When Workplace Relationships Get Complicated
As you may remember, last spring Best Buy was experiencing less than stellar earnings - a $1.7 billion quarterly loss, as well as the closure of several of its stores and numerous layoffs. Things were not going well for the electronics giant, and it wasn’t long after that the CEO stepped down. Not much of a surprise in the corporate world of profit and loss where it’s not unusual for poor earnings to result in the ouster of the CEO. But then, as is often the case, the rest of the story began to emerge. In fact, the main reason for the CEO’s abbreviated tenure was the revelation that the 51-year-old married man was involved in a relationship with a 29-year-old female subordinate.
Whether or not you agree that such matters should be anyone’s business except those involved, the facts is relationships, be they between the boss and a subordinate or between coworkers, ripple across the organization. The dental practice is no different. In fact, the problems resulting from workplace relationships or allegations of sexual harassment can be particularly devastating. Oftentimes, dentists don’t have written human resources policies in place to adequately deal with such issues. Or, worse yet, they are the ones engaging in inappropriate or questionable relationships with employees.
Moreover, they make excuses. “We’re a small operation. We’re just like one big family. We all joke around. No one takes it seriously. We’re a small business, so I don’t think we need specific policies.” Think again. In fact, when it comes to sexual harassment allegations, as well as many other human resources issues in the workplace, small businesses, including dental practices, must follow the same rules as large employers. Equally troubling, in the absence of policies there is a lack of understanding regarding what behaviors could be interpreted as sexual harassment. Consequently, doctor and staff do not even realize they are engaging in harassment, as one doctor learned the hard way.
The situation began innocently enough; the employees were just having a little fun. It was a joke that was intended to be perfectly harmless. It resulted in a very expensive lawsuit. “Jeff” joined a small practice staffed primarily by women. The ladies were a tight-knit group. They had worked together for a while and thought they would have some fun at their new male co-worker’s expense. The women repeatedly sent lewd photos to his workplace email. They regularly left an assortment of ladies lingerie at his desk. And they thought it was all very amusing and in good fun. “Jeff,” however, was so uncomfortable that he soon quit his job with the practice. Shortly thereafter, the doctor received a complaint of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
The women saw it as an amusing “initiation.” The courts, however, saw it as hazing. The doctor was completely unprepared. There were no polices or procedures in place to deal with the issue because, well, it had never come up before. And that is precisely why dentists can suddenly find themselves in costly legal battles. They don’t THINK they will need a sexual harassment policy, or a progressive discipline policy, or a sick leave policy, until they do.
In the situation above, the practice had to pay ex-employee “Jeff” forward wages. He quit the job because it was such an extremely uncomfortable situation for him. Had it been someone else, perhaps he would have gone along with the joke and thought the whole thing was funny. But for “Jeff” it wasn’t funny; it was harassment. And that is a critical point when it comes to matters involving alleged sexual harassment. What is seemingly harmless to one person can be construed as sexual harassment to another.
It is important to remember that it’s not the intent of the harasser that counts, it’s the impact of the behavior. Things like offensive jokes, pictures and graffiti, rude treatment of women or men just because of their gender, unwanted flirtations and quid pro quo - an exchange of something for a sexual favor, such as a favorable work benefit - all can be considered harassment. Even a friendly hug could be construed as harassment if the individual receiving the hug finds it offensive.
With the holidays just around the corner and office parties taking place, we are entering “peak season” for harassment allegations.Next week, a little “celebrating” can get you into a lot of trouble.
For more information on this topic, visit my blog: The Lighter Side.
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