Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When employees work against you

The president of the Winnipeg firefighters’ union, Alex Forrest, has a big job. He’s the guy tasked with speaking on behalf of the city’s firefighters, working both with and against City management to protect what his members feel are their rights, and to fight for the tools they feel they need to do their job well.

To be effective in that role, Forrest has to be credible with the public at large; without that credibility, his union would have a steeper hill to climb come negotiation time. Especially since 9/11, firefighters are generally seen as heroes, as selfless saviours who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. An image like that makes it tougher for any city to turn down requests for funding without public backlash; it's worth protecting.

But what if the image of the local firefighter was to become that of an adolescent lout, spending his on-the-clock time flirting and making out with a woman in a shed behind the firehouse?

It sure wouldn't make Forrest’s job any easier.

While firefighters do indeed put themselves in harm’s way to save people’s lives, pets and homes, they also spend quite a bit of time hanging out in the fire hall waiting for an emergency. Now, it’s not in the union’s best interests to talk about that side of it, but Forrest's members get to spend quite a bit of their time at work doing things like playing cards, sleeping, making dinners, playing music, etc. – things most people could never get away with doing at work. But it’s reasonable. We pay them to be there and at the ready in case of emergencies.

With that said, playing cards and making chili are not the same as making out in the shed.

This morning’s Winnipeg Free Press contains a story by Gabrielle Giroday called “Firefighter sorry for shed tryst,” with the sub-head “’Horrible indiscretion’ no danger to public, union boss says,” which outlines an incident that took place at the end of July. It recounts how a local firefighter met a woman near Station No. 4 on Osborne Street, “showed her a nearby shed,” and then “the two began kissing until an alarm came in” a few minutes later.

Must’ve been some shed.

The fact is, every organization has employees who are, let’s say, less than professional. Or even, short on personal integrity and judgment. But when your organization’s “brand” is anchored by notions of heroism, these employees are particularly problematic for your communicators (would this have been a media story had the employee caught kissing in the shed been sneaking out on his bartending job? Likely not.)

In talking to the media about this case, Alex Forrest had a number of audiences, and a communication objective for each.

1. Citizens of Winnipeg (and specifically those served by Station No.4): reassure them that public safety wasn't affected; that it was an isolated incident, which is not supported by the union or its members; and that the union is reasonable, and willing to accept punishment for a member if it’s warranted (this helps with future negotiations, when taxpayers remember the union’s reasonableness).

2. Union members: show on the one hand that the union will stand by them if they mess up, while simultaneously working to prevent them from having to “wear” a colleague’s indiscretion.

3. City management: show that the union is reasonable in its positions, and won’t stand in the way of appropriate handling of a personnel issue (again, this can serve as “currency” in future negotiations).

The reader comments at the bottom of the Free Press’ story online suggest that not everyone is buying Forrest’s (and the firefighter’s) position. But from my reading of the story, Forrest has done about as good a job of each of those objectives as he can, at least publicly.

The firefighter did what he did, and there's no excuse for it; so the best thing to do is to admit it, denounce the action, reassure the public the incident didn't interfere with public safety, and accept the punishment.

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