It feels like every morning there’s a new case of sexual harassment or misconduct in the news. It might have started out in Hollywood but now we hear of such incidents everywhere. So what about healthcare? Whether you hear about it or not, sexual harassment happens in the dental industry too. Before we talk about how to handle harassment in your workplace, let’s look at what it is first.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome verbal, written and/or physical conduct that creates a hostile work environment. Sometimes people have a narrow definition of sexual harassment – like a boss demanding sexual favors of an employee in return for a raise or promotion at work. But offensive or inappropriate conversation, lewd jokes, repeated comments on attire or body parts etc fall under the same umbrella. All these actions create an environment where employees can feel threatened, powerless and also affects their performance.
Now that you know what it is, is there anything you can do about it? Most dental practices are not multinational companies with HR and legal teams. You may not know how to react when it happens or someone reports it in your office. Whether you work at a dental practice or own one, you should always know your rights and responsibilities.
When It Happens to You
Sometimes all you need to do is talk to the person when it happens. If a patient or co-worker repeatedly flirts with you, politely but firmly tell them to stop. Never make a witty retort or reply with half hearted banter since that may encourage the other person. Some patients may blurt something out to cover up their nervousness at visiting the dentist. A new co-worker may not know that what they say can be offensive to some people. A firm no can make them aware that it makes you uncomfortable.
Sometimes though you don’t have a choice but to escalate. Always report such incidents to management or your boss. If the offender is your boss or if nothing happens in response to your reports, then it is time for further action. There are federal, state and local agencies that can investigate these cases or direct you to the best place for follow up.
When It Happens in Your Practice
Just like you have a financial or security policy, it helps if you have a written policy that deals with sexual harassment, misconduct and other inappropriate behavior. Define what is appropriate and what isn’t, set out the procedures to follow and consequences for offenders. This way everyone knows what the boundaries are and don’t inadvertently cross it. Investigate any claims made in a transparent manner and take appropriate action. If you are unresponsive, employees can file civil lawsuits. You may even be taken to court for encouraging criminal behavior.
How should you respond when an employee complains about a particular patient? Don’t ignore the situation or brush aside valid complaints. You have a duty towards your employees. Should you risk losing one or more employees because of a single patient who constantly indulges in offensive behavior or makes lewd comments? If a discussion with the client does not help, your best option might be to sever the patient relationship.
Whether you are an employee or employer, one thing to remember is documentation. Track every incident with all relevant details like what happened, who were involved, when it happened and so on. It might seem trivial now but it can save you a lot of headache if it comes to a lawsuit or federal/state investigation. As an employee or employer, the worst thing you can do is ignore sexual harassment in the workplace. Always speak up and take appropriate action.