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    Teen firefighting volunteer taped to truck, soaked, kicked & dragged by her hair.

    17 year old volunteer was a victim of multiple attacks in the workplaceAll employers should have a robust policy regarding bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace and investigate matters that may impact an employer’s duty to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

    An investigation of alleged misconduct at a Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigade in Bendigo has found a 17 year-old female volunteer was the victim of multiple attacks in the workplace and the young volunteer was the target of multiple hazing incidents, which included being duct-taped to the front of a fire truck, dragged by her hair, kicked and soaked by fire sprinklers. The teenager was also chased and hit with a thong by a volunteer in another incident.

    The investigation revealed that concerns were raised immediately by another volunteer, but they were initially dismissed. The other volunteer raised the issue again three days later with two other senior members of the brigade, which led to CCTV footage that showed four male volunteer firefighters assaulting the young female volunteer, whilst other members observed but did not intervene. The investigation found that the CCTV footage showed that the young volunteer reacted (to being hit with the thong) and appeared to be injured.

    The incident was initially portrayed as “play fighting” by those involved. The footage clearly showed that the young woman was wrestled to the ground by a male volunteer, dragged along the floor, and forced under a fire truck where she was sprayed with water. The Captain of the brigade was involved in all four of the incidents and operated the water jets once the volunteer was under the truck.

    The CFA investigation found that the attack was part of a “pattern of poor behaviour” at the station. It also found:

    • There were cultural problems at the brigade, including a lack of discipline and respect
    • The consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor in at least one of the incidents
    • The brigade was let down by significant leadership deficiencies by its then-captain, who was involved in a number of incidents and displayed a lack of judgement and awareness of his responsibilities as a leader.

    The investigation found that participants in the incidents showed a low understanding or appreciation of CFA Values, and several have shown little or no remorse for their actions.

    There was also an “unwillingness” by some participants to take responsibility for their behaviour, and acknowledge the actual and potential harm of their actions on the physical and mental wellbeing of those involved, the report said.

    In addition to instigating its own investigation, CFA informed Victoria Police, WorkSafe, and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner.

    Two volunteers have been suspended, and others have been disciplined and counselled.

    Other recommendations from the investigation include the banning of “hazing and initiations” from the CFA, strengthening the member selection process and greater training in “CFA values”.

    Underlying cultural problems:

    The allegations themselves indicate that the workplace culture has not changed to reflect community standards or that rogue employees have not been adequately supervised or managed. Even if the incidents could be characterised as “light hearted hazing”, they demonstrate a culture where there is a lack of discipline and respect.

    The nature of the incidents and their repetition indicates a culture that tolerated and condoned bullying of younger and more vulnerable members of the brigade.

    Of most concern was the impact of the behaviour of the Captain on the younger members of the brigade. Many of these young people are at an impressionable age, and were being inducted into a culture that is the antithesis of CFA Values and the Code of Conduct. It would appear that the young members participated in the unacceptable behaviour to gain favour with the Captain and be offered “the first seats on the truck".

    Simply appealing to managers to change behaviours, thinking, values, and beliefs rarely works. Culture is affected by other critical factors - incentives, structures, decision processes, behaviours, people, and controls all affect and shape culture. It's important to understand these dynamic interactions to fully comprehend culture, how to manage it, and how to avoid ineffective, knee-jerk reactions to change it.

    Lessons for Employers - bullying and harassing behaviours:

    Bullying and harassing behaviours can happen at any level and, as an employer, you must takes steps to address it. There are a number of processes that you can implement in your business to help identify, and manage the risk of bullying, such as:

    • Employers should ensure that they are adequately managing workplace culture and behaviours, and setting clear standards for appropriate behaviour at all levels - employers can’t expect to assert the right to take action against employees who they think have misbehaved, if they don’t set out rules on employee conduct in the first place.
    • Employers need to be vigilant and actively manage the risks of such behaviour to protect their business, brand and their employees. They can do this by:
      • Ensuring that they have an adequate workplace behaviour policy and/or code of conduct in place, covering discrimination, bullying and harassment, as well as victimisation, grievance resolution (including investigation processes), and disciplinary action;
      • Ensuring their policies include a complaints handling procedure and a contact for employees to encourage complaints to be dealt with quickly and fairly.
      • Providing regular and refresher training to enforce how central workplace behaviour policies are to your business, and clearly set out the consequences for failure to comply;
      • Consulting with workers – this could include things such as toolbox meetings, staff forums or committees, or conducting an anonymous survey;
      • Conducting exit interviews when employees leave the business;
      • Monitoring absenteeism, sick leave, staff turnover and records of informal or formal grievances; and,
      • Investigating complaints or grievances about alleged bullying or harassing conduct.

    About the author: Craig McFadden is the founding director of Savvy HR. Craig's clear, practical counsel and ability to influence others into action and to rethink traditional HR practices with a business oriented lens, has gained him credibility with CEOs and executive leaders and he is frequently called on to serve as a strategic partner with the primary focus of defining, building and influencing the talent within leadership teams to drive business objectives.

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    Craig McFadden's clear, practical counsel and strong influencing and relationship building skills have gained him credibility at both the executive and line manager level and he is frequently called on to coach managers through complex industrial relations issues, termination or redundancy matters, performance reviews or to prepare for discussions with difficult individuals and team members.

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