Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about another famous person resigning from their position due to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault. This renewed focus on sexual harassment requires all organizations and employers—including volunteer and career EMS agencies—to re-evaluate their policies, assess workplace culture, conduct regular workplace training programs, and respond promptly and effectively to complaints of unlawful harassment.
Sexual harassment in EMS isn’t a new problem. We’ve been counseling, training, and defending EMS agencies for 18 years in all types of workplace harassment and discrimination complaints. We’ve seen an uptick in sexual harassment complaints over the last few months, but our attorneys have been dealing with this problem on a consistent and regular basis over the years.
In a survey conducted in 1999, Linda Honeycutt reported that 69 percent of women in EMS reported they were sexually harassed in their EMS workplace.1 That included harassment from all sources, such as supervisors, co-workers, and patients. The survey was based on the individual’s perception that they were sexually harassed – so it is unclear as to whether that harassment was actually unlawful sexual harassment. But perception is often reality, and 69% is a high percentage. It suggests that EMS is more vulnerable to the problem of sexual harassment than other workplace environments.
Why is that? First, there are unique aspects of the EMS workplace—factors that foster an environment for sexual harassment to occur. Second, in our view, some EMS agencies simply don’t do enough to establish a harassment-free workplace and a culture that’s founded on mutual respect.
Factors that Make EMS Prone to Sexual Harassment
What are the factors that foster sexual harassment in EMS? Well, for one, we sleep together in a station that often has a home-like atmosphere—but sometimes forget that it’s not a home, it’s a workplace, and we get a bit too relaxed.
We work in a high-stress environment where we blow off steam and emotions. We enjoy a unique cameraderie that we feel only fellow EMS providers can appreciate, which increases our emotional intimacy with one another.
We have a relatively young and active workforce who work shifts at all hours and spend a lot of time at work. There are often stretches of down time while on duty that promote engaging in personal interactions.
Additionally, we’re still a predominately male workforce, with a disproportionate number of male supervisors (compared to other health care organizations) and less direct supervision than many other organizations.
The bottom line is that the EMS workplace is ripe for sexual harassment to occur—which is why leaders must redouble their efforts to eliminate it. This is a fundamental leadership responsibility that requires a strong organizational commitment, as well as the resources to implement that commitment.
Fostering a Harassment-Free Workplace
Unfortunately, we’ve watched EMS leaders literally look the other way when they observe harassment-enabling behavior in the workplace.
We’ve seen weak or non-existent personnel policies, no active training programs to prevent harassment in the first place, and no anonymous reporting systems that EMS staff can safely rely on when concerned about possible harassment or any unlawful discrimination for that matter.
Here are three steps to rectify it:
1. Foster a Culture of Mutual Respect
There must be a top-down, visible commitment from agency leadership that only respectful interactions between staff are acceptable. Leadership must understand their critical role in preventing harassment and must promptly investigate any complaints. Senior leaders set the tone for others to follow, and should actively advocate for mutual respect in the workplace and tolerate nothing less than that. Staff members who respect each other in the workplace are also most likely to respect the patients they serve.
Supervisors are the agents of the company; the agency is automatically liable for any unlawful sexual harassment committed by a supervisor against an employee if there is an adverse action taken against the harassed employee (e.g., improper discipline, suspension, unfavorable work assignments, failure to promote, reassignment to less favorable work duties, unfavorable shift or station assignments, change in benefits, or termination from employment).2
In 2013, the Supreme Court reiterated this employer responsibility for its supervisors, and further stated that employers are liable for sexual harassment by non-supervisors if the employer was “negligent in failing to prevent harassment from taking place.”
In assessing such negligence, the Court explained, “the nature and degree of authority wielded by the harasser is an important factor to be considered in determining whether the employer was negligent.” Also relevant is “[e]vidence that an employer did not monitor the workplace, failed to respond to complaints, failed to provide a system for registering complaints, or effectively discouraged complaints from being filed.”3
2. Stop the Bad Behavior!
All sexually offensive or unwelcome stories, comments, jokes, or innuendos must stop. Unwelcome touching, propositions, or physical contact must stop. Supervisors must create a “no harassment” atmosphere and can’t look the other way when they see improper conduct that could be construed as harassment, or when they receive a report of possible harassment. That means there must be a comprehensive no-harassment policy in place that’s current and communicated to all staff.
Training is key to effectively implementing these policies. Training should be conducted annually (at mnimum) across the entire agency so that all staff know how to recognize improper conduct and how to report it.
Anonymous reporting systems are also integral, since many alleged victims of sexual harassment may not feel comfortable reporting it to their immediate supervisor.
3. Take Swift Action & Investigate Thoroughly
The law requires employers to promptly investigate sexual harassment complaints, to stop any harassment that is occurring, and to take reasonable steps to prevent it from happening in the future.
There’s no legal requirement to terminate the perpetrator, and many factors should be assessed—such as severity and frequency of the conduct, prior occurrences, past work history, and acceptance of responsibility—before deciding the fate of the perpetrator. In some cases, termination of employment may be the necessary action.
EMS agencies must make the investment in time, resources, and money to ensure that this pervasive problem in our industry is eliminated completely. Ridding the workplace of sexual harassment leads to an environment where everyone is comfortable and proud to work.
1. Honeycutt L. Girl talk: An EMS educator reports her findings on the state of women in the industry. JEMS. 1999;24(1):50–53.
2. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (Jun. 18, 1999.) EEOC enforcement guidance on vicarious employer liability for unlawful harassment by supervisors. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved Jan. 16, 2018, at www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/harassment.html.
3. Vance v. Ball State University, 133 S. Ct. 2434 (2013).