Mitigating the Risk of Sexual Harassment in Your Practice

Episode 40: Mitigating the Risk of Sexual Harassment in Your Practice

Today we’re diving into a serious and important topic: Sexual Harassment in the workplace within physician offices. We’ll be exploring the complex power dynamics involved and focusing on how to mitigate risks, especially in the classic case of a male physician and a female staff member.

First and foremost, we must understand what sexual harassment is and why it is so detrimental to a practice. It goes beyond inappropriate comments or actions; it’s about an abuse of power that can erode trust and create a hostile work environment.

The medical field is unique in its power dynamics. A physician’s high level of education and authority can sometimes lead to a misuse of power. This is especially prevalent in situations involving male physicians and female staff members. But how does it manifest, and what can be done about it?

Recognizing the Problem: First, we need to understand when a relationship has crossed the line from professional to inappropriate. This is not always subjective – what to one person may occur as a harmless comment or physical touch, may leave another feeling  uncomfortable or even violated.

A conversation about sexual harassment wouldn’t be complete without some reflection on the #metoo movement and other “woke” trends. As with anything in life, some of these may be over the line, although many are an appropriate reaction by women (and other marginalized populations) to speak up and have a chance to say what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. Creating boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not. And… here’s the tricky part: everyone’s boundaries are in a slightly different place.

So, how do we navigate in times when it seems everyone is easily offended? And, that people are quick to cry foul in a way that can seem like they’re overreacting? My best advice is to aim down the middle, and when in doubt, take the most conservative approach. If your tendency (like mine) is to give people a hug when greeting them, or if they seem upset, be sure to check in with them if you’re unsure if that hug is actually welcome. We never know what things people have experienced in their past. Where we intend the hug to be calming or positive, they may have had a time in their past where hugs were forced on them or were a precursor to some kind of violence. And while their reaction today to what is intended as an innocent hug seems out of perspective, it may be terribly painful for them.

Frequently, there is a wide gap between our intent and our impact. This goes for words and actions. If one of your employees feels a large power imbalance, they may feel like they need to keep quiet about something that’s bothering them for fear of losing their job. Too many of these types of events over time affect the victim, the team, and the entire practice.

Let’s talk about the legal and ethical considerations. There’s no room for sexual harassment in a medical practice. It’s not only an ethical obligation but a legal one as well. Here’s what you need to know about the legal landscape: given the shift in social movements, public opinion is shifting far in favor of the victim, and even minor issues are frequently seen as major problems. Yes, there is backlash, and it is here to stay.

This makes the issue of sexual harassment especially volatile in medical practices. Physicians are perceived as having a lot of money and are therefore easy targets for lawsuits. Yes, there are employees out there who are predatory and will take a job with an eye to “catching” a physician in an inappropriate action and subsequently filing a lawsuit. And there are some physicians out there who are predatory, and will hit on a young employee, assuming they can have their way due to the power imbalance. Both situations create extreme risk for the practice as a whole.

There’s an aspect of sexual harassment that is often overlooked but is incredibly vital in understanding and addressing the issue. It’s the fact that harassment is often in the eye of the beholder and increasingly court cases are decided that way. Federal and state laws governing sexual harassment are being revisited, and landmark cases are in the news daily. What one person might see as a harmless comment or gesture might be perceived completely differently by someone else. HR laws recognize this subjective nature, focusing on how the behavior is received, not necessarily how it was intended.

This doesn’t mean that intent is irrelevant, but rather that it’s the effect on the individual that often determines whether behavior qualifies as harassment. This can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, making clear communication and education even more essential.

As leaders, one of the most important things we can do is to encourage empathy and awareness. Building a culture where team members are sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others is key. This includes training that helps staff recognize how their words and actions might be perceived and fostering an environment where everyone feels comfortable communicating their feelings. This can be confusing and frustrating, and there is room for everyone to learn a bit about their own communication and how it impacts others. This also challenges physicians and leaders to think beyond their own perceptions to understand those of others.

Since harassment can be subjective, it’s crucial to have reporting protocols that take the individual’s perception into account. This means creating a space where people feel comfortable sharing their experiences without fear of judgment or retaliation.

This subjective nature of harassment adds complexity to the issue but also offers an opportunity for growth and understanding within a practice. By acknowledging that harassment is often in the eye of the beholder and taking proactive steps to address it, a practice can create a more empathetic and responsive environment.

Creating a safe and respectful work environment is key. Here’s how you can work to mitigate risks:

  • First, clear policies that are unambiguous and reflect a zero tolerance for any kind of harassment.
  • Second, training and education are key – many people don’t really talk about harassment because it’s an uncomfortable topic. At times, it can be charged. Implementing comprehensive training for all staff members can create a sense of equality and inclusivity.
  • Third, keep open communication channels. When you encourage open dialogues, assuring confidentiality of all staff members, you show them that open communication is valued. Then it is imperative to address their concerns promptly.

Sexual harassment is a grave matter, but with the right approach, you can protect your practice and build a culture of respect and integrity. It’s about doing some good for your practice and for the people in it.

Thank you for joining me today on Medical Money Matters. Be sure to like or follow to receive upcoming episodes automatically. Join me for our next episode, where we’ll discuss Amplifying Voices on your team.

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