United States: Is Harvey In Your Hospital? How Healthcare Organizations Can Avoid Harassment Scandals

Last Updated: October 31 2017
Article by Katherine Dudley Helms

Print, air waves, and social media have all been filled with stories of women accusing Harvey Weinstein of grossly inappropriate (if not, criminal) behavior over a long period of time. There is much discussion of who knew what and whether others enabled his alleged behavior. With the flood of allegations against Weinstein have come other allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior of other powerful men in multiple industries. During this controversy, the #MeToo campaign went viral with women bringing to light whether they too had faced sexual harassment.

The allegations are disturbing and the potential consequences to corporate America are real. It is not a coincidence that, many times, this sort of abuse is found in situations where one person is in a position of power over those who are (or allegedly are) abused. And, in fact, many believe that sexual abuse is far more about power than it is about sex.

In the healthcare setting, it is not unusual for some individuals to have a great amount of power over employees. Certainly this power disparity is not limited to physicians, and many do not abuse their authority and control. But there are certainly cases in which a physician (who may be generating substantial revenue) is behaving badly—making inappropriate comments, touching, or worse—with employees (including both subordinates or colleagues). Organizations that have one of these "Harveys" in the workplace should not ignore him or her.

What Can Healthcare Organizations Do?

Policies, Reporting Protocols, and Investigations

First, every healthcare entity should have appropriate policies in place with regard to discrimination and harassment in any form. Employers must inform employees of the relevant policies, and employees must have an effective form of reporting harassment. When an entity learns that an employee has made a report of an alleged problem, it must immediately investigate and take appropriate action. Healthcare entities must take these actions in spite of the prospect of losing a significant revenue generator or a critical skill in a single physician. Failing to address the situation creates legal liability and sends a loud negative message to employees regarding the importance the organization places on its workforce versus certain key employees.

Training

One key to having effective policies is to properly train those who might receive sexual harassment complaints. Whether they are front-line supervisors or human resources specialists, they need to know how to listen to what might be a complaint of harassment. Managers should note that:

  • Many employees will not actually use the words "sexual harassment" until they have seen an attorney.
  • It is never a correct response to tell the concerned employee to "just ignore" the alleged aggressor.
  • Managers should be careful to avoid assuring an employee that he or she will comply with a request that "nothing be done" or to keep the allegations confidential.
  • Moreover, all parties involved should understand that the organization will not tolerate retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint.

Conclusion

There can be huge costs in terms of legal liability if you allow a Harvey to go unfettered— and perhaps an even higher cost in terms of the company's reputation and bottom line as a result of bad press in the wake of an incident that was handled poorly. As incidents such as Weinstein's continue to be covered in the media and become a part of public discourse, employees may become more vocal about "bad behavior." Now is an excellent time to (1) remind your employees of your refusal to accept this behavior, (2) remind employees and supervisory personnel of your harassment policies, and (3) refresh your sexual harassment training. If it wasn't already, now should be a very bad time to be a Harvey in any workplace.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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