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    The nasty truth about sexual harassment in the dental practice

    Sexual harassment can happen in any setting, but what do you do when that setting is your workplace - and the harasser is your boss?

    Have you ever been sexually harassed? I am not talking about the workmen down the street who whistle at you when you walk by (but, that is harassment as well). What I am talking about is whether you have ever been uncomfortable with something your boss said or did to you in the dental practice.

    Here’s a true story. My boss was like a father to me. He took a particular interest in me when he brought me into the dental practice. It was a small practice, but he decided to invest time and energy into helping me develop as a professional. I really trusted him. He was someone who really helped me develop personally and professionally… but then it all changed.

    We were in Orlando for a dental conference last year when I made a mistake. He took a different flight than I did and got in around 10 p.m. I had gotten there the night before. When he arrived, we talked about the conference and some of the products I had seen at the trade show. He suggested that we go upstairs so that he could drop his suitcase off, and I could continue to tell him about the trade show. I never thought twice about this. Why would I?

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    That was a big mistake. We got upstairs and I saw he was staying in a humongous suite. It was the biggest hotel room I have ever seen. It had a full kitchen, sitting room and balcony. I should have thought twice when I went onto the balcony and he wouldn’t join me. Now I realize that he didn’t want anyone to see the two of us out on the balcony. Again, my naiveté shines through. I went back inside and we sat down in the sitting room. We were talking about the show and the products I had seen that might be of interest for our practice. All of a sudden, I started getting a little uncomfortable. I don’t know what triggered it but, before I knew it, he tried to kiss me.

    I bolted off the couch and ended up in a chair nearby. My mind was racing so fast, my head felt like it would spin off. I was confused and felt like I was in shock or something. What just happened? How could this old man make a pass at me? He knows I have a small child at home and a boyfriend who I hope to marry one day. What would possess him to think that I would be attracted to him? Now what? How do I get myself out of this situation … out of this room … and yet still have a job to go to when I get back home?

    This was the most horrifying feeling. How do I not jeopardize my livelihood? I have bills to pay. No, I am not interested in this man. How could I have been foolish enough to trust him? It never dawned on me how inappropriate it was to go to his hotel room. It was like going with your father up to drop off a suitcase.

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    Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what I said to get out of that room, but I did some pretty fast talking. I went back to my room and kept going over the evening in my head. I felt like I did something to encourage this behavior, but thought it was just by being so stupid. How could I have trusted someone? For three months, I kept this incident from my boyfriend. What was he going to do – run over and punch the guy in the mouth or something? Instead, I decided to find another job. I waited until I found one before telling my boyfriend. Those three months in the office were so awkward. The dentist never made mention of it, but I felt that my career there was over. I was also worried that I would be blackballed in the industry and not find another job.

     

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    Some say that I should have gone to our office manager or to the dentist, but it was the dentist who was my boss. What do you do when it is the dentist who harasses you? The answer is, get out. I know it sounds like the coward’s way out, but look at the facts. I am a single mother. I don’t earn that much as a dental assistant. I can’t afford to go to an attorney to get advice or take legal action. And, above all, I just wanted this to go away. I don’t want to talk about it or do anything about it. I just wanted to get out of the situation.

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    This is the decision that I made. So why am I baring my soul to thousands of readers? Time has passed and now I realize something: This is an issue that women need to talk about. This isn’t about being ashamed that I did something stupid. Yes, I went to a hotel room with a man – one who I perceived to be like a father. It never dawned on me that I couldn’t trust him.

    I am sure some of you may be judging me for not taking action. Don’t judge me unless you are in my shoes. I am trying to make it financially and it is tough. Do you know how hard it would be for me to prove that he harassed me? There were no witnesses. There were no scratches, scrapes, evidence, DNA under my fingernails, etc. You watch CSI, right? I had no proof. In the absence of evidence, what was I supposed to do? Wear a wire and try to get him to confess? No. The thing to do was to get a new job and get the heck out of there before he tried something again.

    I share this with you because I know that I am not alone in this experience. I could quote statistics, but what is the point? Trust your instincts … even when they let you down as mine obviously did walking into that hotel room. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone you trust. My suggestion though is to NOT tell anyone at work. I don’t care how close friends you are with someone at work. I don’t care if there is an HR person or office manager at work. All those people work for the harasser. Don’t be fooled. Even if you work for a big practice, in the end, it all boils down to money. I may be cynical, but isn’t it the truth? You are expendable. Find another job. Get out of there. If you can afford to talk to an attorney, absolutely do that. But, remember that you have to survive financially and only you have to live with your decisions.

    Does that mean the harasser can go on harassing others? Basically… yes. I know that this is a terrible thing to say, but look at reality. If you can afford the financial and psychological aspects of going after the harasser, go for it. But, in my experience, most of us can’t afford to do that. The price we would pay is just too high.

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    So, this is my recommendation:

    ·      Talk to someone you trust who doesn’t work in the office.

    ·      Find a new job as quickly as possible.

    ·      If you can afford it, talk to an attorney.

    ·      And finally, stop kicking yourself for being naïve. You didn’t do anything wrong. When someone who has power over you takes advantage of that power, it is time to move on. Don’t allow someone else’s pathology to make you ill emotionally, physically or financially.

     

    If you have had an experience like this, or don’t agree with my advice on this issue, email me at [email protected]. I would love to hear your opinion.

    Lisa Newburger, a master's level social worker supervisor, helps audiences find humor in talking about tough topics. Her "in-your-face" style of presentations and writing will make you smile or just shock you into taking some action. Either way, she is very effective at empowering others to reach their goals and feel better about themselves. Her entertaining workshops are available for national and international audiences. Writing for the dental industry since 2010, she uses an alterego (Diana Directive) to illustrate her points in a sarcastic but effective way. Presentations can be scheduled by contacting Lisa at www.discussdirectives.com/dental.html.

    Lisa Newburger, LISW-S
    Lisa Newburger, a master's level social worker supervisor, helps audiences find humor in talking about tough topics. Her "in-your-face" ...
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