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Protect your office from sexual harassment


Sexual harassment in a small-business setting tends to present differently than in a towering office-building in corporate America.

Sexual harassment in a small-business setting tends to present differently than in a towering office-building in corporate America.

For one thing, there is a certain degree of expectation (not to be confused with approval) that some sexually oriented impropriety will occur in a large office. When an individual is working his or her way up the corporate ladder, it is fairly inevitable that he or she will cross paths with a few insensitive jerks simply because of the statistical probability based on numbers of employees.

Big corporate offices are better equipped to deal with sexual-harassment issues, possibly because they occur with greater frequency. These businesses have human-resources departments that can be called in, mana-gers to address complaints and other departments that could accommodate transfers.

But in the animal hospital, a sexual-harassment problem may not get much better just by requesting a transfer from the fecal-reading department to the prescription food-dispensing department.

Veterinary practices are much like other small businesses in that the environment is, for better or worse, close-knit.

Second, the physical space is fairly compact, making it difficult to avoid the person or persons creating the sexually-oriented discomfort.

Third, there is an element of industry-specific sexual "aura" in the animal-health industry, in that such a large portion of day-to-day discussion revolves around matters of reproduction and genital anatomy. These topics can lead a weirdo to believe that it is somehow acceptable to inappropriately analogize, make implications and construct innuendos within an otherwise clinical discussion.

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy

But what may pass as acceptable or harmless "gutter-speak" in the canyons of Wall Street or Madison Avenue must not be tolerated in your animal clinic. Remember that big companies have big legal departments and large insurance policies that might permit them to look the other way when a sexually hostile culture exists in a single division or office.

It is not unreasonable to believe that a multinational corporation could have a tacit policy of ignoring "minor," though chronic, departures from accepted sexual-harassment rules, as long as the problem department is productive and profitable.

Small businesses, including professional practices, are much different. When a sexual-harassment situation exists, everybody usually knows about it, so there are many witnesses.

Besides that, in a medical practice it is often the case that both the person creating the sexually hostile environment and the person(s) offended are long-term workers, individuals who have worked or will work together for many years.

Therefore, any potential harassment case has both duration and provability, so the victim can show that he or she had nowhere to go but out.

Defining improper conduct

As one of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court once said, it may be difficult to define pornography, "but I know it when I see it."

The same applies to workplace sexual harassment.

There is no point in trying to define sexual harassment here. Generally, I think, most of us know it when we see it. It may include:

  • Co-workers routinely commenting about the physical attributes of other employees
  • Comments made when certain individuals bend, sit or do whatever
  • General chat about sexual activities, persisting over a protracted period

You know the drill; it frequently amounts to something that we somehow know is wrong, but it may bother some more than others.

And, legally, therein lies the rub.

Reaching court on a sexual-harassment claim has nothing to do with whether the act or behavior disturbs you. It only matters whether a reasonable person employed in a similar office/practice could reasonably be offended by the behavior or talk or combination of these.

Cautionary guidelines

Therefore, it is important to remember some general guidelines for avoiding potential liability for sexual-harassment claims in the veterinary workplace.

  • First, harassment claims or allegations need to be taken seriously. If an employee seeks out the practice manager or the owner or one of the other veterinarians and mentions such a problem to them, the employee's comments need to be documented. What your practice doesn't want is for a claim to be made and for the aggrieved employee to have a notebook full of times and dates that the problem was raised with superiors. This type of evidence is especially damning if management has no such record.
  • Second, don't assume that, just because you haven't observed the problem, it doesn't exist. I have owned large veterinary practices, and I know that situations can arise among the staff and doctors while the head guy may be left completely in the dark.

boat by raising the issue of off-color chatter with his staff, the result is the same. Sexual harassment tends to be a festering and it rarely improves with

  • Finally, sexual harassment in the workplace need not be a specific, sexually oriented "harassment" of an individual.

Instead, legal problems may arise in the small work site when an environment that is "contaminated" with these kinds of verbal improprieties is allowed to exist.

Successful claims can arise in working environments where, for example, dirty jokes are not discouraged and embarrassing statements are made that are not directed toward any specific individual.

If a staff member offended by such a "sexually harassing environment" raises the issue with management and receives no significant, documented effort toward addressing it, the groundwork is laid for a lawsuit, possibly a successful one.

If the workplace is allowed to become physically noxious and an employee must leave in fear for her health, a suit may await.

Similarly, if a workplace is allowed to become sexually/emotionally noxious and an employee feels he or she must leave as the only way out, legal action may ensue and its defense may end up being expensive.

Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He may be contacted at (607) 754-1510 or info@veterinarylaw.com.

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