Managing Your Practice

Sexual harassment: Prevention and defense


Unless you have been vacationing on some distant astral plane, you are well aware that sexual misconduct and harassment have dominated news coverage and social media forums over the past year or more. It has ended the careers of a number of formerly respectable celebrities, and the #MeToo movement has empowered many additional harassment victims to come forward with their stories.

The shadow of sexual harassment in the office baona/iStock/Getty Images

Medical offices are far from immune from harassment, of course, and the problem is not limited to staff interactions. According to a Medscape poll, 27% of physicians have been targets of inappropriate behavior in a professional setting. In another poll, 47% of physicians and 71% of nurses reported being harassed (by stalking, persistent attempts at communication, or inappropriate social media contact) by a patient.

The reality is that sexual misconduct can occur anywhere and be perpetrated by anyone; and all medical practices, large and small, have an ethical and legal responsibility to provide a safe and respectful work environment for everyone involved.

The first step in meeting that responsibility is to develop a written policy, if you don’t already have one, starting with a clear definition of sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a good summary on its website of what does and does not constitute harassment, and under what conditions employers may be liable. Once the problem has been defined, a good written policy will provide specific methods for reporting transgressions, along with outlines of investigative and corrective measures to be taken in response. Templates for such documents are available on many websites, if you don’t want to start from scratch.

The next step, once a written policy is in place (and vetted by your attorney), is training for your staff. In particular, you should ensure that those in supervisory roles understand their specific responsibilities, and that everyone knows how to report an incident.

Harassment prevention training is already mandated by law in some states, including New York, California (if you have five or more employees), Maine, Delaware, and Connecticut. Other states, such as Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont, have laws that “encourage” employers to provide such training. Other legislation is pending; check for new laws in your state on a regular basis.

Federal EEOC guidelines suggest that all employers “conduct and reinforce” harassment prevention training, whether laws in your particular state require it or not. On a practical level, recent court decisions suggest that offices that do not train their employees may find it difficult to mount an effective defense of a harassment lawsuit, even when they have a written policy in place. They may also be more vulnerable to punitive damage awards.

OSHA and various private companies offer a variety of downloadable training videos at reasonable cost. (As always, I have no financial interest in any product or service mentioned here.)

Misconduct among office staff is a straightforward, zero-tolerance issue. Harassment by patients is more complex, and dealing with it often requires some creativity. No one in your office, however, should think it is something they must accept because it comes from a patient. Any physician or staffer should be empowered to speak up if anyone else’s behavior, including a patient’s, makes them uncomfortable. Even when there is a medical explanation – such as psychiatric or cognitive impairment – it is important (and in some states, mandatory) to call out the behavior and report the incident.

Once reported, it should be documented, so that colleagues and other providers will be aware of the problem, and to protect yourself should the patient ever make false accusations against your practice. At subsequent appointments, take common-sense precautions. Chaperones are always a good idea, but especially so in these situations.

With repeat offenders, everyone has their own barometer of what they can and cannot tolerate. My personal threshold is low; I give one polite warning, explaining that we must provide a respectful and welcoming environment for everyone in the office, and any unacceptable behavior in the future will be grounds for dismissal from my practice. Most get the message; those who don’t are dismissed, politely.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

The central point is to prevent harassment whenever possible, and to take every complaint seriously and address it promptly. An effective misconduct policy goes beyond simply avoiding legal liability. Patients and staffers alike should be secure in the knowledge that inappropriate verbal or physical interactions are not acceptable in your office under any circumstances, and will not be ignored or tolerated.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected] .

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