Staff Management

Sexual Harassment: Defining & Preventing It in Your Office

By Pamela Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, FNAP

Oct. 3, 2018

Sexual harassment is a topic that’s in the news nearly every day. It may seem like something that could never happen in your own practice. But even the most seemingly demure office can serve as the stage for sexual harassment. Here’s how to define, recognize and prevent it in your practice.

Establish an Anti-Harassment Policy
The first step to protecting your employees, patients and practice from sexual harassment is establishing an anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook. Along with all of your other practice policies, such as appropriate attire, etiquette and benefits, the handbook should define harassment, sexual and otherwise, and then detail a protocol for reporting it.

The definition should include both sexual and other forms of harassment, such as workplace bullying. The policy could say that harassment includes, but is not limited to, unwanted touching of co-workers, patients and other visitors to the office, inappropriate comments, propositions and threatening language in which the employee believes they will be penalized for not agreeing to personal involvement. Personal involvement can mean any relations outside of work responsibilities. No employee should feel pressured by another employee, manager or doctor (including the practice owner) to extend a relationship beyond work duties.

The policy you set should include prohibition of harassing based on personal characteristics. That would mean a zero-tolerance policy for comments about another employee’s race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

Last, anti-harassment policy should include a directive against wearing clothing with offensive words or pictures, and even covering up tattoos with words or images that might be offensive.

The employee handbook should prohibit pornography in the workplace, both in text or print form, as well as electronically, such as one employee sending another employee an inappropriate text or e-mail.

Click HERE , or the image above, to access resources from the American Optometric Association on creating an anti-harassment office policy. Click HERE to access the AOA Ethics Forum, where you can send questions on workplace harassment. Click HERE for the AOA’s Standards of Conduct.

Document Reporting Procedure
Along with your zero-tolerance harassment policy, you should give detailed instructions for reporting harassment.

For example, you would state that any employee who has experienced, or witnessed, harassment should report the incident to the practice owner. Or, if you prefer, you could make it your policy for employees to report it to the office manager.

In any case, employees should know exactly who they would report harassment to, and should understand that they will never suffer repercussions for reporting it. It should be clear that there will never be punishment for reporting, or even just discussing with the practice owner, or manager, whether an incident would be considered harassment.

Prevention Begins from the Top
It’s your responsibility as practice owner to be conscious of not becoming a harasser yourself, and also to watch for signs of harassment every day in the office. For example, you might overhear off-color jokes being told among employees. No one seems to be offended, but it still could open the practice up to claims of sexual harassment if even one of the employees present is made to feel uncomfortable. They may be concerned about verbalizing their feelings of discomfort, so it’s up to you to recognize inappropriate comments, and remind employees to avoid such language.

Similarly, one employee most likely innocently massaging another employee’s shoulders, or jokingly asking for hugs, is probably nothing to worry about, but also could make some employees uncomfortable. If the practice owner sees what could be unwanted touching, they should request that the employee with the penchant for touching stop.

Train Employees By Talking About It & Role-Playing
Instead of relying on employees to carefully read through the anti-harassment policy in your employee handbook, talk about it in new employee orientation, on the employee’s first day of work. Then, at least once a year, talk to the whole staff about preventing harassment in staff-wide meetings.

Complimentary educational videos about preventing harassment in the workplace may be available through your local Chamber of Commerce, or can easily, and inexpensively, be purchased online from a vendor like Amazon.

To ensure employees understand the principles discussed, you can do a couple role-play exercises in which you show what inappropriate language and propositions would be, and how other forms of harassment might occur.

Beware of Harassment of Employees from Vendors & Patients
Your employees could also be in danger of harassment from visitors to your office, such as vendor representatives. Your employees should be taught that harassing comments or actions from anyone in the office, even a vendor, or patient, also is unacceptable.

For example, a vendor rep may repeatedly make comments about an employee’s appearance that make them feel uncomfortable, or a patient may proposition an employee during pre-testing, and refuse to take no for an answer. In both cases, the offending person should be given a warning by the practice owner, and then if it happens again, should be asked to leave the practice permanently. If the offending person works for a vendor, the practice should consider reporting the behavior to their employer.

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Pamela Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, FNAP, has a solo optometric practice in Highland, Calif. She has a law degree, holds a therapeutic license, is California State Board-certified and glaucoma-certified to prescribe eye medications, and offers comprehensive vision care, contact lenses, visual therapy and low vision services. To contact her:

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