Today’s Burning Question: I am a fire chief and two of my firefighters, a male and a female, were in a relationship that appears to have ended badly. They continued to work together until recently when they filed sexual harassment charges against each other. The EEO investigators were not able to verify either side’s allegations. What is evident is that they cannot continue to work together so I transferred them both. Now the woman is claiming I retaliated against her for filing her sexual harassment complaint. What should I have done?
Answer: Chief, you were (and are) in a no win situation where no matter what you do, one or both of them will be upset… maybe even upset enough to sue.
In the real life version of the story, Hunstville, Alabama firefighter Donna Grimwood is now asking the city council to intervene on her behalf following her transfer from the city’s hazmat team. Grimwood complained that her ex-boyfriend propositioned her for sex, belittled her in front of other personnel, and grabbed her breasts, while the ex-boyfriend made counter allegations of sexual harassment.
Following an investigation that was inconclusive, Fire Chief Mike Sublett opted to transfer both members out of the hazmat team. The move cost each of the firefighters a 5% special assignment pay.
Last night, the Huntsville City Council debated the matter, prompting one councilman, David Showers to state ”A person – man or woman – ought not be penalized for coming forward.” Great… thanks for that bit of enlightenment, Councilman. So following your logic the fire chief should do nothing and leave them to work together?
I am sorry for the sarcasm – but an oversimplistic approach to these complicated cases is not limited to politicians, and is part of the problem. All too often attorneys who represent parties in cases like this have a similarly narrow focus that tends to make it impossible to reach a solution that is mutually acceptable to all parties. Lawyers call it zealous representation – but it can create an obstacle for fire service leaders seeking to do the right thing.
Chief Sublett – I feel your pain. Assuming your investigators did a reasonable job of investigating the allegations, I don’t know what else you could have done.
Note: Chief Sublett did not ask this question – the info came from the news stories on the case.