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Legal and Psychological Effects of Workplace Harassment


     By M2 Resource Group, Inc Fire & EMS Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling

PhoneCall John K. Murphy JD and Dr. Beth L Murphy PsyD at (206) 940-6502


As firefighters, we thrive on action. We are problem solvers, priding ourselves on working through problems and issues, particularly when called to assist complete strangers, regardless of the hour. We jump on our rigs and arrive at incidents to provide the highest level of service and professionalism to our community. Our question is: Do we provide this high level of service and professionalism to each other?
We see, almost every week and sometimes every day, fire service problems that make headlines in the press. For example, there were recent harmful shenanigans that occurred in a Houston, Texas, department: Veteran female Houston firefighters alleged on-the-job harassment and that their lives were at stake when a noose was hung at Fire Station 41 and an individual painted sexually and racially charged remarks inside Fire Station 54 at the [nearby] airport. The Houston fire chief subsequently stepped down from his post as a result of this turmoil.

What have we become? Are these just isolated incidents, or are they representative of what occurs in our nation’s fire stations? Why is this acceptable in a highly respected profession?

Today, the fire service is overrun with claims and charges of discrimination, workplace harassment, hostile work environment, and other troublesome fire stations activities, and your fire departments are paying extraordinary amounts of money, totaling millions of dollars, to settle these claims and lawsuits. Not only do these claims cost the department money, but they take a toll on the target of the hazing or hostility, the witnesses, the organization, and the confidence and pride of the community for its fire department.

The funds from these lawsuits are better spent elsewhere and make the community question the very integrity of the department they pay for and support. The public record shows what the monetary costs are. Some examples follow.

•An Illinois fire district paid $145,000 to settle two sexual harassment claims. Former paramedics claimed incidents of groping and lewd jokes and that pornographic matter was left lying around.1

•In October 2007, a Los Angeles, California, newspaper headline read: “EEOC targets Los Angeles Fire Department.” After three extraordinary settlements totaling more than $10 million against the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) claims, the federal government has begun an inquiry. The largest of the three claims involved $6.2 million to a former African-American female firefighter who alleged she was subjected to harassment because of her race and sexual orientation. The second settlement, for $1.43 million, went to an African-American firefighter who allegedly was tricked into eating dog food mixed in with a firehouse meal.

•In a sexual discrimination and hostile work environment case, $112,000 was divided among five firefighters. Although it admitted no culpability, the Boone County (MO) Fire Protection District agreed to settle two lawsuits and related claims involving charges of sexual harassment, unlawful discharge, and hostile work environment. The agreement was seen as an effort to end the dispute and limit escalating fees without admitting any guilt and wasted time from ensuring public safety.

•A female fire department paramedic received a $75,000 settlement. Male firefighters forced her to shave her pubic hair in a hazing ritual.2

•The city of Wilmington, Delaware, paid a female firefighter $78,000 to settle her federal sexual harassment and retaliation civil lawsuit.

•A federal jury awarded $658,000 in compensatory and $100,000 in punitive damages to four Mississippi female firefighters who sued over a sexually hostile environment and retaliation by their superiors and coworkers. The alleged misconduct included sexual advances, intimidation, and offering money or gifts in exchange for sex.3

•A jury awarded a female fire captain $347,000. $100,000 was punitive damages for a sexually hostile environment; $50,000 was for retaliation she suffered after reporting the harassment; and $150,000 in punitive damages was for discriminatory treatment. Her attorney was seeking a fee award of about $500,000.4

Hundreds of Claims

Many claims are settled out of court; we know nothing of those details, as settlements are usually confidential. Public lawsuits, however, are well publicized for the entire world to see. They reflect negatively on you, our firefighters, and our industry. The public records available tell only half the story. What aren’t reported are the emotional and psychological costs, which are numerous and not as invisible as we think.

For example, how much sick leave do you use? High sick leave use is a strong indicator of burnout. Burnout is not about the calls but a culmination of experiences both personal and professional that overwhelm the individual’s coping strategies. Although the call types you manage can contribute to the overall job stress, hazing, harassment, and a hostile work environment undermine one of the most prominent coping tools, which is member camaraderie. Hazing and harassment isolate and exclude crew members, whether they are the targets or mere witnesses.

Why is this happening? What happens when we return to the fire station? Is there too much downtime? You may have heard the expression, “Idle hands are a devil’s workshop.” What does this mean for our industry? Why do we engage in this hanky-panky with its potential for adverse outcomes?

