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Human Resources - Not necessarily your friend.

Many fire organizations have Human Resources (HR) departments that deal with many of the issues related to the needs of firefighters and staff. HR deals with recruiting and hiring new firefighters, providing information about medical benefits and compensation, ensuring compliance with laws and ordinances, providing a pathway to local EAP Programs and responsible for employee development and firefighter training supporting your training division. HR is responsible for supporting diversity and inclusion.

Most importantly, your HR department is responsible for providing a resource for internal complaints and investigation of policy violations and a resource for firefighters who are filing a complaint of discrimination, harassment, hazing or bullying. HR departments should be the safety valve for aggrieved employees who need a place to file a complaint if the person violating policy is your supervisor.

Fire Service discrimination claims are the largest source of litigation with the highest payout. Essentially, we sue ourselves due to bad behavior between firefighters in spite of numerous federal laws and department policies designed to prevent discrimination, hazing, harassment and bullying.

What is your HR department doing to prevent this bad behavior and when reported, what occurs to stop the behavior?

Here is a surprising observation - HR was never meant for your protection in discrimination cases. Shocking?

There are a few national cases in the private sector that have come to light that place the effectiveness and efficiency of a HR department in question and several experiences from my dealings with firefighters on discrimination claims lend credibility to those observations.  

One recent national case involved a female working for Kleiner Perkins, a venture capitalist firm, suing for gender discrimination.  She lost the case but points out an important issue that the HR department in this company was more interested in protecting the employer than the employee. It is not new news that employee behavior, policy and ethical violations cause problems at work. The bigger questions is “where is the HR department on these issues?”

In theory, HR, with all of their other responsibilities, is designed to be the buffer between the employee and employer – protecting the firefighter in times of stress and discriminatory actions in a complex world on the human side of the fire department. If HR is “non-supportive” then where do firefighters go to find relief for discriminatory behavior? Generally they file a complaint and claim with their respective State or the Feds.

In defense of the HR directors and staff, I have worked with some great individuals who are well trained, certified, qualified and genuinely interested in employee relations and in the prevention of discrimination within the department. That may be due to organizational culture that has good enforceable polices in place and a culture of preventing discrimination. When the HR staff are in tune with the employees, they can address bad behavior, prevent discriminatory behavior and discrimination claims. This is not an easy job when you are dealing with people’s biases, personalities, and belief systems while providing guidance on the right thing to do.

In my legal experience while representing clients, I have found some HR division managers are non-responsive, staff untrained or ineffective and/or providing the aggrieved employee the wrong information or no information causing litigation action against the department.

Many times HR works to protect the employer and not the employee, remembering HR is part of the fire department organization who works for the employer and not the employee. We have all had unsatisfying encounters with HR when they do not seem to be a part of the employee group and support management policy, ignore current policy or ignore the damage a problem employee can do.

In an article entitled, Why Women do not Report Sexual Harassment, employers, judges and juries often use women’s failure to report harassment as evidence that it was not a problem or that plaintiff(s) had other motives. The article indicates that only a 25% to 30% of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and those who actually file a formal complaint fear retaliation including demotion, reduction in pay and rank in the organization up to termination. Some employees don’t report a problem because they don’t think their experience qualifies as illegal harassment. This is not only a woman’s issue, but for the male firefighters as well that may be white, older, people of color or holding certain religious beliefs or other issues that do not fit into the “unwritten culture” of the organization.  

Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or suffer societal and professional retaliation. This is coupled with the hostility from supervisors leading to a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities.

I have stated often in my writings or lectures that well written Policies are the best defense against preventing discrimination between employees and preventing litigation. Interestingly, poorly written or employer centric policies and grievance procedures often end up creating obstacles to a firefighters ability to assert their rights. Many times fire departments craft polices, “as mini litigation defense centers.” The way employers write these policies is to prepare a strong defense to show a court or jury that they did everything they could to manage a complaint, rather than to protect employees in the workplace.”

Your HR department should always be a safety net for your employees with the employers’ interests in mind.

Here are some take-away’s:

  • Hire or train the right people for your HR department.
  • If the department cannot afford in-house resource, look to outsource that function with your closest municipality or another fire department.
  • Provide additional human focused and communication training for your HR department and all of the employees
  • Create Polices that protect the employees and the employer.
  • Be quick to discourage bad behavior by employees. If there is an issue, it is imperative that swift action take place to correct this behavior.
  • Have an open door with a confidential approach to employee complaints. Have a fair, fast and confidential process to mitigate complaints and problems.
  • Create an investigatory process that is fair, efficient and is designed to seek the truth to any allegation or complaint

Finally, it is imperative that the Fire Chief, their officer staff and firefighters walk-the-talk about fair, equitable and intelligent polices with enforcement of those policies creating a diverse and inclusive environment free from harassment and discrimination.


Why Women do not Report Sexual Harassment: Women at Work. New York Times April 10, 2017

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