Let's say you have two firefighters, Rhonda and Paul, who seem to be acting a little different around one another. Perhaps you thought you saw them holding hands once or twice. Or, they hold their glances a little longer than normal. Maybe you stumble upon them in the middle of a whispered conversation. Or perhaps you hear jokes and stories from other firefighters about the pair's romantic involvement.
So what does it mean? What if they are having a torrid romance? Neither is married. What people do outside of work shouldn't matter as long as it doesn't affect their performance at work, right? What if one of them is married? Is it your place to intervene? What if Paul is Rhonda's supervisor? Can you just simply laugh the whole thing off as just people being people?
These questions aren't so easy to answer. Part of us wants to pretend we don't see what is going on. If we have suspicions, we don't want to question the couple for fear of making a false assumption. Perhaps they really are just close friends and nothing more.
The big question is of course related to policy. Do you have a policy specifically forbidding romantic liaisons between firefighters? Between company officers and firefighters? Probably not. Barely 10% of emergency agencies have formal policies. Certainly, fire departments frown on the practice or discourage employee romances, but when we people spend anywhere from eight to 24 hours per day at work, it's hard to formally prevent them. Longer working hours mean less time to socialize, and many couples feel if they had not been working in the same station, they never would have met.
Take action or look away
Most seasoned fire chiefs can recall a destructive situation caused by romantic employee entanglements. Perhaps the result was a broken marriage, or two firefighters who could no longer perform their duties due to the romance's breakup, or worse, a formal case of sexual harassment or discrimination. It's these horror stories that frighten many fire chiefs, causing them to see every relationship as a potential nasty situation.
However, according to the Society for Human Resources Management, 55% of romantic relationships begun at work end in marriage. Such is the case of Adam Snarr, a Texas fire chief with 11 years of experience. (All names and locations in this article have been changed.)
“My wife and I met five years ago when she joined my battalion,” says Snarr. “We married after two years, and she is the greatest thing in my life. If we had not fallen in love, I wouldn't be as happy as I am today, nor would I have my son.”
Regardless of the potential outcome, you should not completely ignore an employee romance. Determine your stance and stick to it. Like the vast majority of fire stations, establishing a policy that expressly forbids romances between associates probably won't prevent them. Romances will occur; there's no stopping them. But some departments insert a statement in the employee handbook along this line: “Romantic relationships between associates are not prohibited. However, those relationships between supervisor and his or her direct reports are strongly discouraged.”
Beyond that, it's a matter of keeping an eye on things. As you might suspect, firefighters who are romantically involved with one another tend to spend less time being productive. They spend inordinate amounts of time at each other's desks or talk idly rather than clean or prepare equipment. They may take extra-long lunches or find excuses to leave early. These are all behaviors you can address. No matter how secret the couple thinks their relationship is, everyone usually knows about it and can easily spot the signs. Your goal is to maintain job performance and ensure that the general working environment doesn't suffer during and after the relationship.
“Looking back, it is amazing what little effort I put into my job once I started my relationship with one of my coworkers,” says Rebecca Chapman, an eight-year veteran in North Carolina. “He and I would take any free time we had, and when we didn't feel it was enough, we created ways to steal that free time. Now that we have broken off our relationship, I am once again focused, but very embarrassed with my behavior during that time. And so is he. When you think you're in love with someone, nothing else seems to really matter.”
As a supervising officer attempting to handle the situation, pay particular attention to your level of discretion when one or both individuals are married. Extramarital affairs can become very messy, and a jilted spouse shouldn't learn about the affair from you. Tread cautiously when addressing the parties so that others in the station don't reveal the couple's secret to a spouse.
The power issue
Unlike dating between firefighters, when a fire chief, battalion chief, captain or other supervisor is involved with a direct report, a whole different set of issues come into play. Obviously, a fire chief holds intrinsic power over firefighters through compensation, promotions, transfers, performance reviews, and the assignment of popular projects and responsibilities. Coworkers may feel preferential treatment is at play when a promotion occurs. To everyone else, that firefighter is directly benefiting from a liaison with the boss.
“I had so many problems with others in the battalion” Snarr reveals. “It was as if I had dropped a couple of notches with regard to everyone's respect. They knew what was going on. Despite what anyone says, you can't keep a relationship secret. Even though we eventually married, while we were seeing one another I'm sure everyone thought she got by with everything — that I wasn't holding her accountable for her duties.”
Although fire departments may not officially forbid romances between a company officer and a subordinate, some do require that when a relationship takes place, the couple notify upper management. This is so appropriate action takes place to prevent those feelings of preferential treatment from permeating the station. Those actions may include altering the reporting relationship so the firefighter reports to a different officer or reassigning one person to a different location.