Social scientists and psychologists will say that the fire station is a hyper-focused reflection of a community’s cultural mix and bias. When you put the melting pot of America—women, men, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants—into one place, then prejudice and racism can rear its ugly head. What we see are pranks that damage equipment and endanger firefighters’ health, safety, lives, trust, and confidence. Some of those pranks are career ending for both the accused and the victim and erode the trust and confidence among firefighters. It’s all in fun until someone gets hurt—or sued. When we read of these events in the paper, we look inwardly to see what we can do to prevent this in our department and other departments.

This issue’s most unfortunate aspect is that all of the people involved in these situations—the victims, crews, and departments—are forever changed, and no amount of money will fix or eliminate the problem. When firefighters battle a raging fire, the fire isn’t going to discriminate against a person whether he is black, white, or Hispanic. It’s going to treat people equally. Our job is to pull together and take care of a situation without bias or prejudice. Emergency responses can provide that neutral ground. However, most of our shifts are spent at the firehouse.

Let’s look at some common threads that compose these litigious situations. The demographics of our service are generally black, white, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, male, and female. We are short, tall, fat, skinny, fit, unfit, and in between. We are gay, lesbian, and transgender. We are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers. Add to this the ingredients of racism, prejudice, intolerance, jealousy, sexual tension, overt and covert harassment, a hostile working environment, and homophobia and include damaging personal equipment, violating existing state and federal laws, intolerance of others’ beliefs, poor leadership and management, lack of policy, nonexistent discipline, and institutional silence (no one seeing or witnessing any inappropriate conduct). Mix this all together to get a lawsuit, ruined careers, and workplace distrust and disruption. We all know this is happening. Are you willing to step up to the plate and say “Enough!”?

We have conducted enough internal investigations for harassment and other negative firefighter behavior where those interviewed say, “We all knew about it. It has been going on for years. We thought someone else was going to take care of it.” Well, no one else stepped up to the plate, and that’s why we were there that day. Is this institutional silence? Could you have made a difference if you spoke up? Another key issue that promotes litigation is a poor or nonexistent response to complaints by management. In numerous instances, an aggrieved firefighter will say, “I made a written complaint to the chief, and he didn’t do anything about it.”

What is in our culture and tradition that creates an intolerant or hostile working environment for a firefighter who doesn’t look like “us” or have the same belief system, heritage, skin color, or gender? Why would we violate each other’s rights and liberties? Why doesn’t the fire service protect life and property and treat other firefighters in our “home” with the respect each of us would like to receive? Much of that “to protect life and property” starts in your fire station.

Most combination and career fire departments’ work schedules place us in a situation where we live together for about one-third of our lives. This is probably more time than we spend with our spouse or significant other. Why do we engage in activity that makes those living conditions intolerable for some, uncomfortable for others, and miserable for all? Do we go to work thinking that we are going to make fellow firefighters’ lives miserable for 24 hours? Is this the plan? What does that say about us?

We live in a fishbowl, and our communities are watching us on- and off-duty. What we do and say reflects on the fire service as a whole. If bad on- and off-duty conduct by a few gets to the media, then our entire industry is judged by those actions. This is not limited to career or combination departments but applies to volunteer departments as well. Are these actions a true reflection of the fire service and what really occurs after the apparatus backs into the station and the door closes? We all want to say “No,” but what goes on behind closed doors is disturbing and not the way to view the fire service’s men and women.

We believe that it is only a small but highly visible problem caused by a small but highly agitating firefighter population. Do firefighters become intolerant jerks after a few years of working in a fire station? Is our moral compass affected by all of the smoke, heat, and chemicals, or do we come to the fire station with prejudices, hatreds, and a desire to make everyone at the station look like us, and to hell with the minorities and women—they don’t belong here anyway, so who cares?

Are we hiring the right people? Not the ones with a sense of humor and thick skin to tough it out, but the ones who take the profession seriously and reflect that attitude on calls and in the firehouse. I believe we are hiring the right people, but a few bad apples slip through the cracks and make our lives miserable. Look at the legal settlements; those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds if not thousands of settlements across the country brought on by firefighters against other firefighters and their departments, with judgments and confidential settlements totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is a waste of human and financial capital. How do we screen out this behavior during our hiring processes? There are no simple solutions—just hard choices.

