Avoiding Inappropriate Staff Conversations at Your Medical Practice

December 28, 2013

Religion, politics, sports, patient information, and personal lives are topics best avoided by staff members. Here's why and how it can affect your business.

With the recent changes in the HIPAA, and with the sensitivity people have to certain topics of conversation, it's more important now than ever to update your "Workplace Conversation Topics" policy. There are a few areas that are very sensitive that need the most attention: religion, politics, sports, patient information, and personal life (includes any relationships or alcohol-related events).

Keep in mind that if you are hearing inappropriate conversations, so can other staff members, and worse, your patients. Several years ago, while fighting a terrible bout of bronchitis, I was sitting in the lobby of my physician's office waiting to be called back when I was the victim of hearing a very inappropriate conversation between two front-office staff members. Had I not really needed to be seen, I would have walked out. I did share my concerns with the physician, and although she said she would handle the situation, it happened on two more occasions. I stopped utilizing that physician's services, not because I did not like her, or she did not help me, but it was clear she did not have a professional handle on her staff.

When writing your "Workplace Conversation Topics" policy be very specific about the topics you do not feel should be talked about. I mentioned religion above. We are a very diverse nation, and that is what makes this a great country. Being respectful of another's religious beliefs should be a must. But there are people who still tell jokes or provide derogatory opinions about other religions that are not theirs. Do not allow your staff to offend another staff or your patients with their inappropriate comments.

I also mention politics. This is a hotbed of debate waiting to take your business down. When employees talk politics or even a topic they heard on the news last night, they are opening up the door more unwanted opinions. The impression that your patients get when hearing a political conversation, particularly if they disagree, is that you as the business owner must also feel this way. People like to be around like-minded people. If they assume that your employees' opinions reflect yours, you may lose a customer.

Sports is the next topic, and not one that business owners consider to be taboo. I'm a football and baseball fan. I like to go to games; I like to watch them on TV. Sometimes I yell at the refs if I disagree with a call. But I really don't consider myself one of those uber-fanatics. Some people bleed their team's colors. They live for the team. If they hear a staff member talking about yesterday's game, you run the risk of argument, alienation, and once again, losing a customer. People are very opinionated about sports teams, topics, being role models, the problems enforcing league policies, etc. There's a plethora of topics that should be avoided there.

Explain to your staff that their evening and weekend activities are their business. Some of these topics can skate closely around the lines of sexual harassment, so be sure your staff understands discussion of their off-time preferences is not really appropriate at the workplace.

The last topic is very clear: Don't let your staff openly discuss any patient case. I read an article a few months back that a staff member was dismissed after she was joking about a patient's medical condition. She thought he had left, and was simply in the other room. A very heated discussion followed, and words like "sue, lawsuit, and "I'm going to own your business!" were loudly overheard. For obvious reasons, your staff will need to discuss patient cases in a professional manner. Be sure they are not using specific identifiable information inappropriately.

These are just a few ideas to review when updating your policies for the coming New Year. Have a staff meeting to review the policies and explain the consequences of violating any of those.