Incidents of sexual harassment are magnified within the healthcare industry where women account for more than 75% of the workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The harassment can have legal and reputational repercussions for organizations, and negatively affect employee morale, retention, recruitment and quality of patient care.
To help reduce the risks of sexual harassment, healthcare organizations should provide employees with ongoing sexual harassment prevention training, clearly communicate their anti-harassment policies and implement anonymous 24/7 reporting procedures.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently ordered three healthcare companies to pay a total of nearly $600,000 in settlements to resolve sexual harassment lawsuits. The companies failed to protect a doctor, paramedic and nurse from repeated sexual comments and unwanted touching by co-workers that created a hostile environment which forced each of them to resign.
A growing number of city and states require organizations to provide sexual harassment training to employees and managers, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, New York, New York City and Washington state (for certain industries). Effective July 1, 2022, Chicago became the latest city to impose new annual sexual harassment prevention and bystander training requirements for employees and managers.
5 actions healthcare providers should take to prevent sexual harassment include:
- Raising awareness of harassment and its consequences.
An organization’s policies, code of conduct and training should clearly explain what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in a healthcare facility, a telehealth or home healthcare environment and more. Under the EEOC, there are two forms of sexual harassment:
- Hostile work environment harassment: This is unwelcome sexual conduct that “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s job performance” or creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.”
- Quid pro quo (something for something) harassment: This involves a manager, supervisor or others in a position of authority, and occurs when employment decisions (such as getting a promotion or bonus) are based on whether someone accepts or rejects unwelcome sexual conduct.
- Tailoring training to the healthcare industry.
Harassment training is more impactful when it reflects the healthcare environment in which physicians, nurses, technicians, patients and suppliers work and interact. Using real-world examples adds authenticity and including a video message from the CEO can help make the point that everyone is responsible for fostering a respectful workplace.
- Teaching bystanders to safely intervene.
Bystander intervention is one of the most effective ways to empower employees to take an active role in stopping harassment and preventing future incidents. By teaching individuals how to safely disrupt, confront and call out the behavior of offenders if they experience or witness harassment, bystander training supports targets of abuse and prevents future incidents from occurring.
- Encouraging staff to report misconduct.
Ensure employees know how to report harassment and other misconduct. In addition to managers and HR, reporting channels should include anonymous hotlines that are easy to use and accessible 24/7. An AllVoices 2021 State of Workplace Harassment report found that 85% of surveyed employees said they were more inclined to report harassment if the channel to do so is anonymous.
- Training managers to effectively respond to harassment and retaliation.
Managers and supervisors should be trained to take complaints of harassment seriously, promptly report incidents to investigators and prevent retaliation against individuals who report misconduct. Employees are more inclined to speak up and voice their concerns when they trust it’s not a useless endeavor, they’ll be believed and are protected from reprisal.
Sexual harassment within the healthcare industry creates a hostile work environment that negatively affects staff morale, engagement and retention, and can lower productivity and the quality of care patients receive. Healthcare providers can prevent sexual misconduct by committing to ongoing employee training and communication, adopting a zero-tolerance harassment policy, and implementing an effective system for reporting incidents and protecting employees against potential retaliation.
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