EMS Insider, Expert Advice

‘DNU’ — do not Utter

In a perfect world, EMS leaders would be the perfect source of inspiration—saying the right thing at exactly the right time.


But that doesn’t always happen. Managing a paramedic service is chaotic. People—caregivers, supervisors, customers and everyone in between—are unpredictable. Situations escalate, and in the heat of the moment it’s easy to let something not so appropriate slip out, without even realizing it.


I’ve had plenty of those moments in my career when my mouth overrode my brain. And it usually wasn’t until after the words escaped that I realized, “I shouldn’t have said that.”


It’s not as simple as never dropping the “F-bomb.” Although, it only takes doing so in a high level meeting at a local Catholic hospital to make you immediately take the “DNU” pledge, i.e., “do not utter” a certain phrase ever again. There are a number of things that may seem like normal conversation at work that can undermine your effectiveness as leader. Here are a few to avoid.

1. “The boss just doesn’t get it.”

Just like your caregivers may occasionally get frustrated with you, there are probably times when you are frustrated with your boss. And since you mainly interact with your direct reports, it becomes easy to commiserate with them about your shared disdain for the higher-ups.


All of a sudden, passing an assignment from your boss to your team becomes, “I don’t know why he wants you to do this, but here’s what he wants,” and announcing a confusing new team policy turns into, “I know the boss doesn’t get it and have no idea why he thinks this is a good idea, but here’s the latest rule he dreamt up.”


When your team starts to sense that you don’t have confidence in your leaders, they’ll follow suit and start to doubt too. And caregivers who don’t have buy-in to the agency’s mission or leadership often turn into dissatisfied staff.


Everyone gets frustrated with his or her boss from time to time. But it’s not OK to share that with your team.

2. “Did you hear the one about…”

What sounded like an innocent joke may offend. Off-color jokes at work are no laughing matter. You can easily offend others in ways that never even occurred to you. I love to laugh, but the old adage, “better safe than sorry,” seems to have merit. Or, if you want to be funny at work, consider telling self-deprecating jokes instead. I can usually think of something stupid that I did early in my career to make others laugh. Don’t ever tell jokes that are indecent or impolite. When in doubt, DNU!

3. “You won’t believe what I just heard.”

Telephone, texting and “tell a medic” are all ways to let the rumor mill get you in trouble as an EMS leader. Spreading (almost) unbelievable tales from a recent shift party, whispers of possible promotions or murmurs of impending schedule changes are a few examples of gossiping. Every day, there’s a terrible new policy supposedly about to be implemented or a chief from another department who really has it out for his team.


As a leader, you should be the last person heard talking about those rumors—especially with the caregivers who report to (and look up to) you. Not only will the rumor spread faster when it’s heard from someone higher up the ladder, but you set an example to your team that gossip is acceptable (and even encouraged) in your agency.

4. “That hospital (doctor, nurse, client, etc.) drives me crazy!”

Anytime you speak at work, you should assume that your words will be shared with everyone. Keeping with the theme of not being offensive, you should never tell anyone that you think a particular entity or individual is driving you nuts. This kind of venting is tempting because it can almost serve as a connection between you and your caregivers. You all laugh about the individual, commiserating with each other about how crazy and demanding or delusional they are. Every time their name is mentioned, you exchange a knowing glance and an eye roll. It’s fun and it eases some of the frustration that you both feel from dealing with them.


But it also communicates that you don’t take customer service seriously, or that they don’t deserve your best service. By belittling the individual or their issue, you’re telling your employees that it’s OK that they also treat customers that way; that they shouldn’t go out of their way to understand the problem or try to help.



EMS leaders must serve as an example of excellent customer service, by word and deed, for caregivers and clients alike.

5. “He really messed this up.”

When a big project is in the works or a deadline is looming, tensions can get high. So when someone throws a wrench in your work, it’s easy to let out a big sigh of disappointment and focus the blame on him or her. “He can’t do anything right,” you might say to your boss, your direct reports and anyone who will listen.


But unless you’re addressing the source of the problem, your rant is inappropriate. Whoever’s at fault, it’s your job to deal directly with him or her—or, if the culprit is in another department, discuss it with his or her supervisor. Otherwise, you’re conveying to your team that you don’t want to deal with the source of the issue, you just want to complain about it.

6. “I hate my job.”

Being an EMS leader is difficult. There’s pressure on you from the higher-ups to push your team to achieve their goals, and pressure from your team to be an inspiring, lead-by-example boss. Add in the challenge of figuring out how to manage a variety of personalities and work styles, and your position can become incredibly frustrating.


Some days, you just need to vent. So you vent to your boss, your co-supervisors, or maybe even your direct report-turned-friend: “Being a manager is the worst!”


But broadcasting that you hate your job as a supervisor isn’t going to help. Your boss may start to hesitate to recommend you for leadership projects, and your team will doubt your ability and desire to lead. Think about it: Have you ever looked up to a manager who so obviously and vocally hates management?


Vent privately to your family or friends—or by all means, if you don’t love the job you are in, start searching for a job you can love. But don’t share your career discontent in the workplace.


These are just a few examples of opportunities to open your mouth and insert your foot. I’ve had personal experience with most of the ways to embarrass one’s self as an EMS leadership. Remember: If in doubt, put your DNU policy in place and Do Not Utter.