Can one or both of the couple be terminated for having a relationship? Typically, no. Without specific written policies spelling out the infraction and the disciplinary action, termination would most likely be legally challenged. Instead, work on managing the relationship in such a way that it removes the impression of unfair advantages. Reassignment is the best means and shows everyone that although you don't encourage station romances, especially between a subordinate and supervisor, you do take the working environment seriously. The continued successful, productive and effective operation of the department's stations remains a priority.
However, keep in mind that if the only people who are transferred are subordinates, and if a disproportionate number are women, you may be opening yourself up to a sex discrimination lawsuit. Accurate documentation combined with constructive discussions are key.
Invasion of privacy?
If you have reasonable suspicions that a romantic relationship has begun between a supervisor and a direct report, is it an invasion of privacy to inquire? Courts have indicated it isn't. Obviously, you can't question the couple with regard to specifics such as how often they engage in sexual congress or the like. But you can ask them if a relationship beyond that of coworker exists and how it will affect their job performance.
Tactful questioning is acceptable because you still have a fire department to run. You need to know if this new relationship will adversely affect the station where the couple works. However, make sure your inquiry is professional and private. Don't ask them in front of other firefighters. Also, don't question them every day or every week, which might be construed as managing by harassment or creating a hostile working environment.
The bottom line is that firefighters who put in long hours, find themselves in close proximity to others who share the fire service profession and spend a great amount of time with one another may result in a romance. Chiefs who are uncomfortable with these situations tend to ignore them, which can result in greater problems. Looking the other way only serves to express your approval. Everyone in the organization will know about an illicit affair. They'll be looking to you to put a stop to any behavior that gets in the way of day-to-day operations.
Your swift, decisive but fair actions will ensure the organization moves forward so that the relationship becomes nothing more than an occasional gossiped-about memory.
Steven Austin Stovall is a professor at Wilmington College in Ohio who is also a consultant and trainer specializing in management issues.
Tips for Managing Romances
Once you accept that firefighters will date one another, you have to find ways to manage the situation so it doesn't turn into something unpleasant.
Determine your policy
Decide how firm or lenient your department will be when it comes to romances. Realize that a relationship between two firefighters is different from one between a firefighter and his or her supervisor.
Communicate the policy
Whatever you decide, let everyone know where you stand. Make the policy part of the policy manual and point it out to new hires.
Don't joke about it
It's easy, and some would say more comfortable, to laugh off a romantic liaison. Many of your firefighters will wink at one another as the couple walks by or smile knowingly. Don't get pulled into that behavior as well. If you act similarly, your team will see that as approval of the courtship.
Continue to run the department as you would under any other circumstance. The couple may ask or even plead to work together on certain projects. If you normally would pair them up, continue to do so, but monitor their behavior. However, avoid letting them work side-by-side throughout the day if they can't maintain their quality or quantity of work.
Take immediate action
Once you become aware of a relationship between a supervisor and a direct report, sit down with the couple right away and remind them of your policy. If a transfer or reassignment is in order, make it swift. Others in the station will be watching to see what you do.
“No one ever talked directly to us,” says Rebecca Chapman, a North Carolina firefighter. “Lots of jokes and rumors were spread around the station, but no one ever talked to us about our behavior. I wish they had. It would have been easier to have some ground rules.”
Keep an eye on performance
It's very easy for a romantic situation to get out of hand. If you forbid public displays of affection in the workplace, enforce that policy. If the couple's behavior reaches the point where their own performance (or that of their coworkers) is hindered, take steps to ensure it doesn't continue.
When you sit down with those involved in a romance, document that conversation. It may simply be “Both parties were told to be careful of their behavior at work. Public displays of affection remain prohibited. They understand their job performance should continue to progress in a professional manner.” This provides only minimum protection, but it is helpful if legal action takes place.
Watch for the breakup
Inevitably, some relationships will sour. When they do, character assassinations fly between the couple and their respective friends. Be careful that they don't go too far. Be prepared for possible, though rare, violence between parties and claims of sexual harassment.
Adam Snarr says that there was one instance five years ago in his battalion where a relationship ended and the male firefighter quit soon after: “The guy was having a tough time. His relationship broke up and he quit the service where he'd been for six years without having anything lined up elsewhere.
“At first, he would drop by the station where his ex-girlfriend worked and was very friendly to everyone. Then, we realized he was really checking up on her, trying to determine if she was dating someone else. He became very belligerent when we told him he couldn't come around any more.
“I honestly thought we would have to get a restraining order against him, but he quit coming to the station once he got the message. It was still a very tenuous situation. You just never know what some people are capable of doing.”