Kellie G. Olah
SPHR, CVPM, SHRM-SCP
HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.Read Articles Written by Kellie G. Olah
The #MeToo movement started last fall with claims of sexual harassment and rape against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Before long, dark shadows were cast over other powerful men — from entertainment personalities Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Russell Simmons and James Franco to politicians Al Franken and Roy Moore.
Although any accusation typically gets more publicity when a celebrity is involved, sexual misconduct occurs in all walks of life. What will you do — and should you do — as a veterinary practice owner or manager if an employee lodges harassment claims? What if the employee joins the #MeToo movement and goes onto social media to name names at your hospital?
If your team has a sexual harasser, your practice may be one complaint away from a disaster. How should your practice respond to the multilayered issue of sexual harassment? Do you know how to respond to complaints and proactively protect your practice?
Knowledge Is Power
First, take a good, hard look at your hospital’s sexual harassment training program and be honest with yourself. What is the quality of the program and how much effort do you put into it? If the program isn’t as well thought out and implemented as it could be and should be, you’re not alone, but improving it must be a priority. The training must pay more than lip service to the issue and must not be only a way to limit your liability if or when a complaint occurs.
Your program and policies must make a stand for respect and equality in the workplace, and you must amplify that by how you train, by how you communicate and by how you serve as a role model in your practice.
If you don’t have an anti-harassment training program, you need to create one now. It must be a top priority. You need to carefully craft harassment and sexual misconduct policies and procedures and share them with all your employees. Consider role-playing sexual harassment scenarios to give your team the opportunity to demonstrate and discuss the true impact of sexual harassment. If you don’t know where to start, consider hiring a practice consultant or human resources expert to construct a plan and conduct in-clinic training.
Your policies and procedures should provide multiple ways for an employee to report acts of harassment. If the only official avenue is for someone to go to his or her direct supervisor, how does it help if the supervisor is the harasser? This scenario, unfortunately, does happen.
Also have a plan for how you will follow through on complaints, and don’t rule out hiring outside legal counsel if appropriate. Once the policies and procedures are finalized, add them to the employee manual and go over them with the entire team. Review the policies annually, or more often if changes are made. Specific policies and procedures may vary by practice, but the bottom line in any document must be that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. It will be investigated promptly and addressed decisively.
Responding to Complaints
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires prompt and proportionate corrective action whenever harassment is found to have taken place, with workplaces having both a legal and ethical responsibility to appropriately address complaints.
However, this does not mean that managers should assume the accused is guilty before an investigation has even started. Nor should assumptions be made based on gender — for example, assuming that men are the harassers and women are the victims. These approaches, in fact, are among the worst ways to respond. In today’s emotionally heated environment of almost daily news reports of sexual harassment, you must be fair to all parties and never punish a person based solely on an accusation or because of preconceived gender roles.
Step one is to take every complaint seriously and not rush to judgment. After you receive a complaint, promptly follow up and investigate thoroughly. Remember that anyone doing the investigating must remain fair and objective. Listen carefully to the complainant and assure the employee that retaliation for the complaint will not be permitted. Tell the complainant that if retaliation occurs or if harassment continues, you need to know about it right away and will address the behavior.
Document all discussions carefully, including the dates, times and witnesses to relevant events. When you inform the accused of the complaint, assure him or her that a fair and impartial investigation will take place and that guilt is not assumed.
Also, communicate regularly with the parties so they don’t feel ignored and explain that a rushed investigation serves no one well.
Once you’ve collected as much information as possible, use discernment in making the best decision you can about the complaint. Consult with an attorney to make sure you are looking at the situation appropriately. If the attorney has concerns about the investigation or the conclusions, take a good second look. You can move forward once the attorney supports your decision and reasoning.
Document all follow-up steps — from training to discipline — and keep the case files separate from regular personnel files.
Always Be Aware
Managers would be well-served to routinely monitor interaction among co-workers rather than wait for a complaint to be filed. Doing this might prevent less serious behaviors from expanding into full-blown misconduct. Keep an open-door policy as well so an employee feels safe sharing problems. If these conversations alert you to a sexual harassment situation — or even if you hear workplace rumors — they must be investigated.
Here are three additional steps to take:
- Review your employment practices liability insurance policy to see if legal costs associated with harassment are included. Determine if you need more coverage.
- Remain alert to sexual harassment issues and related legal cases, including those happening in other professions.
- Each year, review your sexual harassment policies and procedures, adjust them as needed, and inform all employees about the changes.
Finally, what will your practice do if a team member joins the #MeToo movement and uses social media to out your practice or an employee? Don’t wait for this possibility to become a reality. Instead, be proactive and develop a plan to address the situation if someone connected with your practice goes public with a complaint. Address both the legal and public relations concerns and get input from your attorney and other relevant professionals.
Is your practice prepared? Even if your hospital never gets entangled in the #MeToo movement, ignoring it is a problem. Instead, acknowledge the campaign and explicitly tell your employees that you agree with the fight against sexism both in the workplace and away from it. Work with your managers so they are prepared to foster an environment in which everyone can be safe from harassment.
Train and support your managers so they know how to handle a situation in which they personally observe inappropriate behaviors. Empower your team to handle harassment claims by providing them with all the policies, procedures and resources they might need, and be prepared to back them up all the way.
Facts about sexual harassment
Here’s what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about sexual harassment:
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
- The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker or a non-employee.
- The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
- Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
- The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.
It is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.
When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, EEOC looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination on the allegations is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
It is also unlawful to retaliate against an individual for opposing employment practices that discriminate based on sex or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding or litigation under Title VII.