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.


Prevention and reaction: Two ways to stop sexual harassment

There’s a place and time for both preventative training and confrontation. As an HR solution provider, I am always in favor of getting the practice trained, especially if you or any team members notice questionable comments or actions. Training may guide a dental team toward self-correction-if it’s paired with good leadership and some frank discussions. And if you’re a manager and you’ve seen warning signs or had an issue brought to your attention, this is sometimes your one chance to prevent an even more serious situation from developing.

A good conversation might start like this: “Lately, I’ve noticed what I think are some inappropriate actions or comments that could be called sexual harassment, so I’m putting mandatory training in place. Each employee-men and women-has until Friday to complete it. Please clock your hours.” The manager might conclude with something like, “I am hoping this will help everyone identify when comments or actions might not be appropriate.”

This may be enough to steer some teams into safer waters. It also provides the manager with a platform for addressing future problematic behaviors (“We just made it clear that this is NOT OKAY,” or, “What part of that training did you not get?!”), and is an easy path to issuing warnings and terminating if necessary.

If harassment is happening to (or around) you, the second method available is intervening on your own behalf-a reactionary method rather than a preventative one. By intervening, I mean speaking up to a manager or the harasser, and clearly stating that it is not okay.

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What if the harasser is your manager? If there is another manager, go to them. Be specific about the problem and which behavior needs to stop.

Here are some examples:

·       “I’d like him to stop showing me inappropriate pictures.”

·       “I’d like him to stop putting his hands on my shoulders.”

·       “I’d like you to tell her that it makes me uncomfortable when…”

·       “I need the sharing about over-the-weekend sexual exploits to stop.”

·       “This email contains a joke I just don’t need in my life.”

When reporting inappropriate conduct, first you must follow any written grievance policy your office may have in place. Failure to do so may limit your options or remedies down the road. In addition, it helps to be specific as to what outcome you would like to see. Maybe you just want the behavior to stop. Perhaps you feel a written warning to the harasser would be a more effective deterrent of future harassment. Some situations warrant an apology. Other times, more serious responses are in order, such as a transfer, change in scheduling, or even a termination. 


Next: What if you are in a small-practice situation and the harasser is in a position of authority? 



What if you are in a small-practice situation and the harasser is in a position of authority? Sometimes there is no one else to go to, and in that situation, your next choice is to say something to the harasser. I recommend you say it early, before the situation becomes even worse.

Confrontation is not easy, but it is often important. Try one of these:

·       “I don’t want to hear that, nor do I like it.”

·       “That [joke/picture/comment/word] offends me and makes me uncomfortable. Please stop.”

·       “I don’t want to be a part of this.”

·       “I love it here, except for these jokes.”

·       “I have had to talk to someone else about this, and they agree, this is not okay.”

There’s no silver bullet. But statements like these may get the harasser’s attention and leave no room for doubt as to your tolerance. Note that if you ever feel physically threatened, or so affected by the harassment that you can’t do your job, you need to seek help from outside of the situation. That could mean talking to a manager, another employee, or someone in authority outside of the business-even the police in worst-case instances, or the EEOC if you feel your complaint has resulted in an adverse action against you. You don’t always have to go nuclear, but just telling someone and not keeping the problem bottled up inside can often lead to solutions you may not have considered.

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Everyone deserves a comfortable work environment

There’s a lot more advice we give managers about handling harassment situations, but I want to close by telling you that without exception, all people, male or female, must be able to come to work in an environment that feels safe and comfortable. Sometimes a risqué joke is made at work, and everybody laughs and moves on, but all too often, these situations become something else. Something ugly-and it’s a type of aggression that can poison a business.

Here’s my best guidance if this is a situation you’re facing in your workplace right now, and this is what I would say to my wife, my sister or my friend: I am sorry this is happening to you. The longer it goes on, the worse it may become. You need to say something. 

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