Responding to and Preventing Claims of Harassment in the Dental Office – Part 1

Harassment in the workplace can occur in many forms.  These include sex, race, color, national origin, age, religion, disability, military status, and ancestry ― all of which are commonly referred to, by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (“OCRC”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), as protected classes.  The dental practice attorneys and employment attorneys at Nardone Limited emphasize to their dental practice clients that it is important to (i) understand what constitutes harassment, (ii) implement a practice harassment policy and procedures and (iii) ensure that such harassment policy and procedures are strictly enforced. For more information on employment matters that affect your dental practice, see our article about employment agreements with associate dentists.

One example of harassment is sexual harassment.  The Ohio Civil Rights Commission generally defines sexual harassment as any unwanted attention of a sexual nature—verbal or physical—that creates discomfort or interferes with the job.  Sexual harassment includes unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, suggestive comments or demands, and physical conduct of a sexual nature, such as touching, pinching, or patting.  There are two basic types of sexual harassment: (i) quid pro quo and (ii) a hostile working environment.  Quid pro quo harassment occurs where submission to sexual demands becomes the basis for an employment decision, such as a supervisor stating or implying to an employee that her job or some term or condition of her job depends on meeting sexual demands.  A hostile working environment, on the other hand, occurs when the sexual harassment creates an intimidating or offensive working environment.  The hostile working environment standard is also used in determining if there is racial harassment or harassment related to another protected class as listed above.

Establishing and Enforcing the Practice Harassment Policies

No matter the form of harassment, dental practices must be aware of how to prevent the harassment and respond to a complaint regarding the same.  Initially, it is important to do the following:

1. Develop and Implement a Policy on Discriminatory Harassment and a Corresponding Complaint Procedure – The policy should: (i) provide for the protection of all employees against harassment and discrimination (zero tolerance), and (ii) include definitions and examples; supervisor and employee responsibilities; reporting, investigation and discipline procedures; and prohibition against retaliation if someone makes a discrimination or harassment complaint; and

2. Provide Annual Training for Supervisors and Employees – The U.S. Supreme Court views training, in addition to developing and implementing policies and procedures addressing discrimination/harassment, as part of a Practice’s good faith efforts in complying with the law.  The goal of such training is to keep employees out of trouble when it comes to harassment in the workplace.  The training, however, will also put the employees on notice and provide an affirmative defense for the Practice.  To minimize litigation and liability, it is simply not enough to have a written policy.  You must actually inform your staff of the policy and actually perform yearly training in this area.

Developing and implementing a policy and corresponding procedures regarding harassment in the workplace, as well as providing staff training, are certainly essential and the most direct ways to prevent and respond to the harassment .  But, there are other preventative measures your dental practice can implement to minimize harassment in the office and the exposure that arises from claims of harassment whether or not these claims are substantiated.  Examples of some other preventative measures are as follows:

1. Implement policies that make it clear that discriminatory harassment and other sex-related offenses are terminable offenses;

2. Obtain related employee acknowledgements at orientation;

3. Redraft employment applications to include certain related assurances or pledges from your dental practice’s staff; and

4. Ensure prompt responses, consistent with the written policies and procedures, are made to harassment complaints and that misconduct of the wrongdoer is substantiated.

Not only is it important to put in place policies and procedures related to harassment in the workplace, but it is just as important to follow through in enforcing these written policies and procedures.  If a complaint is brought against your practice, failure to follow such policies and/or procedures will be raised by the complaining party’s attorney and will negatively impact your practice’s defense to the harassment complaint.  On the other hand, a practice that follows through with its policies and procedures related to workplace harassment will be in a more advantageous position when receiving a complaint.  Taking the preventative measures discussed above will not, however, make a practice impervious to receiving and dealing with a harassment complaint.  It simply places the practice in a better position.

Contact Nardone Limited

If you (i) have received a charge of discrimination including harassment from OCRC/EEOC or (ii) would like the help of an experienced employment attorney to draft a discriminatory harassment policy and corresponding complaint procedure for your dental practice, you should contact Nardone Limited. Nardone Limited, a Columbus, Ohio law firm, provides specialized dental practice representation across Ohio. The dental practice attorneys and employment attorneys at Nardone Limited represent dentists in such diverse areas as: (i) buying and selling dental practices, (ii) asset purchase agreements, (iii) employment contracts and noncompete agreements, (iv) labor and employment, (v) human resources, (vi) Ohio Dental Board proceedings, (vii) lease agreements, (viii) real estate purchase agreements, (ix) tax planning, and (x) estate planning. Contact Nardone Limited today to discuss your practice and how Nardone Limited may help you.