Agency Culture

Heidi DiGennaro

Heidi DiGennaro

Surviving the Headset

When I was new, one of the first things I was told was, “There are no sacred cows in Communications.” This statement is already wrong on several levels and not the way to introduce a new employee to your center. I won’t go into the embarrassing questions I was asked my first week that would give human resources nightmares. To say they were extremely personal would be an understatement. Still, it went back to the opening statement—nothing sacred in Communications (or Dispatch). Times have changed, but some of the culture remnants and taboos have not.   

What is your culture? How do you get to know new employees? Are they assigned a trainer and everyone else only interacts with the trainee when there’s a question on a call? Do they talk to the trainer instead of the trainee? Does the trainer even interact with the trainee? Let’s be honest, classroom instruction has great value in preparing new hires for hitting the floor and giving the basics, but it only goes so far. On-the-job training is the introduction into the actual work environment.   

How does the trainee learn? Verbal instructions, watching, and doing what the trainer tells them to do until it is muscle memory. Watching everyone and everything will influence the trainee’s perception. They see and hear everything and pick up social cues on how to act. Good or bad. They learn the official taboos from human resources, are told to read the policies, and are often left on their own to learn the administrative side. What about the unofficial taboos? 

Here are some questions to identify your unwritten taboos. Do you have people who:  

  • will only sit at one console?  

  • demand/prefer one talk group or channel and get upset when they can’t work it?     

  • hunt for a certain chair?   

  • require breaks at specific times?   

  • use their seniority as an excuse or rationale for their behavior? 

  • want others to work overtime to cover their leave but don’t reciprocate?   

  • gossip? Are there people who need to talk about everything in your center and are nosy?   

  • complain all shift, every shift, every day?   

  • constantly push the acceptable behavior line? 

  • ask inappropriate questions or push for answers when they aren’t getting the answer they want? 

  • shop supervisors?   

  • are lazy and allowed to be? 

  • are social media stalkers?   

What does that new person see in your center? This is my console and face my wrath if you take it. Did you hear what she/he did while she or he is sitting 10 feet away? There’s also the seasoned dispatcher who treats everyone with condescension because everyone else isn’t as good as them and the drama queens who turn every question from the field or citizen into a personal attack on them; I could go on.    

What does the new person take away from these interactions? Don’t sit there or in that chair because you’ll make so-and-so mad, and it’s okay for so-and-so to act that way. Don’t talk too much because Mr. Perfect will talk to you like you’re an idiot when you haven’t been trained on something. Do nothing to attract attention because those two over there are talking about everyone behind their backs, and one of them is my supervisor.     

Ask yourself if this is a place where YOU want to work. If it isn’t, identify and start smashing taboos. One person can say “I’ve had enough of this” and properly report or say something themselves.  Supervisors need to say something to the offenders. Report the supervisors to their supervisors. Keep reporting if it happens again. In centers with progressive discipline, the supervisor addresses it and can’t talk about it further. If the behavior repeats and the supervisor doesn’t know, then the problem will continue. 

I’m not saying start something when you’re not comfortable. I’m suggesting looking around and seeing what can be changed to make a better work environment. You might be surprised.