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Handling Sexual Harassment Complaints in Healthcare Sectors: A Guide

The #MeToo Movement has exposed cases of sexual harassment and discrimination in all industries, and the healthcare sector isn't immune from this office crisis. Around 30-70 percent of female physicians and 50 percent of female medical students say they have experienced sexual harassment. As a doctor or practice owner; whether in the dental, optometry, veterinary, or pharmacy field; you need to take every allegation of sexual harassment seriously. Failure to do so could result in a lawsuit or penalties from the government.

This guide provides an overview of sexual harassment in healthcare, as well as a detailed description of how to handle and prevent incidents from occurring. It covers the following topics:

  • The definition of sexual harassment
  • How to spot instances of sexual harassment before they escalate into lawsuits or other legal issues
  • How to report incidents that have already occurred

Decoding Sexual Harassment Complaints in Healthcare Sectors

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces sexual harassment legislation. However, an employee can also take your dental, medical, optometry, or veterinary practice to court for alleged sexual harassment. 

Whether it's a fine from the government or court-imposed legal fees/ damages, a sexual harassment claim could cost tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. The emotional cost for everyone involved, however, is limitless. 

Understanding what constitutes sexual harassment is essential. According to the EEOC, sexual harassment is defined as:

  • "Unwelcome behaviors like sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."
  • Note that 'non-sexual' offensive remarks, body language, or gestures are also considered part of the spectrum of sexual harassment.

Stepping Up: Responding to Sexual Harassment Complaints

The complexity of sexual harassment cases requires pragmatic and purposeful action. Sexual harassment is a serious matter that should be taken seriously. Employees who feel they have been sexually harassed should report the incident immediately to their employers, who should respond appropriately.

Ensure your response is prompt, systematic, and transparent:

  • Take every complaint seriously: Treat every complaint with focused attention, irrespective of its complexity.
  • Promptly initiate an investigation: Avail every possible evidence such as potential witnesses and relevant documentation at the earliest.
  • Communicate with everyone involved: Keep all parties informed about the investigation process, timelines and outcomes.
  • Make an impartial judgement: Conduct thorough investigations and dole out appropriate actions based on the findings.

Proactive Steps to Maintain a Harassment-free Environment

As a dedicated practice owner or HR manager, having robust processes to handle sexual harassment complaints is crucial. HR for Health, a compliance-focused human resources company, offers services to help healthcare practices stay compliant during sexual harassment allegations process. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Invest in training and resources for adequately investigating allegations.
  • Educate your team about sexual harassment and implement policies to prevent it.
  • Create an atmosphere where employees can file complaints without fear of retaliation or prejudice.

How Do Sexual Harassment Complaints Arise in Dental, Optometry, Veterinary, and Medical Practices?

Sexual harassment means different things to different people, and there's no one "true" definition. However, the EEOC defines sexual harassment as the following:

"It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) 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."

Sexual harassment, however, doesn't have to be "of a sexual nature." It could include offensive remarks, body language, or gestures from someone in your practice. 

Sexual harassment is an extremely complex subject, with many emotions involved. You must investigate all complaints appropriately — or you could face serious consequences. Enlisting the services of a compliance-focused human resources company (such as HR for Health) will ensure your organization stays compliant during a sexual harassment allegation. Learn more here.

Final Thoughts

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that violates numerous laws. Ensuring your workplace is safe and respectful keeps you compliant and contributes to a better work environment. Moreover, HR for Health offers various HR management tools to streamline your workflow, ensuring your focus remains undivided on providing the best healthcare possible.

The best way to avoid sexual harassment allegations is to create a safe and respectful workplace from the beginning. You can begin by educating your employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, as well as how to report incidents that may occur. Additionally, it’s important to enforce policies prohibiting sexual harassment, train supervisors on how to respond when an incident occurs, and provide resources for employees who wish to report such behavior.

Whether you're a small business or a large group clinic, HR for Health can tailor solutions to suit your practice and budget. Discover more with HR for Health here and book your consultation today.

Note: This is not to be construed as legal or HR advice. Employment laws continually change over time and vary by location and industry; hence always consult with a lawyer or HR expert for specific guidance.