5 steps to a holistic approach to preventing workplace harassment
One of the #MeToo takeaways is that sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive problem that occurs across all industries, and that includes healthcare. A study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2016 found that 30% of female clinician-researchers reported experiencing sexual harassment, and a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said that sexual harassment significantly damages research integrity and results in a “costly loss of talent” in the academic sciences, engineering and medicine.
When it comes to sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the healthcare industry is among the sectors with the highest number of claims – 11.48% of the total sexual harassment charges filed from 2005 to 2015, according to The Center for American Progress.
Beyond sexual harassment
It’s not just sexual harassment claims in the healthcare sector. Recent EEOC lawsuits and settlements involve sex-based pay discrimination, failing to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and pregnancy, age and disability discrimination.
Among the federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and the Equal Pay Act.
In addition, many states and cities have passed their own anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws, most recently California, New York and New York City, which require employers to provide sexual harassment prevention training to all employees and supervisors.
Unwelcome conduct becomes unlawful harassment when it is based on race, sex, age, national origin or other characteristics protected under Title VII and state and local laws, and interferes with a person’s job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive working environment. Sexual harassment involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
However, harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature to be unlawful, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex or gender. An individual of any gender can be the harasser or target of harassment. In the healthcare field, a harasser or harassment target can be a colleague, coworker, supervisor, supplier, vendor, visitor or patient.
Five steps to preventing sexual harassment
For the healthcare industry, the challenge is to provide safe, quality healthcare to patients and a safe, harassment-free environment for all employees and staff members. These five steps can help address that challenge, as part of a holistic approach to preventing sexual harassment and discrimination:
- Send a strong message from the CEO
Preventing workplace harassment begins with a commitment from senior leadership. Healthcare leaders must set the tone with a simple, straightforward message that preventing sexual harassment is a priority and core value of the organization. Leaders must then lead by example, in their words and behavior.
- Develop a written anti-harassment policy
Organizations should develop an anti-harassment policy that is written in clear language and regularly communicated to all employees. The policy should emphasize that the organization prohibits all forms of harassment, describe the consequences for anyone who violates the policy and applicable laws, and explain how to report incidents of misconduct. Anti-harassment policies should also be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they reflect changes in the organization, industry and local, state and federal laws.
- Implement a complaint process
Implementing a formal harassment-complaint process that is easily accessible to all employees demonstrates an organization’s commitment to taking all complaints seriously. Providing various reporting options can encourage reporting. An ethics hotline, a dedicated email address and a designated manager, who employees can contact to make harassment complaints are some examples.
- Strengthen workplace culture
Workplace culture has the greatest impact on whether organizations actively prevent harassment or allow it to continue and increase, according to the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. If there is any doubt, in the #MeToo era there are daily reminders of the negative impact of a toxic workplace culture on a company’s reputation and brand. Creating and maintaining a positive culture involves many factors, including leadership and accountability, shared values and beliefs, and setting clear expectations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
- Train all employees and supervisors
The importance of an effective sexual harassment training program has taken on a new urgency since #MeToo. Raising awareness of harassment and other workplace-conduct issues isn’t a one-off event. Sexual harassment training should be a regular, ongoing part of a holistic approach to preventing workplace harassment and discrimination. With today’s eLearning tools and strategies, online training offers a modern, interactive experience that can motivate positive behavior through realistic videos and other elements that can be tailored to a specific audience and industry. Training is also an effective way to educate employees on harassment-related topics, such as retaliation, bystander intervention, unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion.
Preventing sexual harassment in the healthcare industry (and any industry) requires the commitment of senior management and the opportunity of all employees to participate in creating a workplace culture that is respectful, inclusive and harassment-free. A comprehensive training program that is interactive, engaging and tailored to the organization and its workforce can raise awareness of harassment in all its forms, motivate positive behavior and provide employees with the skills to recognize, report and intervene when they see or experience harassment or other inappropriate or unethical behavior.