Sexual Harassment in Hospitals: Interns, Residents, Students, Attending Physicians: How to Navigate a Troublesome Problem Among a Diverse Workforce
Much has been written lately about the #MeToo movement and its presence in workplaces as diverse as universities, movie and TV studios. Hospitals are no exception. Savvy employers know that hospitals—large facilities that employ people of all educational backgrounds, races, religions, sexual orientations, ages, and more—can be ground zero for sexual harassment at any time. Differences in attitudes towards the surging #MeToo discourse can prove a perfect opportunity to review policies, state, local and federal laws regarding sexual harassment, and discuss sexual harassment with employees at every level.
Moreover, medical students and residents training for their careers are in a unique position: they must accomplish certain training milestones and acquire crucial knowledge in order to graduate from medical school or complete a residency program. Sexual harassment—whether as the perpetrator or victim—can impinge on one’s success, and even derail careers if the perpetrator or victim does not address the attendant fallout from the incident. Hospitals should take the time to train all employees in the institution’s sexual harassment policies, and in some cities and states, including New York, this training is now required by law.
When colleagues work long hours under pressure and in intellectually and emotionally taxing professions such as medicine, misunderstandings can arise. It is also common for colleagues in the medical profession to socialize, or even date each other after hours. Often, sexual harassment allegations in the workplace arise from a once consensual relationship turned sour. A couple breaks up, and the ensuing unpleasantness of seeing one’s former significant other at work is then a daily reality.
Regardless of whether an institution has a policy in place about workplace relationships, it is paramount that hospitals take sexual harassment seriously. All employers should consider implementing an Employee Assistance Program, offered anonymously to employees experiencing difficulty in their personal lives. Also consider the advantage to being a proactive employer—educating your workforce before a problem arises. In recent years, hospitals in New York City, Long Island and nationwide have faced unfortunate scenarios involving physicians or other staff who never sought help for problematic sexual behavior, and later committed harassment or assaults on coworkers and patients. No employer foresees a talented physician behaving in such a way. But chaperones in exam rooms, creating a “just” culture of respect among colleagues and for patients, and preventive training can go far in preventing incidents that cause harm and create liability. As the profession in which the mantra is, “First, do no harm,” a savvy hospital Human Resources executive or General Counsel can create a workplace culture where healing and patient safety are the priorities above all.
When employers address sexual harassment in a way that employees can feel free to report incidents without fear of reprisal, employees trust that aberrant behaviors will be addressed before they become problems that affect careers, and above all, well-being.