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September 23, 2002
Leadership 101: The Intimidator, Part II
By Thomas M. Cunningham
US Naval Academy Fire Department

How do you as a firefighter, lieutenant, captain, or chief deal with an intimidating superior? Superiors who bully or intimidate fire department employees or volunteers can be a real problem not only for the employee’s health, but that of the organizations as well. 

Scientific studies on employee bullying have shown that 4 out of 5 workers equaling 23 million employees experience this type of treatment in the workplace. In 41% of these situations, employees will experience to varying degrees clinical depression. This can cause symptoms such as sleep disorders, ulcers, high blood pressure and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-confidence is pummeled and leaves the victims feeling inadequate and isolated. And now you know the answer to why employees may go “postal.”

Studies show an overly aggressive boss can cause higher than normal turnover rates, a reduction in productivity, increased employee absences, low moral, and legal challenges to the department. But first you must separate the intimidator from other types of superiors. Some superiors are excellent, and some superiors are just in the way. Remember some superiors feel that by having the subordinate officers or firefighters under their thumb, placing the pressure on them to perform, submit, or conform, that this is a motivational tool that they best understand and have chosen to use. Demanding managers are the norm and not the exception, in some cases the superior may appear to be intimidating, its up to the employee to differentiate between intimidating and just tough.

Aggressive supervisors use a pattern of small and insidious events or actions, or both over a long period of time. Each individual act in itself may not seem abusive, but when added together the collective effect results in the working environment being both unbearable and excruciating for the employee who is being targeted by the superior. This in itself is not a very good business practice regardless of the industry.

Some superiors may be considered “tough,” in that they usually operate under a simple framework of  'Here are the goals that need to be reached, and if they are not reached here are the consequences.” While the intimidating superior will see information as power and will use it to terrorize and impair the target employee.

To help you distinguish whether their style is bullying or intimidating to others ask yourself these simple questions:
1. Do you feel that the superior has a history of intimidating behavior when dealing with subordinate employees or in your personal dealings with them?

2. Do you feel that the superior may harm subordinates or you by their behavior, either emotionally or physically?

3. Does the superior regularly demean or humiliate employees?

4. Have they lied, yelled at, or subjected subordinates to behavior that others might find objectionable?

If you answered yes to all of these four questions, then your superior may be a tyrant. If you got three correct than they can be suspected of having tendencies leaning towards intimidating behavior. If you answered two correctly than they may be on their way to becoming intimidating or they may be just be medieval in their ways of operation.

Employees who must deal with this superior must realize that they cannot change another person entirely, you can modify the behavior directed at you (if not towards others). Move towards a discussion about the situation that you perceive is happening, making sure that it is conducted in private. The aggressive superior may interpret this session as being confrontational. Explain to the superior that you feel certain behavior that they exhibit (such as being yelled at or cursed at) is not an effective way for you or anyone else in the workplace to be managed.
An employee who meets with an aggressive superior should focus their conversation only on their specific behaviors, and may add recent examples or incidents of the behavior that the fire officer exhibits.
Some examples of this could be:

"When you ridiculed me in front of the crew about my use of leave last shift since I didn’t have a baby sitter that day. And your comment about if I couldn’t find a baby sitter than maybe I ought to find another job.”

“That you have a problem with me seeking higher education by going to college? At dinner on Tuesday's night (and in front of the crew), you made specific comments about how you got your bugles on a high school education, and what was I trying to prove?  That maybe I am smarter than my fellow firefighters? That you as the officer made statements like this thus making it difficult and uncomfortable for me to work with the members of my crew for a couple shifts due to their feelings of resentment towards me over your comments."

“ You made comments about my union activities and stated that the union isn’t anything.”

As the grievant that approaches a superior about the intimidation, you must communicate to them that you need to receive feedback in private from this individual such as when you have made a mistake or an act of poor judgment. Prior to having this conversation with the superior, it may be beneficial you to talk to someone whose judgment you trust about your concerns over this problem. This person may be able to provide important insight for you, and may make some suggestions that assist you in formulating the meetings agenda, this is done in order to cover all the important aspects or points that need to be addressed. As a grievant it may help to practice or rehearse the agenda, this will help with the conformability factor as you face the superior about your concerns over the situation situation.

The Meeting:
1. You want to take into the (private) conversation feelings of calm too avoid a confrontation with the superior.

