Sexual harassment prevention starts with an organization’s leadership paying attention and emphasizing the importance of workplace safety.

  • There should be decisive policies and procedures for reporting sexual harassment and handling reported cases.
  • Managers and staff need thorough sexual harassment training, including in-person classes with role-playing vignettes.
  • Screening new employees for violence/bullying/harassment risk factors can help prevent some of the more severe cases.

Healthcare organization leaders can do a great deal to prevent sexual harassment — or, at least, to stop it as soon as it occurs.

They first need to be aware that the organization’s climate is very important.

“When an organization ignores sexual harassment, it has an impact on whether or not employees are exposed,” says Paul Spector, PhD, distinguished professor in the department of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“The more they pay attention and emphasize that everyone needs to be safe from this type of treatment and that if they are mistreated they’ll be supported, the less impact it has on the employees who are harassed,” he explains.

Employees who feel their workplace supports them will be more likely to go to the human resources department to file a complaint, Spector says.

“Organizations need to be concerned about getting sued, but they also need to be concerned about problems that occur that are not attributed to this, like increased medical errors and poor patient treatment,” he says. “A happy staff makes for happier customer service.”

Spector and other researchers who have studied sexual harassment offer the following suggestions for how to prevent the problem:

  • Focus on prevention from the top down. “Change the circumstances that are enabling the abuse to occur,” says Elizabeth Armstrong, PhD, professor of sociology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Change the workplace culture and allocation of power to prevent harassment and abuse, rather than to expect victims to come forward and seek justice,” she says.

“There’s longstanding research about what’s called ‘second assault,’” Armstrong adds. “This is institutional betrayal, and that’s when the survivors seek to have justice, and the process of trying to get that justice or to make the behavior stop to get some kind of remedy is as bad as the original assault, so the trauma is intensified.”

  • Establish decisive policies and procedures when sexual harassment is reported. Healthcare organizations should establish clear policies about what sexual harassment is and how it will be handled if reported. They can use definitions from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Reporting should be spelled out as to who receives the report and what the next steps will be. “When organizations have procedures in place that fairly and rapidly adjudicate claims and hold people accountable, the psychological and emotional outcome will be much better for survivors,” Armstrong says.

“Organizations should take these reports seriously,” she adds. “This doesn’t mean they should believe every claim that is made, but an evenhanded, fair, transparent process that illustrates organizations’ commitment is important.”

In addition to establishing sexual harassment policies, organizations must have two or three channels through which employees can voice concerns, address issues, or file complaints, says James Campbell Quick, PhD, FAPA, distinguished professor at The University of Texas at Arlington.

“One channel is the HR department; a second is the legal system; a third is an organizational clinical psychologist,” Quick says. “What’s important about multiple channels is you don’t want to have a system where one person or unit can block information from getting to the chief executive, who ultimately is the person who needs to know what’s going on in the system.”

Employees pay very close attention to how well an organization follows its own code of conduct. So, if the code of conduct says any employee who was named in a credible report of sexual harassment will be investigated and fired, then the employer should do exactly what the code states.

In the case of NBC morning talk show star Matt Lauer, NBC acted quickly to fire Lauer after the allegations because such conduct was clearly against the network’s policy, says M. Ann McFadyen, PhD, an associate professor at The University of Texas at Arlington.

“Companies need to recognize their role and make sure they enforce their code of conduct and make it clear this will not go unpunished,” she says.

  • Screen new employees for potential problems. Screening potential employees for behavior that could lead to bullying or sexual harassment is not a science, but there can be warning signs for some potential predators.

For example, one sexual assault case involving a medical technician and a patient went to court, where it was discovered that the alleged perpetrator had prior arrests and risk factors, Quick says.

“If HR had carefully looked at his work history and arrest record, it wouldn’t take long to see that this guy would fit into a 1% to 3% category of employees who will be high risk,” Quick says.

Even closer supervision might have prevented the assault.

“In this particular case, he was given too much discretionary latitude, and that enabled him to get a patient to a place where he could victimize her without anyone seeing it,” Quick says.

Healthcare organizations should hire professionals, such as psychologists, to identify high-risk employees and provide them with help, he adds.

  • Train managers and employees. Employees and managers need comprehensive sexual harassment training. While some organizations conduct this training online, the more effective programs will include some interactive classroom components, McFadyen says.

“We’ve seen that electronic training is not as good as having training with vignettes and play-acting, where people can see what is sexual harassment,” she explains.

  • Accept that times have changed. Anyone who has watched the television show “Mad Men” with its casual acceptance of workplace smoking, drinking, and overt sexual assault can see that today’s workplace is a far cry from 40 and 50 years ago.

The kind of sexual banter that might have gone uncommented upon a generation ago can cause employees distress.

“Back in the early 1980s, when I was in corporate banking, this was acceptable behavior and tolerated, and we all knew about it and dealt with it,” McFadyen says.

“Women today, especially those who graduated five to 10 years ago, are much more highly sensitive in terms of comments they find harsh and mean,” she adds. “The behavior tolerated then was wrong at the time, but nobody was coming forward.”

Today, organizations are seeing a revolutionary change with dozens of prominent figures losing their jobs after public complaints of sexual assault or sexual harassment.

“Companies are being forced to deal with it more effectively than they have in the past,” McFadyen says.