Burning Question About Bully Bosses and Insubordination

Today’s burning question: My immediate supervisor claims he attended a lecture by you and is now threatening everyone with insubordination. As quoted by him – you said insubordination was an offense that a supervisor can terminate an employee for without cause. He recently called me into a conference room and berated me, called me a sandbagger and used numerous expletives (predominantly dropping the “F bomb”). It got so bad, the administrative assistant down the hall heard the berating and walked in because she was concerned about my welfare.  As he was in the middle of cussing me I stood up to leave and was told if I left I would face discipline and that I was ordered to sit down or face insubordination charges.  I believe his conduct to be inappropriate and unjust.

Answer: I am not sure which of my lectures your boss mis-heard, or selectively heard. LOL… I am sorry to laugh but folks who have been through my discipline class have to be rolling their eyes as well because the supervisor’s behavior is the total opposite of the approach we discuss in class.

First of all, I am going to assume your boss attended my program, Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service. The class focuses on managing discipline and conducting disciplinary investigations. It is an unpleasant but necessary topic for fire officers and union officials to understand.

The class is not focused on day-to-day leadership in terms of how an officer should treat his/her subordinates on a day to day basis. It sounds like that is where your supervisor is falling short. The class is about how to handle complaints about firefighter misconduct, how to investigate those complaints, and how to address allegations of misconduct in a fair and objective way.

The class emphasizes the importance of treating all employees with respect, and the need for non-confrontational, non-accusatory interviews. Attendees are told that is it inappropriate for investigators to use threats, harsh language, intimidation, or deception during interviews. We also discuss the very serious problem of officers who pursue subordinates tenaciously, like a dog chasing the proverbial rabbit.

If your supervisor chooses to use my name during a meeting with you again, YOU MIGHT ASK HIM IF HE RECALLS ANY OF THOSE DISCUSSIONS…. I can send you several of the slides that specifically discuss the importance of treating every firefighter honorably throughout the investigation and disciplinary process…. LOL…

Look, people lose their temper. Lord knows I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to that. But when it comes to interviewing an employee about alleged misconduct in one’s capacity as a ranking officer, and leveraging the authority of one’s position to demean and threaten a subordinate, that behavior is totally unacceptable.

If he indeed did sit through my discipline class – I am very disappointed in his behavior and his selective recollection. I also hope he reads this post. He needs to be aware that I will testify against investigators who mishandle investigations, including former students who mis-remember what they were taught. In addition, the course book can be used by those defending firefighters to cross examine investigators who stray from the recommended practice. Perhaps he might be able to show you in the book where it says it is OK to direct the “F-bomb” or other expletives at subordinates.

And I am saying this not knowing what you may have done wrong – regardless of whether you are in fact a “sandbagger”…. because it really does not matter. An officer investigating a complaint should not use an investigatory interview as an opportunity to abuse, berate and bully a subordinate.

Now, as for the insubordination we talk about in class, let me explain. When a fire department is conducting a formal investigation and a firefighter is ordered to answer questions about a work related matter, the firefighter has to answer the questions. An employee cannot plead the 5th, nor refuse to answer the investigator’s legitimate work related questions. Many FFs think they have a Miranda-like right to remain silent. They do not. When ordered to answer work related questions, employees have to answer the questions. PERIOD. The penalty is insubordination and courts, hearing officers and arbitrators universally uphold termination as warranted as a first offense without resorting to progressive discipline.

That does not mean that a petty tyrant officer has a right to bully, yell at, swear at, demean, and otherwise create a hostile work environment for his employees. It does not allow an abusive and unprofessional officer to threaten a subordinate with termination in order to force him to remain in the room and take some more. IHMO that would be an illegal order. It is abusive and no court, arbitrator or hearing officer will fault an employee who gets up and leaves such an abusive environment.

At no time did I ever say that a fire department can fire someone for insubordination without cause… That is just absurd. However, let me be clear: insubordination is cause… Again – it sounds like your boss has some selective listening going on.

Having said all this – let’s be honest. After 33 years as a practicing attorney I know damn well people only tell me enough of a story to get me to agree with them… Only you and your boss know what was actually said in that room. But never ever did I in any way shape or form suggest or imply it is OK for a superior officer to bully a subordinate. Quite the opposite.

Based on what you told me you first need to investigate whether your employer has rules prohibiting supervisors from creating a hostile work environment. Your HR department should be able to answer that question quickly. Assuming there is such a rule, you should file a hostile work environment claim against the supervisor at the earliest possible opportunity.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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