Preventing Harassment Claims in the Dental Practice

In Trending by Lauren Mansour, Esq.

The countless cases of sexual harassment highlighted in the recent news have opened important discussions on the best methods of mitigating the risk of such conduct occurring in businesses across the country. A major component to operating a harassment-free dental practice is prevention. This is a great time for dental practice owners and managers to take certain necessary steps to prevent harassment from occurring before it begins and to develop policies to address the behavior when it occurs.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that it is “unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” The commission also notes, “harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.”

An effective anti-harassment strategy will protect employees from sexual harassment and protect employers from potential liability. At a minimum, every dental practice should implement an employee handbook that includes a strong and well-written anti-harassment policy. The policy should provide an explanation of what constitutes “harassment” and shall prohibit such conduct in the dental practice.   Dental practices must provide zero-tolerance for sexual harassment or harassment on the basis of age, disability, race, gender, or religion, and advise employees that such conduct will result in immediate discipline, up to and including termination. Employees should be assured that any reporting of such conduct will be encouraged, that at least two people in the dental practice will be open to receiving such reports and that there will be no retaliation for reporting harassment.

Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply adopt an anti-harassment policy. Employees must be well informed of the policy and the practice must perform employee training. The goal of such training is to prevent harassing conduct from occurring in the practice, but training will also serve to place employees on notice of acceptable conduct. Training may serve as self-correction for a dental practice and offers an opportunity to prevent the development of a serious situation.

Anti-harassment training should be conducted on a periodic basis by a human resource professional, if possible, or through a training video in the practice.  Effective training will include examples of unacceptable conduct, explanations of how such conduct affects employees and negatively impacts the practice and methods of reporting violations. In addition to training sessions with employees, practice managers should be separately trained to respond to incidents of harassment in an effort to protect the employees that they supervise. Practice managers must be trained to take action upon report of harassment in the dental practice.

Even the best employment policies and employee training are of no value unless the policies are consistently enforced. Lack of enforcement discourages employees from reporting violations and allows problems to multiply. Employee complaints must be met with swift action: effective receipt of reports, investigation, corrective action, and finally, a response to the affected employee.

The employer or practice manager should speak with the complainant to understand the full nature of the complaint. The complainant should be assured that he or she is safe from retaliation and that reporting the incident was the appropriate action. Investigation of complaints should occur in a timely manner and shall become the employer’s top priority. A failure to act could result in continued harassment to the complainant as well as increased liability to the employer. If an employer feels that a truly unbiased investigation is not possible, a third party should be hired to investigate.

Once the investigation has concluded, a necessary disciplinary action calculated to end the harassment should be taken. In determining appropriate action, an employer shall evaluate a series of factors, including the severity of the offense, the employee’s willingness to end the offending action, and whether previous complaints have been reported against the offending employee. Again, corrective actions must be taken promptly to signal that such conduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Finally, the employer should respond to the complainant to address the findings and should follow up to ensure that the harassment has ceased and retaliation has not taken place.

As employers, dentists have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace and can be held liable if harassment is not addressed. Harassment is best prevented by ensuring that all employees recognize unacceptable conduct and feel supported in speaking up. Dental practices that implement solid anti-harassment policies, provide essential training on issues of harassment in the workplace, and consistently enforce their policies protect employees from inappropriate conduct in the practice, and protect themselves from potential claims. Most importantly, employees are apt to report claims in a timely manner with confidence in the employer’s ability to address and resolve any allegation.