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Dealing with sexual harassment in the dental operatory

Issue 2

Sexual harassment isn’t a topic most people like to talk about, especially in the workplace. But just because you’re not talking about it doesn’t mean it can’t happen in your operatory.

Ignoring the fact that sexual harassment can and does happen in dental offices only leaves you and your employees vulnerable to potential problems. Instead of pretending it isn’t an issue, there are ways you can protect yourself and your team members. Investing in training, developing a policy and simply knowing what to do if an allegation is made are all ways to help you avoid ever needing to deal with such a claim, but will prepare you for the worst if you ever have to.

Know what it is

Sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment,” according to the Equal Rights Advocate Web site. The problem is, every person’s view of unwelcome is different. Some of your team members may not think twice about a seemingly innocent pat on the back, while it may make others uncomfortable. And intent doesn’t matter. If your actions make someone uncomfortable it can be considered sexual harassment, even if you didn’t mean it that way.

“It can be anything you say, even it’s just ‘oh look at this picture’ and the person is offended by the picture. Or it can be physical conduct as far as rubbing somebody’s back or shoulder or even hugging,” said Penny Reed Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. “I can remember a doctor I knew years ago who had morning huddles and everybody would get a hug afterward. Allegations were filed against him for those hugs. You have to remember all of us are not the same. What I might think is welcome to someone else might be very unwelcome.”

Get some training

Bringing a professional in for training is a good way to get everyone on the same page when it comes to what sexual harassment is and what won’t be tolerated in your practice. These training sessions usually only take a few hours out of your work day, and are well worth the time, said Mitchell Karp, founder and lead consultant at Karp Consulting Group Inc. And if you’re worried about the stigma of calling it sexual harassment training, label it something else. Call it training on how to build better working relationships, or how to create a better working environment.

“How it’s communicated and how it’s positioned is important,” Karp said. “A dentist who positions this as we need to be mindful of how we interact with our patients and how we interact with each other and the more knowledge we have the more skilled we’ll be, that dentist is ahead of the curve.”

Before you schedule the group training, you may want to think about going to training on your own first, Limoli said. Chances are sexual harassment training wasn’t covered in dental school, but it’s still something you as a small business owner should take seriously. Attend a more in-depth training first that’s geared to HR professionals or small business owners, and then schedule a lighter version for your team.

Unfortunately, with more employee training comes an increased number of fraudulent claims being filed, said Anika Ball, Executive Director of the American Society for Dental Ethics. Patients and team members see you as someone who has large financial assets and may be looking for ways to take advantage of that. It’s just something you have to be aware of.

“With more education comes the possibility of it being abused,” Ball said. “So now we have some disgruntled employees who use it as a weapon.”

Have a policy

Putting a policy in place and making sure your employees are aware of it also is key to avoiding problems, Ball said. Include it with the employee manual and maybe even post it somewhere employees can see it. Go over the policy every time you hire someone new. Make it clear what type of behavior is expected, and make sure your employees know where they can go if they ever feel like they’ve been a victim of sexual harassment. Offer a list of organizations they can turn to, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state dental board.

Being proactive helps build trust, and lets your team members know they can come to you if they ever have a problem with another employee or a patient. But no matter how much you want your employees to come to you with their work-related problems and concerns, they’re probably not going to feel comfortable talking to you if you’re the one who has said or done something they feel is inappropriate, Karp said. As the dentist, you’re the one with the power-even if that’s not how you see it. You control their wages, their vacation time. You simply aren’t the right person to talk with in this situation. Consider making an arrangement with a third party, like a lawyer or an outside consultant, who employees can turn to if needed. Make sure they know how to contact that person.

If you don’t want to go this route, let your team members know they can always talk to a trusted office manager or another dentist in the practice, Limoli said. But if they’re truly planning to make such a serious accusation, they’re going to need an attorney.

Keep it rated ‘G’

Remember sexual harassment isn’t just an issue that can come up within your team. Something your hygienist says or does may make a patient uncomfortable, or vice versa. You can’t control your patients’ actions, but you can take steps to ensure your staff members aren’t the ones doing the offending.

