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Sexual Harassment in Dentistry, Optometry, or Veterinary: Employee Informed Me They Were Offended by a Suggestive Photo a Coworker Sent Them. How Should I Handle This?

Dominic Kelley
Posted by Dominic Kelley on May 29, 2019

As a practice owner and employer, you have an obligation to take steps to prevent harassment and deal with it thoroughly and promptly when it occurs in your dental, optometry, or veterinary practice. Prevention is always the best policy; therefore, all employees - from office managers and hygienists to veterinary technicians and optometric assistants - should be trained at time of hire and regularly thereafter. In fact, some states such as California and New York have made sexual harassment training mandatory.

Yet in this specific instance "An employee has informed me that they were offended by a suggestive photo a coworker sent them. How should I handle this?," since the alleged behavior may constitute sexual harassment, we recommend that you investigate the matter and put a stop to any such behavior as soon as possible.

While employers are not required to enforce a “code of civility,” most employees appreciate working in an environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. When any kind of offensive conduct occurs, it should not be encouraged or allowed to continue. Most employers have a policy that is stricter than the law. “Zero tolerance” means stopping offensive behavior right away – BEFORE it crosses the line and becomes “pervasive, ongoing, or severe.” Once a harassment claim has been made aware to an employer, and no action is taken, the employer is considered negligent and is now liable -- including hostile work environment claims as well.

To this end, speak to the employee who complained, any witnesses, and the accused employee. Once the investigation interviews are complete, we recommend internally documenting your conclusions and actions taken. 

If you determine that the accused employee violated your dental, optometry, or veterinary practice's harassment or other workplace policy, you should take appropriate disciplinary measures. It is then important to inform both the accused employee and the accuser about the conclusions of the investigation. The employee who made the complaint doesn't need to know the specific disciplinary action you took, just that appropriate corrective action was taken.

Final Takeaways

Make sure that you document every step of your investigation and the resulting actions to ensure you fulfill your legal obligations. Having a clear record will affirm objectivity and that similar future situations are handled consistently.

Lastly, after any harassment investigation is settled, conducting additional training and/or clarification of your policies will ensure you are exercising due diligence. Additionally, if you noticed any ambiguous or inconsistent aspects of your policies throughout the investigation process, this will be a good time to amend oversights. 

Due to the complexity and high risk that sexual harassment poses, it is always best to consult a professional, such as an HR company or labor law attorney, to ensure complete fulfillment of your legal obligations.

Topics: Harassment investigation, Sexual Harassment

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