2. “Have all your ducks in a row,” meaning “be factual” do not add or let unnecessary subjects enter into the conversation as this may derail the intent of your meeting.

3. In some cases, you may want to bring a witness or neutral party to the meeting.

4. You may suggest to the superior a private meeting place that is neutral ground for both of you, and the time that you wish for this to take place.

What to expect?
a. An aggressive superior who is out of control may go off on you, first they may blame you for being the problem. That you perpetrate all the problems in the department or the fire service. Don’t be surprised if you are blamed, as this is will be common response that the superior may give. Remember everyone else is to blame, they will never admit to shortcomings.
b. The aggressive superior may also promise to look into the situation and other types of matters that do not pertain to the matter at hand, make sure that if they do look into what the problem is that they remain on course.
c. Even after expressing your concern to the fire officer do not trust them or turn your back on them. This is why it may be a responsible act on your part to take a witness or union representative into the meeting.

Reality Check I:
a. Always expect a Chief of the Department to carry on what city managers or Mayors wish for. These people are probably the one’s who promoted them into the position, so to think the Chief would stand up to you against the person who put them there, well you may be fooling yourself.

b. If you are a union representative expect to be targeted by administration and management, as this seems to be the norm. But remember there are actions that can be taken against mangers for retaliation for union representatives.

c. As far as Human Relations personnel assistance, well, forget it. Remember HRO personnel work for management.

d. Don’t expect much more from an ethics or EEO officers, even if there are obvious signs of a violation.

e. That putting trust into either HR or ethics departments may result in them selling you out, they will communicate the information to the manager or supervisor as soon as you walk out the door.

f. The organization will always back up the aggressive senior superior for any mistakes that they have made, up until it starts to cost big bucks. Money is the only thing that fire chiefs, city managers, and Mayors understand. It’s all about the Benjamin’s.

g. Hitting the bottom line, as in mounting legal fees and the cost to clean up the mess will be damaging, but this may be the only thing that they understand.

h. Remember, agencies allocate funding explicitly for fighting and settling cases such as these. The governmental agency expects to get sued, thus they prepare well in advance.

i. The agency would rather fight you for a million dollars than to give you fifty cents.

j. In some cases seeking legal advice from an employment lawyer may benefit you in defending yourself from the superior.

What to do:

a. If you chose to communicate or file with the government agency or department administrators, start you grievance or complaint against them at the same time.

b. Never surrender the element of surprise, as this will spoil your effort at resolution.

c. Research your case, the Internet is a powerful tool.
d. Have all the facts, place the fire department administration on the defensive.
e. Ensure your case is well written, do not confuse facts when using the written word. Have it proofread a couple of times for accuracy and remember to use spellchecker.

f. Arbitrators can (in some cases) make a difference.

Giving up the element of surprise will only give the department(s) administrators, Human Resources, city managers, Mayors office, etc., the advantage to get their wheels turning. Remember all city agencies employ Lawyers, this will give them time to devise ways of covering their tracks or preparing a legal response to counter-act your charge or concern. Remember when filing grievances or complaints that some are time restricted and must be accomplished as soon as possible after the incident has occurred.

Reality Check II:
a. In some departments senior fire officers and superiors feel that they do not hold the great power that they once possessed by changes either made federally or by negotiated contracts. This has been as a result of our changing world.

b. Many superiors and fire officers today are fearful of some employees, this is one of the reasons why acts of intimidation are sometimes prevalent within the fire service. The fire officer may believe that this is one of the only ways to hold their subordinates in check and under control.

c. Many superiors live by the motto “well that’s not the way it was when I started,” but then again, we have moved past the era of the Christie tractors as well.

d. Many superiors and fire officers fear taking action towards an employee due to the legal ramifications that can come back to possibly haunt them if there have been mistakes that have occurred in procedures.

e. Many of today’s younger firefighters are more knowledgeable, better educated, and well versed on researching topics than the older more experienced fire officers or superior. Many older officers fear computers and the Internet like our bre
thren once feared motorized fire apparatus. Knowledge is power, and aggressive fire officers fear this like vampires fear sunlight. Note: Youth + knowledge = aggression.

f. In some departments you can expect re-assignment to a position or station that is considered the dumping ground. Out of site, out of thought. If you are a union representative then the superiors actions can be arbitrary and capricious, thus a violation for retaliation.

g. You may expect not to be high on the promotion list. They may tell you when questioned that you were highly qualified but sadly you were not selected.

h. Satisfactory evaluations can be expected to drop even if you have done an exceptionable or outstanding job.

i. You may now become a target for termination by a conspired set-up.

j. Expect negative talk from the aggressive superior directed towards you, as they attempt to ruin you reputation among other department members. This will lead to rumors and innuendos that you hear through the grapevine.

k. Blackballed: (def.) means to exclude from social, professional, or commercial activities: blackballed by the fraternity; blacklisted because of her political beliefs; a threat to boycott the product; ostracized following the harassment charges. This will help you in understanding just what is going on.

