Sexual harassment has many forms.
The types of sexual harassment can range from subtle remarks about sex and gender, sexually explicit jokes, sharing or posting social media with sexual graphics, messages or video, to standing too close or inappropriate touching.
Usually when these things happen, the perpetrator knows they’ve crossed a line — as does the recipient.
But all too often, when sexual indiscretions transpire, people choose to turn a blind eye, said Scott Moore, Esq., EMT, a longtime EMS provider and attorney with Massachusetts-based Moore EMS Consulting, LLC. The firm specializes in human resources, employment and labor law.
Often, sexual harassment goes unnoticed or unreported because of the perpetrators’ backhanded delivery. And it would likely warrant a “What did you just say to me?” moment.
“About 90% of sex harassment (situations) are more subtle in the sense that there are words that can be taken in one or two ways or they tend to be innuendo or offensive comments,” Moore said.
Address sexual harassment quickly
When inappropriate behavior starts, Moore said it’s critical to address it right away. The worst thing to do is ignore it because it could get worse. Setting respectful boundaries is important.
“What matters is that you respond to it in an appropriate way,” Moore said. “Say, ‘Stop, that’s not OK.’ And you should be reporting the behavior and setting standards about what is and is not acceptable.”
Moore recently developed a series of training videos called “Finding the Line” that address sexual and gender-related harassment in the EMS profession.
During fiscal year 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 66 harassment suits, of which 41 held sexual harassment allegations. That is a 50% increase compared to fiscal year 2017 for sexual harassment, according to the EEOC.
More people are speaking out thanks to the #MeToo movement that has brought to light numerous allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein and other public officials for sexual misconduct at work.
No doubt, the list of male-dominated jobs in the U.S. is a long one.
- The National Fire Protection Association estimates females make up just 7% of fire service jobs.
- The International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service estimates a mere 150 females hold positions as district chiefs, battalion chiefs, division chiefs or assistant chiefs.
The lack of female representation often makes it challenging to balance the scales when females demand equal rights or push for change.
For example, the organization notes fire stations are designed for one gender in terms of sleeping quarters, bathing and restrooms. And it highlights sexual harassment and hostile behavior as top concerns among female firefighters.
How to enact change
So you’re probably wondering what’s needed to ignite real change around fixing sexual harassment issues in the workplace. Training could be thought of as the appetizer, while strong leadership is the main course.
“Training doesn’t change behaviors, particularly in fire and EMS,” said Robert P. Avsec, executive fire officer and retired battalion chief with Chesterfield County Fire and EMS in Virginia. “Training is where you develop hands-on skills that are critical to being a firefighter, paramedic or EMT.”
He said it’s up to leadership to explain the consequences so employees understand what happens when they violate those expectations.
“It starts at the top of the organization,” Avsec said. “Whether it’s a fire chief or chief paramedic, these people need to lay out expectations with clear procedures and policies.”
If an employee steps outside the lines and creates a hostile work environment, from inappropriate jokes to making unwanted sexual advances, stiff consequences help people ponder their actions.
For example, three days off with no pay could be a consequence, Avsec said.
Creating a culture of respect and specific standards helps employees create boundaries around acceptable behavior, according to Moore.
“As a leader, your DNA has changed from employee to leader and you have a job to establish, maintain and clearly communicate the culture in an organization,” Moore said.
Look outside your organization
Avsec is all for more men who stand up and champion the idea that everyone has the right to a safe work environment.
“It’s got to be men stepping up and saying, ‘That’s wrong. Stop it.’ And if they don’t stop, then taking it to the next level into the official realm,” Avsec said. This includes reporting sexual harassment grievances to first-level supervisors.
There are unlimited stories about why people do not report sexual harassment.
Fear is likely the No. 1 reason. Plenty of documented cases prove female whistleblowers experience punitive outcomes — from bonus cuts to limited career opportunities.
To effect real change, Avsec suggests organizations empower the less-dominant people in the organization.
This includes hiring more people of color and females. Understanding the value of diversity helps strengthen organizations, he added.
“When we had promotion panels, at least one person was a female and she worked in the budget department for the county,” Avsec said. “If you don’t have resources within your (organization), look at businesses in your community. It might be a female branch manager from the bank.”