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Combating Sexual Harassment in Healthcare

Luis Molinero Martnez/123RF.com

While the #MeToo movement may have set the entertainment world into a tailspin of accusations, recriminations and eliminations from the top down, they are hardly the only industry that had (and continues to have) an issue with sexual harassment in the workplace. There may be a long overdue culture shift as a result of the movement, with far less tolerance than in decades past, but the problem with harassment continues.

Reporting harassment

It is unclear whether the culture shift nationwide and in healthcare specifically has made any headway. A 2017 report surveyed U.S. academic medical faculty and found 30% to 40% of women in the industry have experienced sexual harassment, and those who reported the abuse stated there was a negative consequence to their career. An additional 60% of trainees and medical students reported harassment, most going unreported. For victims, the inability to report abuse without fear of career reprisal is significant and may account for attrition rates in some facilities.

In the industry overall, a recent report revealed 11% of nurses and 7% of doctors have experienced some form of harassment in the past three years. While those numbers may seem low, the researchers suggest the qualifying “past three years” may be the reason.

Further investigation of their data illustrates the fallout of sexual harassment in healthcare: 34% of physicians stated the behavior interfered with their ability to perform their job; 39% avoided working with certain colleagues whenever possible; 22% considered quitting and 14% ultimately did. For nurses and physician’s assistants, the data was similar with regard to interference and avoidance, while 30% considered quitting and 16% ultimately did.

Far-reaching implications

For all businesses, sexual harassment is problematic. Beyond the legal ramifications, the loss of productivity and talented staff members can be a costly proposition. But in the healthcare industry, where coworkers at all levels must work in concert to provide the greatest level of patient care, the results can be devastating. When colleagues are forced into avoidance to maintain their dignity in the facility, it is possible patient care will suffer. There is also potential for workers who fear reprisals in the workplace to air their grievances on the internet. In either instance, the institution’s brand may be diminished in the community and industry-wide, making recruitment more difficult. The ramifications of unchecked sexual harassment in healthcare can be significant.

A costly proposition

In addition to the legal issues, sexual harassment is a costly violation. One of New York City’s health systems that operates 11 public hospitals settled 90 sexual harassment claims between 2014 and 2017, costing the system almost $2 million.

Culture shift, training or both?

In 2016, the EEOC’s Special Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace found that 30 years of training initiatives across all industries did little to reduce harassment in the workplace. In the wake of that information and the high visibility of #MeToo, many facilities must shift the way they provide training as well as their response to sexual harassment claims.

Institutions must strive for an environment that promotes respect for all staff – regardless of their position in the hierarchy. From maintenance personnel to rainmaker physicians and administrators, every employee’s role is critical to the operation of the institution, and every employee must be treated with professionalism and dignity. Lawsuits are costly, as is turnover, but the damage to an institution’s reputation and brand may be a cost that no healthcare provider can afford. Without the trust of the community, institutions may struggle maintain their position as a leading provider their area.

From the top down

The mandate to the healthcare industry is clear: nurture an environment of respect and professionalism. Institutions should promote the message that sexual harassment is not only prohibited, but shunned. They must build reporting structures that value input without retribution or recrimination, act quickly and definitively on complaints brought forward, and provide remedies that satisfy the parties involved and the institution overall.

When healthcare facilities take a proactive stance against sexual harassment, employee engagement and retention benefit. Institutions will rightfully attract top talent, and their place in the community will be enhanced.

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About Riia O'Donnell

Riia O’Donnell has over 20 year’s hands-on experience in all aspects of the Human Resource function. Beginning as a recruiter, she grew to lead in all areas of HR, including employee training and development, legal compliance, benefits administration, compensation evaluation, and staff management. She has been a contributing writer for a wealth of HR, training, and small business websites for the past 7 years. Connect with Riia on Twitter at @RiiaOD.