I was accused of sexual harassment

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I wiped my hand on someone else's sleeve and unleashed a cascade of events that proves that every practice needs a solid sexual harassment policy in their employee manual.

Yes, it's true: A practice employee once accused me of sexual harassment. It happened during an operational audit of a practice. On the first day, my partners Sheila Grosdidier and Monica Dixon Perry and I stayed late to observe the flow and operation of the practice during evening hours.

I passed two technicians who were working on a dog in the middle of the treatment area and reached out to pet the dog's head. One of the technicians said the dog had a zoonotic disease and that I probably shouldn't have done that. Being a little surprised, I wiped my hand on her sleeve in a joking manner and said, “Oh, I had no idea.” Then I walked off to wash my hands. We spent another two days at the hospital, interviewed most of the employees, developed a comprehensive business plan and presented it all to the practice's entire staff a few days later. We left a little exhausted but feeling good about all that was accomplished.

A few days later, Sheila got a call from the practice owner who informed her that an employee had told the practice manager that I sexually harassed her and touched her in an inappropriate manner. When I learned this, I was shocked! I'd never been accused of such a thing and, of course, would never do it. When I asked Sheila about the circumstances of the allegation, she told me that an employee said I had touched a dog and then touched her inappropriately. I immediately knew what she was talking about and which employee had lodged the complaint. I told Sheila exactly what had transpired. Luckily, she's certified as a professional in human resources (PHR) and knew how this situation should be handled.

Exercise due diligence

First, we contacted the practice owner and filled him in about the circumstances of the incident. Fortunately, a sexual harassment policy was included in the new employee manual that had been established within the practice during our on-site consultation. The sexual harassment policy stated that employees should report any situation that they felt to be harassment to the practice manager who would thoroughly investigate the situation and report back their findings to the employee.

Following this policy, the practice manager and one of the practice owners interviewed me, the employee and another employee who had witnessed the incident. During the interview, the manager and practice owner explained what would be considered sexual harassment and reviewed what had occurred with the employee. The employee stated that she had thought that I was going to spread this zoonotic disease throughout the practice, and she didn't feel I had sexually harassed her. The other employee who had witnessed this event also corroborated my account. The employee was assured that I was aware of proper protocol for handling a dog with leptospirosis and management agreed to new infection-control signage and precautions so that everyone would be aware of infectious cases in the hospital. (The topic would be discussed further with team members during the next team meeting.)

In the end, this was basically a case of miscommunication, but it goes to show how easy it is to become the target of a sexual harassment claim. If appropriate policies and procedures hadn't been in place, the ending might not have been so favorable.

Be prepared

Do you know how to handle a sexual harassment claim? First and foremost, does your employee manual  have a policy that deals with harassment and discrimination? In our employee manuals, we use the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of sexual harassment, examples of sexual harassment, what employees should do if they feel they were sexually harassed and the practice's obligations when someone claims he or she was harassed. We followed this procedure when I was accused of sexual harassment. Read the full policy at dvm360.com/harassmentpolicy

Another precaution I believe that you should take is to purchase an employment practices liability (EPL) insurance policy for your practice. This type of policy is available through most agencies as a rider to your business owner's policy, or it can be purchased through the AVMA Professional Liability Insurance Trust. It's not very expensive and, if an employee were to sue you or bring you to court, the insurance will provide for payment to lawyers and coverage if there is an award against you.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, is a certified veterinary practice manager and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colorado.

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