According to a recent MGMA stat poll, more than 80 percent of healthcare organizations have a sexual harassment policy. However, experts say just having a policy isn't enough. It all comes down to training and enforcement.
The poll conducted on December 12 analyzed 1,237 responses. Of those who responded, 84 percent said their organization had a policy that specifically addresses sexual harassment. Of the remaining 16 percent, 12 percent said their organization had no policy and four percent weren't sure whether they had one.
MGMA also asked how training was delivered to staff. The most common method was through a new employee orientation and an annual repetition of the training, often via online training at staff meetings that also includes an assessment, test or role-playing exercise.
Other respondents said the policy was only outlined in the employee handbook.
Simply having a policy just doesn't cut it, said Judith Holmes, cofounder of the Compliance Clinic and an expert cited by MGMA. She cautioned practice leaders to "take a serious look at handling harassment" as the number of EEOC complaints and charges mounts, not to mention the numerous high profile figures and organizations that have come under an unwelcome spotlight amidst sexual harassment allegations in recent months.
She said now is the time to draft and implement policies, and that hospitals and practices must train employees on how to handle complaints and get a clear picture of what happens when you don't take such steps.
"It's going to be harder for that practice to defend a lawsuit if they can't show that they had a policy, that they applied it, that they trained people on it and they followed it," Holmes noted.
She suggested that the best training is usually accomplished by bringing in an outside expert, especially one that really understands the law surrounding harassment, and doing a separate training for upper management, supervisors and physicians that hones in in on how to properly and responsibly handle these types of investigations.
Handling a report the wrong way can make for a toxic work environment that can resonate with other staff and even patients.
"Ongoing bad behavior, it can just devastate a practice in the long run with high turnover, low morale -- and if you think patients don't sense the tension, you're wrong," Holmes said. "They see what's happening underneath often, and you may not know you've lost patients to this kind of underlying stress and tension that your staff feels because there are all these problems going on that no one's addressing."
Another MGMA expert and member, consultant Will Latham, cautioned practice leaders to look out for behavior not just that violates policy, but also actions that impact staff morale. That includes degrading comments, inappropriate jokes, profanity, yelling, lack of cooperation or refusal to follow protocols and spreading nasty rumors.
It's not okay to explain these behaviors away with excuses of stress, heavy workloads or past bullying. The presence of disruptive behavior, Latham said, is because it's been tolerated in the past.
In addition to confronting the behavior when it happens, the hiring process can be an opportunity to stop a problem before it starts. Evaluating candidates thoroughly and gauging their willingness to accept and support an organization's culture can help establish that zero-tolerance approach from the start, Latham said.