Ask Human Resources: Preventing Harassment in the Workplace

By Jodi Schafer, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

QUESTION:

In light of all the news of sexual harassment and as the managing partner of a large medical practice, I am concerned about the potential liability of sexual harassment. I have overheard and have actually participated in a little bit of banter between staff members and the partners that may be considered sexual in nature. I have never had any complaints about this banter but I’m worried that I could in the future. Let’s make sure that we have what we need in place to protect practice. What should I do to make sure we are protected? 

ANSWER:

Sexual harassment was established by a landmark US Supreme Court order from a lawsuit where an employee was expected to provide sexual favors to keep her job. This, the court said, created a hostile work environment and was a violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court ordered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (EEOC) to write rules to address sexual harassment. Harassment guidelines have been expanded over the years to include all protected classifications, i.e. race, religion, gender, etc. A claim of harassment can be expensive in many ways. It can cause lost production, result in high legal fees, negatively impact team work, cause personal problems, and may likely cause turnover. If the claim is made public, it will be a public relations nightmare as we’ve seen on the news lately. 

To protect yourself and your practice, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have a thorough policy that outlines what harassment is and requires reporting of claims to management. Your policy must also explain that when members of leadership are presented with a claim they will ensure it is thoroughly and completely investigated. Upon the conclusion of the investigation any disciplinary action taken against any of the people involved must be documented. This includes claims that are made directly and those that are implied. Be aware, MOST CLAIMS ARE IMPLIED! Your liability is not reduced if the employee refuses to make a direct claim. 

Once a policy is established, it must be communicated to all staff. All members of the practice, especially all of the physicians and leadership staff, should receive training that explains the different types of harassment, provides a review of the policy, identifies your reporting system and teaches all team members how to identify and address concerns that come to them. Attendance at this training must be mandatory and documented. 

The greatest concern I have based on your question is your current culture. Banter of a sexual nature will never be appropriate in the workplace. I am assuming that most of the support staff is female and most of the providers are male. If that is the case, you have an issue of power from the males over the females just by the nature of your jobs. Harassment, while not limited to male-female encounters, is all about power and control. It is imperative you do all you can do to eliminate any type of sexual intimidation. Perception and inappropriate behavior play big roles in harassment claims and if an employee perceives the banter to be offensive, then it is - even if they actively took part. 

It is common for employees not to report complaints when they have been harassed. They may hint or make comments about behaviors. They may ask other employees what they experienced. If they do come to a manager, they may ask that their concern be kept confidential. Essentially, they do not want to cause any problems. No matter, you must still conduct an investigation and if necessary discipline the perpetrator. All too often, this person was not the first or the only. It is imperative that harassment be taken seriously and much more than lip service be given to complaints, not matter how subtly they are made.