Fire service slammed for 'insidious' bullying culture

The review found many staff experienced serious psychological impacts such as stress, anxiety and...
The review found many staff experienced serious psychological impacts such as stress, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts and intentions. Photo: ODT files

“Insidious” instances of racism, sexism and severe threats of violence are examples of the bullying culture that needs to change in Fire and Emergency NZ (FENZ), a new report says.

Staff told report writers that bullying and harassment often came from “the very highest level” of the service, including from fire chiefs who called people “chinks”, “slants”, and “curries”.

The Positive Workplace Culture Review, released today, was commissioned by chief executive Rhys Jones to help FENZ understand how to improve the newly unified organisation.

Led by retired judge Coral Shaw, the review identified a clear need for change for the “safety, health and wellbeing” of staff, said Jones.

“We do a really good job at protecting communities but we need to put more focus on looking after each other,” he said.

A voluntary confidential survey was completed both online and in hard copy by 1487 participants, some of which were also personally interviewed.

One participant said the bullying and harassment was “almost insidious”.

“I can’t pinpoint anything ... it just chips away,” they said.

Others said they had witnessed team leaders making sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic comments openly with no repercussions, while others said they were belittled or threatened with violence.

“I was told the ‘shut the f*** up, if we want something out of you we’ll kick it out of you',” one comment said.

“He often threatened to smash and kill me,” said another.

The review found many staff experienced serious psychological impacts such as stress, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts and intentions.

Almost half of the respondents (45%) reported witnessing or experiencing bullying or harassment, and 69% of it was likely to be perpetrated by a colleague senior to the target.

Shaw has made 33 recommendations in her report to help tackle the culture, which include a need to adopt a new set of values, Code of Behaviour, and remove barriers to reporting bullying and harassment.

“The report is wide-ranging and confronting,” Jones said.

“We asked Judge Shaw to shine a light on our organisation and what we’ve found is a clear need for change to remove unwanted behaviour.”

Some respondents believed the issue of bullying was blown out of proportion and that people were being over-sensitive.

“Bullying is a load of s*** made up by softy liberals,” said one person.

“Being told you’re s*** at your job is not bullying if you are.”

Some respondents believed a “hero culture” was partially responsible for the bullying.

“You turn a blind eye to the blood and you turn a blind eye to an enormous list of things because you’re doing good ... it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the bully as well,” said one.

Thick skin was a necessity in the job, another said.

There was also an issue with “tribal culture” where career firefighters disrespected volunteers, and operation staff disrespected non-operational staff, someone said.

People who did complain felt that the organisation would side with the senior employee, and that it was all an “Old Boys’ club”.

Jones said Shaw was given full and open access to engage with past and present personnel, and the organisation’s current processes, policies and procedures.

He said change was already underway and the organisation was committed to taking all necessary steps to build a workplace culture where everyone felt respected and included.

“This change will take time and it may be difficult, but this will make us stronger, and allow us to focus on what we do best - keeping New Zealanders safe.”

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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