A Guide to Preventing Sexual Harassment at Your Practice

January 28, 2018

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, physicians must adhere to higher standard.

Every physician should be aware of the rule for romantic or sexual relations with a patients: It's forbidden.  When it comes to "sexual harassment" in the workplace, the kind brought to light in the "Me Too" movement, medical facilities may have slightly different rules than other employers. 

For all employers, "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. Title VII does not proscribe all conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace. Thus, it is crucial to a Title VII, to  clearly define sexual harassment: only unwelcome sexual conduct that is term of condition of employment constitutes a violation. 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a).
The Supreme Court in 1986 in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 106 S. Ct. 2399  (1986) affirmed the basic premises as a guide to employers who should take any complaint seriously. They should undertake the following analysis as soon as any evidence of sexual conduct is present:

• Determining whether sexual conduct is "unwelcome";
• Evaluating evidence of harassment;
• Determining whether a work environment is sexually "hostile";
• Prevention of sexual harassment by supervisors; and
• Evaluating preventive and remedial action taken in response to claims of sexual harassment.

According to the EEOC Website, "Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people."

Employer Liability for Harassment
The employer is liable for harassment by a supervisor that comes from something like termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages, the EEOC states. "If the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer."

For Medical Practices, physicians normally must adhere to higher standard.  Under 

"Sexual harassment" can be defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment in the practice of medicine is unethical. Sexual harassment exploits inequalities in status and power, abuses the rights and trust of those who are subjected to such conduct; interferes with an individual's work performance, and may influence or be perceived as influencing professional advancement in a manner unrelated to clinical or academic performance harm professional working relationships, and create an intimidating or hostile work environment; and is likely to jeopardize patient care. Sexual relationships between medical supervisors and trainees are not acceptable, even if consensual. The supervisory role should be eliminated if the parties wish to pursue their relationship.

Physicians should promote and adhere to strict sexual harassment policies in medical workplaces. Physicians who participate in grievance committees should be broadly representative with respect to gender identity or sexual orientation, profession, and employment status, have the power to enforce harassment policies, and be accessible to the persons they are meant to serve.

The EEOC says that prvention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Specifically, employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, which includes communicating 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."