I recently read about a man who died by suicide because of workplace bullying. In an effort to support first responders and their families who suffer, I tell the following true stories.
When I first joined the volunteer fire service, my training as a manager drew my attention to what I soon discovered to be a common dynamic.
When there aren’t a lot of fires to fight, firefighters tend to fight with each other.
I heard a story about a Captain in a fire department who wanted a change in leadership. He was nominated as Deputy Chief for the next election. Between the nomination and the election, the current Chief suspended him for missing a fundraising bingo. Because he was suspended, he was ineligible to run for office.
In another department, I saw a Deputy Chief rising in popularity. In his newly acquired position as First Deputy, he was one step away from being elected as Chief, and this didn’t sit too well with some.
One day the membership was informed the Deputy was suspended for embezzlement. We were shocked, confused and paralyzed in our response. We were told to wait for more information but soon the rumours began.
Victim of the rumour mill
Some said he kept money owed to other firefighters for reimbursed expenses. Others that he was using a special discount for fire department purchases for his personal business.
The Chief forbade the Board to speak to the Deputy due to ongoing investigations. In the ensuing chaotic atmosphere, the Deputy was isolated by being cut off from his peers, and the accusation of embezzlement in was soon heard by his employer.
Knowing only the rumours and accusations, the membership voted to dismiss the First Deputy from duty.
A police investigation eventually cleared the Deputy of all charges, but no official announcement was made to the membership.
In some ways, we lose more firefighters from the trauma of abusive politics and mismanagement than we do from horrifying images seen on the fireground.
No due process for accused
In Nova Scotia, one of the perks firefighters receive is free license plates. Volunteer firefighters must attend 20% of calls, 20% of meetings and 20% of practices.
In this example, the individual, who had achieved level two training as a firefighter (the highest training available) was also an experienced and qualified padre. He was concerned with bullying in the department and was vocal about the violations the Chief and Board were committing.
One day, he received a call from another member that his bunker gear was removed from his locker. The Board had decided he could not be both a firefighter and a padre.
Although he attended practice and alarms, his attendance at practice was no longer recorded and his signature on the sign-in sheet for the calls was crossed out. Without the calls, he would lose his free license plates.
The padre continued to speak out against bullying. He continued to question the actions fo the Chief and Board, and it wasn’t long before he was dropped from the department altogether. The firefighting padre was told that his services were no longer required.
It wasn’t until two years later, through government access to information, that the padre found out the Chief and the Chair of the Board had filed a complaint of breach of confidentiality as the basis of that dismissal. The Board of Management never asked, investigated, nor gave due process to the complaint.
The padre was bullied even as he spoke out against it.
A long road to recovery
In each of these cases, the individual’s own reputation and hard work showed the accusations were untrue but the path to recovery was long as relationships, resources, and reputation take considerable time to heal.
In the above cases, the pattern of manipulation is visible because it is a common style of management. First, isolate the intended victim. Second, recruit other members through gossip. Third, create a moral crisis demanding immediate action, one which causes the accused to appear immoral, incompetent or irrelevant, so the natural conclusion is to punish the accused by dismissing him/her.
Then, the perpetrators continue to tell the story in case there is any doubt. These bullies work on the premise that if you tell a story enough times, people will come to believe it as fact. When there are are no alternative stories or any reality checks available, the perpetrators succeed.
The trauma of personal betrayal
The resulting trauma is complex because it contains all three types of flashbacks: direct, indirect and dynamic.
Direct flashbacks are associated with and triggered by objects and dates related to the incident. Examples include the specific location of certain fire calls, the fire hall itself, certain department members, the town and certain dates.
Indirect flashbacks are associated with emotional states and feelings. When vulnerability, overwhelm and anxiety appear, threatening incidents are triggered because of memories associated with the emotional state of vulnerability.
Dynamic flashbacks are triggered by verbs, body language, and tone of voice. Raised voices, autocratic styles of leadership, and manipulation flash the person back in time to the traumatic moment of a previous incident. The difficulty is that the coping resources available are the ones available where the flashback takes you, not the resources in the present.
The personal betrayal in the traumatic situations described above obliterates any sense of personal safety. Often the accused may wish to never speak about it because talking about it flashes them back to the moment of betrayal, causing them to relive the event each time it is remembered.
As a therapist, I recognize trauma at the hands of bullies is not restricted to first responders.
It’s far too common in the experience of high school students, nurses, cleaning staff, secretaries, social workers and many others. It touches every organization, trade and business.
Bullying happens often because it works often.
Do you have a story about a bad manager? Have you been falsely accused and a victim of gossip and are unable to clear yourself? I can help you work through the trauma.