We hear more and more about bullying in the fire service, but what is it really, and what’s the impact? The actual term “workplace bullying” was introduced in the 1990s, and researchers have since struggled to identify a concise definition.1 Workplace bullying is often described as a counterproductive workplace behavior that includes mistreatment and persistent abuse in the workplace leading to an imbalance of power, distress, and humiliation. 2,3 The United States Department of Labor (DOL) indicates almost two million Americans report being a victim of workplace violence annually. The DOL also states bullying is any act or threat in the workplace of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or disruptive behavior that is threatening. With workplace bullying, the violator acts with specific intent to cause harm to a coworker in a way that causes serious social, psychological, or psychosomatic distress to the victim.4 The actual behaviors involved in workplace bullying range from subtle behavior (excessive work assignments, jokes, gossiping, and overmonitoring) to the more extreme behaviors (violence, aggression, threats, and insults).5 Unfortunately for the fire service, the DOL reports that public service workers are said to be at a higher risk for workplace violence than other professions.
The Impact of Bullying
Bullying in the workplace can have a significant impact on both employees and the organization as a whole. The health impact to employees experiencing bullying can include insomnia, depression, anxiety, irritability, isolation, illness, and low job satisfaction. (1)6,7 Post-traumatic stress disorder has also been reported as a long-term effect of workplace bullying. (1) Unfortunately, prolonged exposure to bullying in the workplace has in some cases led to self-destruction and suicide.8 In 2010, suicide was reported as the leading cause of death in the workplace, with 1,719 employees committing suicide in the American workplace over a three-year span.9 Employees bullied are said to be six times as likely to report suicidal ideations compared to those in the workplace not being targeted. (9)
The impact of workplace bullying can also differ by gender. Forms of workplace violence targeted toward women are usually subtle. Women who experience bullying in the workplace have higher rates of long-term sickness and health issues.10 Researchers indicate men are more likely to work through any ailments stemming from bullying or find another job, while women often stay in the workplace because of limited job options. (10) Compared to male firefighters, the risk of female firefighters facing mental health issues is significantly higher because of an increase level of discrimination. Discrimination among female firefighters can negatively impact mental health and result in lower retention.11 Negative attitudes toward females from male counterparts create difficulty in developing a positive work environment and affect the overall job satisfaction of the female firefighter. Female firefighters are at risk of higher anxiety, exposure to sexism, lower job association, and higher levels of coworker conflict. (11)
Workplace bullying goes beyond the individual impact; it can also lead to negative consequences for a fire department’s reputation and overall effectiveness. High employee turnover and legal involvement are common among organizations with a bullying presence. The negative media associated with bullying allegations can negatively impact how the community supports the fire department. Organizations infested with bullying behaviors also can have negative impacts on the development, productivity, and effective engagement of employees. The bottom line: Bullying can have a negative cost to human and financial resources in the fire service.
Incidents of bullying are most prevalent in fire departments with poor leadership and inadequate polices to address bullying. There is a need for organizations to set no-tolerance policies for bullying and implement high expectations for leadership enforcement. Common strategies to prevent bullying include (a) clear workplace roles and policies, (b) employee training, (c) a formal process for bullying management and resolution, and (d) mentoring.
Clear workplace roles with implemented policies. Organizations can reduce the chances of bullying environments by developing policies that outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.12 Consequences for violators should be made clear to all firefighters during onboarding and reviewed annually. Bullying policies should include a definition of workplace bullying as defined by the organization, behavioral expectations, disciplinary actions for violators, and the process for reporting such instances. (6) With the high use of social media, it is also important that policies address online behaviors. Online bullying can have the same damaging impact as face-to-face bullying.13 Employers can be held liable if they fail to address online harassment in the workplace, as evidenced by the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in Blakey v. Continental Airlines related to cyberspace harassment charges. (13)
Employee training. Continuous employee training on workplace violence can reduce the incidence of workplace bullying in the fire service. Fire departments should develop and provide training to firefighters at every level. Training should include both organizational expectations and behavior policies. Training all firefighters on what workplace bullying is, and the impact from it, can assist with developing a streamlined approach to addressing and preventing the problem.
A formal process to address bullying and early resolution. Implementing a formal process for bullying management is important for addressing workplace bullying. Addressing the issue early on can reduce the negative impact to both the employee and the fire department. Early action by leadership can reduce the chance of repeat offenses and the chance of a lawsuit.14 There is a need for department leadership to address the problem early on with the individual committing the offense, with the victim, and with any firefighters who may have been exposed to the behavior. Each action taken to address the alleged bullying behavior, from the time the incident is reported, should be well documented by leadership.
Mentoring. Offering a mentoring system for new employees is another method to reduce bullying in the workplace. (14) Strong mentors can set the tone for expectations and challenge unacceptable behavior in the fire department. When poor behavior is not challenged, a new employee may have the perception the group is approving of the negative behavior.15 A trained mentor can address such misperceptions and set the tone for the culture by intervening. Mentoring programs can assist in developing a positive organizational environment, which in turn contributes to greater organizational commitment and psychological contract. (12)
Ignoring the Problem
The fire service was founded on integrity and public trust. Reports of bullying in a single fire department can have a negative impact on the entire industry. A bullying environment is not one that will disappear on its own. Leaders who fail to address the problem run the risk of a lack of confidence from their employees, a nonproductive environment, high turnover, costly investigations/lawsuits, and a lack of stakeholder trust. Providing training and awareness to fire department members can help reduce the risk. Organizations that thrive are invested in creating an environment of professionalism and a safe work environment to foster employees.
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