Workplace anti-violence laws are generally meant to deter inexcusable behavior by employees and not managers. This does not stop upper level managers from delivering psychological terrorism daily through various means because they believe that these rules do not apply to management. Most quasi/governmental agencies (including the fire department) foster the belief that these rules, regulations, and laws do not apply to upper level management, but they couldn’t be further from the truth.

Studies on workplace violence have shown that employees have a 1 in 20 chance of experiencing an act of physical violence in the workplace, but in a related comparison 1 in 3 employees experienced verbal abuse from a supervisor or manager.

You had responded to an emergency call and for some reason the customer who placed the call was not pleased with the service they received from you. The customer shows up at the fire station to complain. At the station the customer meets with your shift supervisor to make their complaint. The customer then leaves after being reassured by the fire officer that the matter will be taken care of.

After receiving the complaint the fire officer then request your presence in their office. Upon entering the office you are besieged by yelling and waving of the fire officer’s arms, the fire officer begins to “spaz out” on you. The fire officer actions are perceived as being aggressive towards you. The officer is yelling about the customer’s complaint and without having you state your defense, the fire officer refers to you as being “unprofessional.” Then the fire officer goes into a tirade were you are then ridiculed and belittled for not having the department’s best interest in mind.

You begin to explain your position, but the fire officer then calls you a “liar.” The fire officer proceeds to call you a liar several more times and is acting clearly out of control. At times in the past this same fire officer has used profanity towards other employee who they supervise, and have lost their temper when giving directions or orders to employees. After the confrontation you file charges against the fire officer for intimidating and harassing behavior. At best what can you as the grievant or complainant expect from pursuing charges against the fire officer or their immediate supervisor if the case is taken to arbitration?

Actions like these by the fire officer are inexcusable. You will find that in cases such as these the department or governmental agency will back the fire officer stating that there was no intent to bully, harass, intimidate, or other violation of the anti-violence policy to the employee during the conflict. They will attempt to use the “heat of the moment” plea. Another angle that may be attempted is that if Law enforcement authorities were not involved then it never took place. The department may attempt to state that there are many exchanges throughout the department, sometimes on a daily basis, especially if the department is large.
They will also attempt to plea that conflicts such as these never get serious enough to warrant violence in the workplace charges. In many supervisor contracts, this is added to protect supervisors from charges like these. The department may state that managers are exempt for anti-violence policies due to language that is written into their contract.
A case called the “Snow decision” states that managers can enforce violence in the workplace policies to discipline subordinate employees, and that employees have that same right. This is based upon the “principle of mutuality.” Prior to Snow only non- supervisors were subject to workplace violence policies.
If managers were to be disciplined it was done in private and employees were never told what, if any punishment had been administered.

Fire officers and their superiors must realize that supervisory and employee relations are unequal. If confronted by a superior that is acting out in such a manner that a person of reason would find offensive this is considered bullying or intimidating. Actions such as:
a. Yelling
b. Calling of names
c. Use of profanity
d. Belittling the employee
e. Language that is sarcastic
f. Other inappropriate use of language

If the battering came from a supervisor and the employee cannot react because the actions did not from an equal. These actions are then considered to be a threat that is considered implied, due to the nature of the relationship) even if non-threatening language is used. Superiors may retaliate by doing such things as writing negative evaluations or attempts to terminate employment. Due to this the superior will be held to a higher standard of review concerning manager-employee confrontations. If the actions perpetrated against the employee occurred in front of other employees than the battery can now considered being aggravated. The actions are then meant to demean and humiliate the employee in front of other employees. If the superior’s actions are commonplace than there is an existence of hostile workplace through presumption, this can lead to more severe remediation to resolve a conflict such as this.
In this scenario case, the arbitrator stated, “the Department believes that unless the violence reaches a level that requires police intervention to disengage the parties then the dispute is considered trivial and no violence has occurred.”

