her story. While tragic, we hear so often of children who are terrorized in school but seldom about adults, who are also subject to bullying, harassment and pranks.

I suppose the assumption is that they’re grown and should be able to endure whatever comes their way.

How wrong an assumption that is! There’s a fine line between harassment and good-natured pranks—especially when it comes to EMS.

Some pranks are designed to be harmless and good-natured, but others cross the line and can be considered harassment and bullying. I don’t advocate pranks of any type: Tying some pie pans to the back of an ambulance so it leaves the station among clatter can be considered harmless, but some might see it differently and believe they’re being singled out and harassed. You never know how people are going to react to being pranked.

Some EMS people love putting Vaseline on the ambulance door handles, while others like filling the back of an ambulance with balloons for two unsuspecting EMTs. One prank that’s been around since the invention of the siren is to put the siren in the “on” position. When the batteries or the engine is turned on, the siren automatically shrieks.

Putting something in someone’s food at the station or forcing them into some type of initiation definitely crosses the line. Some would contend the rule is typically: If someone can be hurt physically, emotionally or financially by a prank, it’s crossed the line. Placing Lasix in the drink of some unsuspecting paramedic pretty much crosses the line and will cost you your job.

The best policy is not to engage in any prank activity—especially if you’re in a management or supervisory position.

Pranks can be considered hazing or harassment, which is illegal and subject to lawsuits in most states. Such is the case with a woman who filed a $39 million lawsuit in May 2013 against the Baltimore County Fire Department for harassment. The allegations of harassment occurred over a two-month period when she was a recruit in the fire academy. The list of charges and specific occurrences is too long to list, but includes a recruit allegedly grabbing her breast in the presence of an instructor with no consequences to the recruit. She also alleged that she was repeatedly singled out and berated in front of other recruits.

Workplace bullying can come from peers, but it can also come from someone who has authority over the person being bullied. Patricia Barnes, author of Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees & Psychopaths in the Workplace, contends that supervisors who bully are a critical but often-overlooked problem.

The most dangerous person in authority is someone smart enough to create a hostile work environment but do it under the guise of the established rules and regulations of the organization. They make sure the harassed employee follows the rules without exception while they look the other way with others. These workplace bullies with authority are usually predictable. They usually place great emphasis and concentrate on monitoring the work performance of only those they are harassing and bullying. Even though they may have multiple employees reporting to them, they focus on a specific few, denying opportunities while showing partiality to others.

Bullying someone in the workplace from a position of authority in some cases can have consequences that go beyond the law.

If you look at past workplace active shooter cases in the United States, some of those shootings are a result of continued harassment and bullying of the assailant.

Whether bullying and harassment actually occurred or if it can be truly verified doesn’t matter—what’s important is that the assailant perceived it that way.

Some EMS organizations have specific rules against pranks and initiations. If they don’t have rules dictating how employees should professionally perform in the workplace, they need to. Having no established rules would further the case of a plaintiff in a lawsuit for harassment with their contention that the organization condoned the behavior.

If you’re an EMS manager, it’s imperative you have rules and procedures in place to prevent harassment and discrimination. Those rules and procedures can be broad enough to include pranks and practical jokes. Creating a respectful and non-hostile workplace should be a priority for any EMS organization.

Whether bullying & harassment actually occurred or if it can be truly verified doesn’t matter—what’s important is that the assailant perceived it that way.




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