What are the long-term effects on our communities and the fire service from this behavior? Thousands of young men and women line up all over the country vying for a chance to become firefighters. Most do not make it through the screening process; the lucky few have a great, problem-free career. Some of them run into problems from their first day on the job, and it never gets better. They eventually sue the department and leave a career that they have chosen—forever.

Why do we, as leaders, allow this to occur? Are we weak and afraid to enforce zero-tolerance policies, or are we like the bad apples and secretly wish to behave like that because “they” are not like us? Whatever the reason, as humans, we need to treat each other as we treat those to whom we respond.

We are the customer, too, and need to leave our prejudices, bias, hatreds, intolerances, and undesirable conduct at the front door of the fire station. We don’t care what you do in your home, but when you are in “our house,” you had better mind your manners or go find another job—one that will tolerate your rude and discourteous behavior. You won’t survive out there either, because you’ll eventually irritate somebody else and get sued or fired.

Our industry’s leadership needs to get serious about how we treat each other. What starts at your home and affects your family spreads to your fire station and your firefighter family. As a fire chief, officer, or firefighter, you have a direct influence on these fire station events. It’s difficult making the leap from a firefighter to a fire officer, but you need to understand that your firefighter friends view you differently. As the fire officer or chief, you must be proactive in eliminating those in-house issues that affect your fire station.

What are the long-term effects of workplace harassment and continuous litigation on the fire service? Attorneys know it is expensive at many levels of the organization. Litigation costs a lot of money; destroys careers, lives, and reputations; alters the workplace character; and breaks apart the trust so important to us as firefighters. Chief officers know that it destroys the fabric of our fire service society. Psychologists know there are long-term adverse psychological effects that plague future employment and overall relationships. There are occurrences of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and even suicide because of workplace harassment and a hostile environment. We know that what the fire service is currently doing is not working, and it affects all of us.

Even those not directly affected or involved in harassment, hazing, and discrimination are affected—it’s called collateral damage. To those bystanders, we say, “Get involved and demonstrate intolerance to intolerance.”
Our industry is under mission-sensitive pressure to become an all-hazards provider to our communities. The days of only fighting fires are long gone. There is tremendous financial pressure on our local governments to fund unfunded mandates from the federal government and those created by our own elected officials. We look to the public for support. If we behave badly, then we lose our credibility and community status. We begin to look like other municipal services and are subject to draconian reductions in personnel, fire stations, and equipment. How can we serve the public under these conditions?

There are more questions than answers. Leadership and firefighters must question certain conduct and create a forum for discussion and, hopefully, solutions related to this major fire service issue. The right training, external and internal self-assessment, and other tools help identify and mitigate these internal legal hazards. We do ourselves a huge service by treating each other with dignity and respect.

The point of this article is to discuss the “elephant in the room” of intolerance and discrimination; identify how you can make a difference and, if you see yourself in this article, find a way to be tolerant in the workplace and take your hostile work conduct, prejudices, hatreds, and intolerances to your own home.

We will not accept you as the status quo.

Endnotes

1. Jones and L’Heureux v. Cary Fire Prot. Dist., (Unrptd. N.D. Ill. 2000).
2. Bryne v. City, L.A. Co. Sup’r Ct. of Judge H. Ackerman (2/22/84).
3. Alexander v. Jackson, #3:04-cv-614, Pacer Doc. 168 & 169 (S.D. Miss. 2007).
4. Kline v. City of Kansas City, #94-0723-CV-W-3, 35 (1743) G.E.R.R. (BNA) 1567 (W.D.Mo. 1997).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John K. Murphy JD and Dr. Beth L Murphy PsyD
John K. Murphy, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO is a 32-year fire service veteran and a retired deputy chief with more than 20 years of experience as a paramedic firefighter. He is a practicing attorney focusing on employment practice liability and policy; training safety and practices; forensic evaluation on fire operations; internal investigations; and risk management consulting for private and public entities. He is a licensed physician’s assistant focusing on urgent and emergency care.

Beth L Murphy, PsyD, LMHC, retired after 12 years of service as a firefighter/EMT; a hazmat unit member; and a peer support team member, providing day-to-day support to fire personnel dealing with critical incident stress management. She is a practicing clinician focusing on workplace stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer survivors, and traumatic brain injury. Her population focus is on police and fire agencies and military personnel.

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While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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