Sound advice on handling harassment.
Based on our experience, ophthalmology practices have an approximate 90% female workforce, and the practice’s owners are overwhelmingly male. What steps must you take to ensure your practice won’t be sidelined by adverse personal behavior?
It can feel awkward to read about and discuss unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. Even writing this month’s column made us think carefully about avoiding offense. But, for the sake of your employees and practice owners, don’t shy away from addressing this issue.
We have observed thousands of employees and doctors working together and worked with labor attorneys for more than 70 years combined. Here are practical suggestions we can make to help you be proactive and avoid miscommunication, misunderstandings and far, far worse.
1. UPDATE YOUR EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK ANNUALLY.
This step is essential. The handbook must include a policy on sexual harassment; how to handle complaints; and be vetted by your labor attorney. Follow your policies to the letter and readily seek counsel when blurred issues surface.
Speaking of counsel, having a specialist labor attorney on call is now obliged for practices of all sizes.
2. LOOK AT YOUR POLICIES ANNUALLY.
Because culture and laws change and memories fade, review your policies with your management team on an annual basis. Policies need to protect the organization as well as all the individuals in it.
3. BE VIGILANT IN LISTENING TO COMPLAINTS.
When senior practice managers and owners prioritize policy enforcement and create a zero-tolerance-for-harassment culture, the mid-level managers follow suit. Require all managers to bring all complaints to the administration’s attention.
4. TAKE ACTION.
Appropriately, and progressively, discipline employees (and partners) who harass others.
5. CREATE AND ENFORCE A PRACTICE CULTURE.
Encourage and appreciate open communication and trust. If staff members think they will face some form of retaliation for sharing information about an uncomfortable topic, they will hide it until the problem becomes much more difficult and expensive to manage.
6. PROVIDE EDUCATION.
Staff training can help less sensitive workers (and doctors) better appreciate how their actions can have unintended impact on others. Annual education should include how to examine verbal and nonverbal behaviors that might negatively impact others.
7. CONSIDER ALL LEVELS OF STAFF.
Sexual harassment can occur on numerous levels, including:
- Staff to staff
- Providers to staff
- Patients to staff (and vice versa)
- Vendors to staff
8. RECOGNIZE THE POTENTIAL FOR MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS.
One staff member may appreciate a comment about a new haircut, while another staffer could perceive the same comment as an unwanted overture. This is just one challenge to managing this sensitive situation and why listening to concerns without judgment can help resolve a problem.
9. HIRE WITH A CAUTIOUS EYE.
As early as the first interview, pay attention for behaviors and comments that could foretell a risk management problem. Years ago, a male doctor we know exhibited signs of being unprofessionally friendly with female staff during the interview process. He was hired against the administrator’s advice. It took one year and lots of anxiety, time and money to remove him from the practice. In that year, this practice learned that the potential risks to hiring a potential harasser far outweighed the benefits of his otherwise excellent training and profitable contributions to the company.
10. BE PROACTIVE.
Staff and doctors are human. Sincere and mutually desired office romances happen, even when the practice formally discourages it. Seek guidance from your labor attorney whenever situations arise that are potentially harmful.
The wisest practices don’t wait for romance to bloom. They are proactive and work out in advance how such situations will be handled. In an increasing number of settings, even the most sincerely romantic in-practice couples are asked to sign agreements affirming the consensual nature of their relationship. In the current environment, this approach may become more common.
11. LOOK INTO EPLI.
Employment practice liability insurance (EPLI) covers businesses against claims by workers who believe their legal rights have been violated. The Insurance Information Institute shows that the number of lawsuits filed is rising, and no company is immune. Insurers provide this coverage as either an endorsement to their business owners policy or in a stand-alone policy. EPLI provides protection against many kinds of employee lawsuits, including (but not limited to) claims of sexual harassment.
All the allegations in the news lately shine a high-wattage light on the challenges faced in every workforce and, more importantly, on the affected individuals. No matter what your personal opinion is on the topic, a new reality demands that we pay attention and provide answers.
Take the necessary steps to be proactive, appropriately reactive and protective. OM