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Recognizing, Correcting and Preventing Harassment in Your Practice

Sexual harassment continues to be a common issue in businesses large and small. A lack of awareness and training helps foster an environment where harassment and discrimination are not only tolerated, they are often accepted as part of the culture. Luckily, creating a safe and healthy work environment for your employees is not complicated. Read below to learn more.
Ed Rabinowitz
PUBLISHED: Monday, July 10, 2017

Creating a safe, inclusive environment is key in preventing harassment within a practice.

 
Virtually everyone wants to grow his or her dental practice. But did you know that what could be growing within your practice is a culture that fosters harassment and discrimination?

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Ashley Kaplan, Esq., senior employment law attorney with ComplyRight, says that sexual harassment continues to be a common issue, and not just in large corporations.
 
“I can tell you from personal experience, having represented a lot of dentist offices, that sexual harassment continues to be a common issue and claim that we see,” Kaplan says. “Managers, supervisors, even the dentists themselves need to have special training on their role.”
 
And integrating effective training is not difficult to accomplish.
 
FOSTERING A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT

Kaplan explains that it has not yet become protocol for all new employees to go through harassment training when joining a small dental practice. Fortunately, the cost to develop an effective program is small.
 
“There are many off-the-shelf solutions that can help dentist offices meet training initiatives,” Kaplan says. “You don’t have to hire an expert to come in and do the training for you. There are some exceptions, like in California, where you have to have an expert conduct the training, but that’s a very narrow exception.”
 
But even with periodic training, Kaplan cautions that employees are still human beings who either choose to ignore the training, or think no one will say anything and they will be able to fly under the radar. They may not recognize they have crossed the line.
 
“A lot of people believe that flirting is okay any time, anywhere,” Kaplan explains. “They don’t realize you can harm someone just by interfering with their work environment or creating a hostile environment.”
 
And harassment claims are not limited to sexual advances.
 
“We’ve seen more sexual harassment claims based on gender,” Kaplan adds. “Putting women down or questioning women for fighting the fight. That can also create a hostile environment.”
 
FIRM POLICIES

Creating a harassment and discrimination-free environment is a two-fold approach, Kaplan says. Training and education is the first element, but it’s also critical to have specific, written policies in place. Federal law doesn’t mandate it, but showing that you took proper steps to prevent harassment from occurring is the best defense against any type of claim.
 
“As a best practice, you should do training once a year,” Kaplan recommends. For new hires, that should include training during orientation. Then build it into an annual program as a refresher or reinforcement.
 
There are certain elements that encompass an effective policy. First, the policy needs to identify the characteristics of the harassment that is prohibited, such as race, religion or national origin. There should also be examples of what harassment is, a clear procedure for reporting harassment and assurance that there will be no retaliation for reporting harassment. Lastly, that the claim will be investigated and kept confidential.
 
“You can’t just throw together a policy and say harassment is prohibited,” Kaplan explains. “It needs to have some meat to it and actually help employees, especially when it comes to letting them know what to do if they feel they’re harassed.”
 
In addition, employees designated as the recipients of a harassment claim need to be trained in how to deal with, respond to and investigate harassment. Kaplan says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends that an investigation be initiated within 48 hours after a complaint has been filed.
 
“It’s not something you can wait around for,” she says. “You have to have someone who knows how to handle and document a complaint. If not, it’s time to call an attorney or HR professional.”
 
DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION

Kaplan says that suits brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act are very common because the definition of a disability is broad. It covers physical disabilities as well as mental, such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.
 
“It’s a matter of awareness,” Kaplan says. “Employees have become more aware of their rights.”
 
Those rights include accommodations for coming to work late because of a side effect to medication that makes an employee ill in the morning, or needing a special chair or permission to stand due to back issues. However, many employers do not recognize that as an ADA issue and often ignore valid request for accommodations.
 
“I think employers are shortsighted,” Kaplan says. “And that’s why we’re seeing a lot more of these lawsuits.”

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