Medical Practices May be Especially Vulnerable to Sexual Misconduct Claims
By Sarah L. Carlins and Adam M. Shestak
Recent allegations of sexual misconduct spanning multiple industries have demonstrated that sexual harassment is much more common in the workplace than employers may care to admit. Organizations that take a “not us” approach to dealing with these issues may find themselves exposed to significant liability. Medical practices are no exception. Indeed, because a typical medical practice may consist of predominantly male owners and predominantly female staff, a practice may be especially vulnerable to such claims, legitimate or not. Here are a few suggested best practices for physician organizations to consider in order to protect themselves and their employees, and promote a harassment-free work environment.
Sexual Harassment Training
Have practice employees recently completed sexual harassment training? The practice should offer such training at regular intervals and ensure a method of documenting individual participation.
Perhaps the more important question is what type of training has the medical practice provided its employees? Many organizations rely on generic, online training videos that are more about “checking a box” than they are about providing individuals with the resources and training necessary to effectively combat harassment in the workplace. Rather than choosing a quick and easy option, medical practices should consider providing in-person, interactive harassment trainings for staff as well as owners that are specifically tailored to the needs and concerns of medical practices. These trainings will not only be more useful to physicians and staff, but will also demonstrate to third parties and outside agencies that sexual misconduct is a matter that the practice takes seriously and is proactive in combatting. This fact alone may play a role in protecting the practice, its owners, and employees from liability.
Sexual Harassment Policies
Simply providing training to employees is not enough, however. Medical practices should have detailed sexual harassment policies that are circulated and explained to all employees. These policies should include elements such as:
- Definition – A clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment
- Tolerance – A clear directive that the practice does not tolerate sexual harassment
- Reporting Procedures – A clear explanation of how to report sexual harassment, including to whom and the manners in which such reports can be transmitted (i.e. email, in-person meeting)
- Disciplinary action – A clear statement about the actions that the practice will take in response to allegations of sexual misconduct, up to and including termination
- Supporting harassment victims – It may be helpful to include a “Speak Up, We Listen” section, designed to reassure individuals that their concerns will be taken seriously and they won’t face retaliation. Including such a message of support and encouragement may be helpful in protecting against liability, but only if it is genuine.
How to Handle Complaints of Sexual Misconduct
Medical practices must carefully consider how they handle sexual harassment allegations when they surface. Has your medical practice ever handled a sexual harassment complaint? If so, how did it proceed? Investigations regarding sexual harassment are often conducted internally by human resources staff. However, due to the structure of medical practices, which are owned by physicians, there is a greater chance that staff will be charged with conducting an investigation of a person with significant authority in the organization – the physician owner. In these circumstances, it may be in the best interest of the practice to bring in outside help to conduct the investigation. This will ensure that the complaint is fully investigated by a neutral third party that is free of any conflict of interest. Engaging such assistance may help to demonstrate the practice’s commitment to proper investigation and management of complaints, which could help to protect the practice from liability.
This is only a brief overview of the steps that organizations can take to ensure compliance and protection, particularly in today’s environment. Houston Harbaugh’s health care and employment law attorneys can assist medical practices and providers of all types with more specific advice, as well as sexual harassment training, policies and investigation of complaints. Please contact us with any questions regarding sexual misconduct in the workplace.
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