The arbitrator was faced with answering two questions brought forth by the complainant:
a. Did the supervisor bully, intimidate, threaten, or act abusive towards the firefighter as stated in the anti-violence agreement that has been negotiated between management and the union?

b. What will remedy the conflict?

An arbitrator who has knowledge or a background specializing in workplace psychology may be able to examine, research, and analyze this topic in depth. This will assist in bringing the whole spectrum of the conflict into context, thus handing down a decision that may not favor management or the superior.

The arbitrator may find:

a. That the department is liable for actions of their supervisory personnel. The department is responsible for promotion of supervisory personnel and the training that they receive to work in their assigned position.

b. The division supervisor should be aware of the atmosphere within the fire station and how subordinates are being supervised by their company officers.

c. The fire officer’s actions are unsubstantiated by their judgment towards the employee when they chose to accuse the employee of lying. The offense does not justify the treatment.

d. That the fire officer created a hostile work environment. This will be considered as unacceptable and unnecessary. This is especially true if other employees witnessed the fire officer’s actions.

e. If either the fire officer or his division supervisor fails to remedy this conflict, this may lead to antipathy (opposition in feelings or a dislike), which can grow and become deep seated within the employee and the organization.

f. The fire officer’s actions can lead to a non-cooperative atmosphere between themselves and their subordinates. These actions destroy motivation and create a work environment that can never achieve a high level of excellence.

g. The superior is not solely responsible for their actions if the division head has condoned them. The division head also shares responsibility for allowing such actions to take place. This is considered as a failure to promote and maintain self-respect and mutual respect within the station. A division head that fails to offer dispute resolution between the parties inorder to settle the conflict, can be found guilty of allowing behavior that is unacceptable or that it is considered to be standard operating practice within the department. Negligence.

h. Behavior like this by the fire officer is considered to be “authoritarian” and can no longer be a justifiable within the fire station. Fire officers like this can only exist if their division supervisors permit or encourage such actions to be taken.

i. Fire officers and their supervisors are subject to the department’s rules and policies governing anti-violence within the station.


The arbitrator can find the fire officer and their superior guilty of having violated anti-violence policies through their actions and or words. Superiors who fail to take action against the fire officer may also contribute to a finding of guilty by the arbitrator. If the fire officer is found to have intimidated, humiliated, demeaned, or threatened an employee and the actions were condone by upper management an arbitrator can hand down the following punishment.

Final Judgment
The Fire Officer:
a. 90-day suspension of the fire officer.

b. Psychological fitness for duty exam

c. Anger Management training (mandatory)

Upper management:
a. Ordered to apologize to all employees involved for condoning such behavior to occur.

b. Admit to their deliberate silence over the incident and the unacceptable behavior of the supervisor.

* That fire officers and chief officers attend mandatory training and education.

This case scenario was based upon a real case filed against the US Postal Service in November of 2000. The scenario was changed by the author to reflect a matter that may face fire service managers. The actual case involved the US Postal service, in the end the arbitrator ruled that Anti-Violence Policies do pertain to managers. This case can be found at NALC Case No. GTS 2348, Nov. 1, 2000. National Assoc. of Letter Carriers (NALC) v. US Postal Service (USPS). The “Snow Decision” can be viewed here.

A responsible fire officer will get the departments mission accomplished through his firefighters, as this is a sign of an effective manager. Fire officers of all ranks who are aggressive and harass employees in the end cost the department money, may cost them personally, and may even end in punishing their superiors. Fire officers and other department managers (superiors) are not excluded from anti-violence policies, and are subject to punishment for breaching or violating these policies. An effective fire service manager will be solid, and will do their best to run an effective department or company. They will give feedback to subordinates in a civil manner when necessary, and extend opportunities to top performing members of the department. They will also avoid turmoil, chaos, confrontation, and will avoid polluting of the environment that they are tasked with supervising.

About the author: 
Thomas M. Cunningham is a 15-year veteran of the United States Naval Academy Fire Department in Annapolis Maryland. He is a NFPA certified Fire Officer IV, Instructor III, Inspector II, Investigator, Safety Officer, and Hazmat IC. He is currently completing Bachelor degree studies in Fire Administration at Western Illinois University. He is currently employed as an instructor with the Command School, Inc. He also serves as the NFAAA MD. state coordinator.