Sexual Harassment: R-E-S-P-E-C-T in Fire Departments

By: Amy Epstein Gluck

Damn, I miss Aretha.

Back, way back, in early 2016, I told you here about a Colorado fire department’s $75,000 settlement with a former female firefighter to settle claims of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The woman had filed a complaint with the EEOC (a complainant’s necessary first step prior to filing a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment) alleging:

  1. Her fellow firefighters left porn all over the firehouse for her to see;
  2. Her colleagues continuously made inappropriate sexual comments to her about women; and
  3. Though many of the incidents occurred in front of her supervisors, not only did they do nothing to stop it, but, she alleged that her superiors themselves then left porn in the bathrooms and in places she was sure to find it.

Good employment practices? Um, no. This is all in good fun, right? No, no, no.

Then, a little later in the year, I told you about another fire department way across the country in Rhode Island. There, male employees allegedly continuously and repeatedly referred to fellow firefighter (pun intended) Lieutenant Lori Franchina as “Frangina” —as in, rhymes with vagina.

Smart, huh? Catchy, right?

Not so much when you consider that the lieutenant’s alleged that her colleagues subjected her to relentless sexual harassment over the course of about seven years based on her sex and sexual orientation.

Lt. Franchina’s male colleagues also subjected her to such intense and constant mistreatment that she was left in multiple situations where her actual safety was compromised, and one colleague declared “normally, I don’t like working with women” and “Are you a lesbian, or are you just doing everybody?”

Lt. Franchina also alleged that for years, her colleagues subjected her to harassment, disrespect, and other sex-based comments. They refused to assist her, yet they had no problem assisting each other.

Then, I followed up on this case in November 2016 when the jury came back with a verdict: $800,000 in damages and nearly $183,843 in attorneys’ fees. The jury found that Lt. Franchina had been relentlessly harassed and discriminated against based on her gender and sexual orientation.

So, What’s New?

Well, I’ll tell you. This past weekend, we learned that a federal jury awarded a whopping $3.35 million to a female ex-firefighter in Ohio who says that she was the longtime victim of sexual harassment at work.

The former firefighter claimed that her male colleagues tampered with her equipment, destroyed her clothing, and hurled gender-related slurs at her repeatedly. She also said she was required to meet tougher training and work standards than male counterparts and was denied promotions because she was a woman.

Then, the lawsuit alleged that the harassment worsened after she reported it to her superiors.

Why is sexual harassment this endemic in so many fire departments?

Inquiring minds want to know. I want to know.

So I did a little digging. And I found testimony I had never read before from Dr. Lilia Cortina, a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, on the EEOC’s website.

(Cue: Hail to the Victors)

Scientific Basis for Sexual Harassment

Among other questions, Dr. Cortina considered: What causes sexual harassment? Are there particular risk factors that create an environment where harassment is more likely to occur? Is there a profile of a likely harasser? Relevant to my questions, Dr. Cortina stated that researchers’ efforts to characterize a “typical harasser” have been largely unsuccessful.

So what gives? Why is firefighting such a dangerous line of work for women even where there’s no fire?

I find a clue in this statement from Dr. Cortina:

[T]he scientific community widely recognizes that it is organizational conditions, rather than individual characteristics, that most powerfully predict sexual harassment. Organizations characterized by (1) a skewed gender ratio, such that most employees are male, (2) job duties and tasks that are historically masculine in nature, and (3) organizational tolerance of offensive behavior typically have far greater problems with sexual harassment.

As to numbers 1 and 2, ohhhhh. I get it. That might explain why sexual harassment seems so prevalent in fire departments, judging by the caselaw, which are often male-dominated actually and historically.

But what about #3? Dr. Cortina stated that organizational “tolerance” is the single most powerful factor in determining whether sexual harassment will occur. She noted that “[s]tudies have shown that strict management norms and a climate that does not tolerate offensive behavior can inhibit harassment, even by those with a propensity toward such conduct.”

You can read her entire testimony here. In any event, this sounds familiar and certainly makes sense.

My partner Rich Cohen wrote about the scientifically-proven significance of organizational climate here, where he noted: a major study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering said that “the strongest, most potent predictor of sexual harassment is essentially the culture of the company ― what the researchers call ‘organizational climate.’”

We preach ad nauseum, ad infinitum that employers must have a top-down commitment to equality, anti-discrimination, and anti-harassment. Juries are Not. Having. It. Any. More.

Remember, here, a federal jury in New York just awarded $425,000 to a woman subjected to unremitting harassment where the district manager ignored her complaints.

Employer Takeaway 

Organizational tolerance or climate must be part of your HR planning. What kind of culture is your workplace breeding? What model are you, as the employer, displaying?

C-suite executives, supervisors, and managers can create a zero-tolerance workplace free of harassment or can create a culture of harassment. As Rich said, people, as well as ducks, tend to “follow the leader.”

A fire department may not be able to control that most of its employees are male or that such job duties have been viewed as historically masculine. However, a fire department, like any employer, can control the climate and tone of the workplace by setting it to begin with.

What example are you setting? One of R-E-S-P-E-C-T or perpetuating sexual harassment?

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Amy Epstein Gluck

Amy Epstein Gluck has represented individuals and corporate clients in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and various federal district courts for more than twenty years. Ms. Epstein Gluck’s current practice areas include employment law—advising on and drafting employment agreements; handling employment negotiations, severance agreements, noncompete and nondisclosure agreements, “wrongful terminations” and other EEO matters; representation at the EEOC level; advising employers about discrimination laws and how to remain in compliance, and employment negotiations.