Patients Accused of Sexual Harassment – July 2007
Many dentists are aware of sexual harassment laws that prohibit such harassment by supervisors or between employees. But when a nonemployee, particularly a long standing patient, is the one who is accused of the harassment by an employee such as a hygienist or dental assistant, the situation can become more difficult for the dentist to handle and not lose the patient as well as avoid litigation by the harassed employee.
Say, for example, an employee of your practice complains that a patient has made sexually inappropriate comments or has physically touched the employee in a sexual way. For a dentist to do nothing and hope the action is just a one time occurrence is the worst possible way to take care of the situation. Possible liability under this situation can occur, according the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Guidelines on Discrimination Based on Sex. In this Guideline liability will be found if the dentist knows or should know that harassment is taking place and fails to take immediate remedial action. Employers such as dentists may also be held liable if they ratify, encourage, or acquiesce to such behavior, or if they allow an environment in which harassment can take place.
To prevent the possibility of liability by inaction, in the instance where a complaint about harassment by a patient has been made, the dentist should definitely investigate the matter thoroughly. First the dentist must make sure that the employee is told that harassment is not tolerated by the practice and steps to stop it will be taken. The dentist should begin a written record about the complaint and any action taken. A dentist may consider that confronting the patient immediately is not the best thing for the practice, particularly if the patient and the patient’s family have been regular patients for some time. In that case, separating the employee from the patient may be a good intermediate step. If the harassment is more serious or occurs repeatedly, then the employer may want to issue a warning to the patient or possibly terminate the relationship of the patient with the practice.
The best ways to avoid a situation in which sexual harassment by a patient could lead to costly litigation are preliminary steps advising employees that the workplace will be free of sexual harassment. This includes posting along with language stating that such harassment by supervisors or by fellow employers will not be allowed and a word about the lack of tolerance for any nonemployee harassment. Such a posting could be included also with other announcements about the prohibition of other violations of Title VII, the federal discrimination statute, including discrimination by race or disability. The reference in such a posting to more details in an employee handbook is a good idea.
Costly liability by allowing harassment by dental patients can take place if the workplace is maintained in such a way as to possibly indicate that these kinds of actions are not prohibited. There are however ways to avoid this result if the dentist takes the right prudent steps.