Make it a policy to “keep it a family show,” Limoli said. Your staff members should act professional at all times, even when they’re not in the same room as a patient. Most practices aren’t that big, and patients often can hear you when you’re talking in the hallways or at the front desk.

“You have to conduct yourself in a professional manner, almost as if you were on camera. You are on stage,” Limoli said. “When you are in that practice and patients are there, you need to conduct yourself differently than you would if you were out with personal acquaintances enjoying adult leisure.”

What to do when it happens to you

No matter how many precautions you take, a team member or a patient still may make an allegation against you-even if it’s not true.

If someone accuses you of sexual harassment, the first thing you need to do is contact a lawyer, Ball said. Find out what documentation you need and start gathering it. But whatever you do, don’t confront your accuser and don’t talk with other people in your office about what you should do or how ridiculous the claim is. Talk to your lawyer and determine what steps you need to take from there.

“When issues of inappropriate behavior or allegations of biased or harassment come up, many human beings feel like someone is throwing a finger in their face and saying they’re a bad person,” Karp said. “Often people react to those allegations by engaging in behavior that leads to a second claim of retaliation. They think, ‘How dare you treat me like this.’ You have to manage the emotional reaction of being accused with your professional obligation to not retaliate in any way.”

When it’s someone else in the office

If one of your employees comes to you with an allegation about another employee or even a patient, you can’t take it lightly. If you dismiss the claim, you open yourself up to a lawsuit down the road. And the same is true if it’s a patient.

“Your patients and employees have a trust in you as a professional,” Ball said. “And if you aren’t following through with seeking their best interest then they may feel abandoned, unheard or disrespected.”

When a staff member comes to you, ask that employee to put the allegation in writing and then call an attorney for advice, Limoli said. Have the staff member outline what happened and what he or she felt the intent of the conversation or action was.

After you’ve gotten some guidance from an attorney, it’s time to confront the employee who’s been accused of sexual harassment. Sometimes the act is so inappropriate there’s no second chances, Karp said, but if you’re planning to keep this person on board you have to be clear about what is appropriate and what isn’t.

“Let the person know you’re putting something in their file, and give them a warning,” Karp said. “You’re going for zero tolerance because it undermines morale and productivity. Make it clear you want to focus on providing outstanding dental service to your patients.”

If it’s a patient causing the problem, you need to have a similar conversation, Karp said. This can be difficult because you don’t want to lose a revenue source, but you can’t let your team members work in an environment that makes them uncomfortable. Talk to this patient like he or she is your best friend; getting nasty won’t help. Let this person know you and your team take your work seriously, and his or her comment or action was inappropriate. Don’t worry about losing the patient. In fact, depending on the situation, that may not be a bad outcome.

How it affects your staff

No matter who has been accused of inappropriate behavior, your team members will find out about it and they will gossip. Staff morale may become low and productivity will drop. Some staff members may even quit because they just don’t feel safe in your practice any more.

“An allegation significantly affects morale and productivity because they’ll (team members) have that sense of loss of trust or violation,” Ball said. “If it’s within the staff dynamic it could be a difficult situation, especially if it’s not addressed quickly. It has a huge affect on the cohesiveness of that working group.”

You might be tempted to call an emergency staff meeting to ease some of your staff members’ concerns, but that really isn’t a good idea, Limoli said. This could be very uncomfortable, especially if the accuser and the person being accused are in the room. Don’t call a meeting or even talk to individual team members about what they saw or what they know until you’ve talked to an attorney.

Keep it professional

It might seem like common sense, but simple things like asking patients if they’re married or single may give the impression that you’re hitting on them. Keep conversations with your patients strictly professional to ensure nobody takes anything the wrong way.

Training, a written policy and just having a plan in place in case an allegation is made are all key to handling what can be an awkward, messy situation. If you make sure you and your employees know exactly what sexual harassment is and that it is not tolerated in your practice, you’re less likely to have to deal with problems that stem from inappropriate behavior.

“Sometimes these things are indicators of break downs in communication, break downs in trust, reluctance to give feedback,” Karp said. “It’s really about how people work well together in an office setting and how people learn to manage boundaries and identify what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior and how to handle it.”

Renee Knight is a senior editor for DPR. Contact her at rknight@advanstar.com.

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