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    Fighting back against sexual harassment in the dental industry

    How to identify, handle and combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

    Sexual harassment is all too common in dental practices, and it’s best prevented by making sure everyone—from the employer, to any witnesses, to the victim—recognizes it and feels supported in speaking up.

    Ideally, each office’s policies and culture should make it clear that harassing behaviors are always unacceptable. Whether or not this is true in your office, if you’re experiencing harassment, it helps if you speak out immediately and use any grievance system available to you.

    So, what counts as sexual harassment? According to the EEOC, it can range from unwanted advances or requests for sexual favors, to verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. And it isn’t always of a sexual nature; for example, it’s also illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

    Both harasser and victim may be either a woman or a man, or the same sex. The harasser could be a supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a coworker or a patient. The victim could even be a person affected by the offensive conduct rather than the intended recipient. Harassment lies within the perception of the individual who feels they are being harassed.  

    Although the law doesn’t exactly prohibit isolated comments or incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim being fired or demoted. (Although it should be obvious, an employer or supervisor may never retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment.) In any of these cases, the conduct is unwelcome.

    And that doesn’t mean those “not very serious” incidents are okay! One person’s “harmless banter” may not land on another person as funny or in any way appropriate.

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    Early warning signs of sexual harassment

    In many cases, such comments serve as early warning signs. This is the point when preventative measures can and should be taken by employers, witnesses, or those who are starting to feel uncomfortable and to wonder whether something counts as sexual harassment.

    My role has often been to help train managers to spot, prevent and react when harassment is occurring or an employee brings up a problem. However, I was asked to write this article with the goal of helping people who are being harassed, so I want to focus on the ways I’ve seen this issue occur, and provide steps that help shut it down. At one conference, I was discussing this topic with a group of dental employees and we came up with the following common “harasser” categories:

    ·       Inappropriate space invaders

    ·       Brusher-up-againsters, “patters,” inappropriate huggers

    ·       Lewd commenters, who connect everything to sexual innuendo

    ·       Sexual predators who know EXACTLY what they’re doing

    ·       And not-so-innocent bystanders caught up in a sexually charged “culture.” This happens when staff members—men and/or women—have created an environment where boundary-crossing is the norm

    This is not an exhaustive list! And if you’re experiencing or observing these behaviors in your workplace, you need to let management know what is going on.

    There are typically two methods for addressing workplace sexual harassment, and they can be used together. The first is to train the entire team—including and especially management and owners. This makes everyone aware of what sexual harassment looks like, the liability it creates, and the human toll it takes. The second method is to confront the issue and harasser with a level of pushback that clearly communicates a NO. NO, this is not okay.

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    Next: What you can do to stop sexual harassment.

    Paul Edwards
    Paul Edwards is the CEO and Co-Founder of CEDR HR Solutions (www.cedrsolutions.com), which provides individually customized employee ...
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