Although everyday sexist behavior might occur in subtle ways in the workplace, sexual harassment must be recognized and competently addressed by employers, according to experts. And it’s not just a genteel thing to do—employers are being held to higher legal standards than ever when it comes to managing the culture of the work environment.
“At a bare minimum, any employer in the healthcare space needs to have a robust, operation-specific harassment, discrimination and retaliation policy,” says Adam C. Abrahms, a member of Epstein Becker Green’s workforce management and healthcare practices. “Too often employers get something off the rack that doesn’t necessarily speak to their organization.”
Abrahms says general harassment policies that might be written for any type of employer aren’t specific enough to address the unique risks presented by healthcare settings and situations. In behavioral health especially, a policy must be established for harassment among employees and a separate one for harassment that might involve patients. Employees are entitled by law to have protection against inappropriate conduct, whether the source is a supervisor, a fellow staff member or a patient in the organization’s care, he says.
It’s important for treatment centers to understand the requirements of the jurisdictions where they operate. For example, California requires that supervisors have harassment training every two years and that policies include reporting mechanisms. Accreditors also have standards for policies and reporting.
In a January 2018 survey of more than 600 Behavioral Healthcare Executive audience members, nearly 60% indicate that their organization offers sexual harassment training at least once a year. A little more than 15% have one-time training, and nearly 13% have occasional training. What’s striking is that 90 respondents—almost 15%—say their organization doesn’t offer any sexual harassment training.
All organizations’ harassment policies should include action plans, and employees must be made aware of what procedures to follow to file a complaint if harassment occurs.
“Training is paramount with respect to supervisors so they can identify and respond to potential harassment and discrimination, but equally important these days is a training program for line-level employees to help them understand their individual obligations and how to report or raise a concern,” Abrahms says.
While virtually all employers know there’s some obligation to protect employees and reduce risk for the business itself, many underestimate the scope of potential liability that could be involved in legal action related to sexual harassment. Entire enterprises have been shuttered as a result of a single harassment case, and Abrahms says an eight-figure verdict is not uncommon in states like California.
“Now in this me-too era, we’re going to see a lot of legislation in various jurisdictions establishing new requirements and protocols, and it’s important for every operator to be on the lookout and adapt quickly,” he says. “Being six months or a year behind the ball could be devastating.”
Abrahms believes the country is likely in an evolution toward zero tolerance for sexual harassment and juries will be tougher in the courtroom than ever before. Workplace behaviors that historically were viewed as inappropriate jokes or remarks might suddenly be considered actionable and lead to legal liability.