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Why hospitals can't ignore their 'Harveys', must create supportive culture for reporting sexual harassment

Expert says failure to address and punish the behavior, regardless of the perpetrator's status, can have big costs.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

Harvey Weinstein. Credit: <a href="" target="_blank">Georges Biard</a>Harvey Weinstein. Credit: Georges Biard

Ever since movie mogul Harvey Weinstein faced public disgrace over allegations that he sexually harassed, and in some cases allegedly assaulted, numerous women throughout his decades-long Hollywood reign, the silence around this once taboo topic has shattered. But though media, entertainment and politics have seen the most stars recently accused of harassment, one legal expert says healthcare is fooling itself if it doesn't think there are "Harveys" in hospitals.

Hospitals have their fair share of powerful figures as well, whether it's a C-suite leader, a high-profile physician that generates high revenue and notoriety for the institution or some other decisionmaker in a position of power over his or her employees, said author Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, in a post in the National Law Review.

This type of imbalance in power makes employees vulnerable to harassment, bullying and worse. And the perpetrators of such behavior, no matter what office or position they occupy, should not be ignored.

Hospitals must be proactive in laying the groundwork for a safe, secure environment where employees can report such behavior without fear of retaliation from hospital leadership or the offender themselves. Appropriate policies should be written and implemented regarding harassment and discrimination of any kind. Employees should be well-informed of such policies and be provided with a safe and effective method of reporting harassment. Investigations and action should follow swiftly when an employee reports bad behavior, whether it's an executive, a physician or someone at the front desk. 

"Healthcare entities must take these actions in spite of the prospect of losing a significant revenue generator or a critical skill in a single physician. Failing to address the situation creates legal liability and sends a loud negative message to employees regarding the importance the organization places on its workforce versus certain key employees," Helms said.

Properly training employees who will likely be the ones to receive harassment reports is also essential, especially how to listen to the person filing the complaint. There are some things managers should know in this regard, Helms said. First, it is never ok to tell the complainant to simply ignore the perpetrator of the behavior. Managers should also avoid telling a complainant that they won't take action and are ok with keeping the allegations confidential, and all parties should be clear that the organization won't tolerate any retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint. 

Finally, a healthcare organization should consider the costs of allowing harassment to go unchecked. Legal costs could be considerable if the hospital is found liable for such behavior running rampant. There could also be major damage to the hospital's reputation, both as a workplace and a care destination if swamped by bad press over a poorly handled incident. 

"Now is an excellent time to (1) remind your employees of your refusal to accept this behavior, (2) remind employees and supervisory personnel of your harassment policies, and (3) refresh your sexual harassment training. If it wasn't already, now should be a very bad time to be a Harvey in any workplace," Helms said.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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