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By G. Michael Barton, SPHR
Vice President of Human Resources
Regional Medical Center
(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part article on the risks of personal harassment in the health care workplace. See the March 1999 Healthcare Risk Management for the first part, which explains the nature of personal harassment and how it poses a liability risk for health care providers.)
An effective effort to avoid personal harassment claims in the health care workplace will require an extensive look at your existing policies and procedures, and you most likely will have to modify them or establish new ones.
The effort is necessary because personal harassment violates the Civil Rights Act. Personal harassment can include any conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment, and employees can seek relief from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. To avoid that risk, health care employers must not allow supervisors to belittle, intimidate, or denigrate employees, and employees must not be allowed to engage in personal attacks, unwanted taunting, and other unacceptable behavior with co-workers.
Begin with an initial assessment of your existing policies and procedures to see if your institution already has addressed the issue in some manner. (For a sample assessment checklist, see p. 47.) After the initial assessment is completed, it is essential to amend current practices and policies.
The first step is to clearly communicate to employees and supervisors that personal har assment will not be tolerated. As with sexual harassment, it must be firmly established that the organization has a zero tolerance for any behavior that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile working environment.
Your corporate compliance program is the perfect vehicle for defining acceptable behavior. Specifically, a code of conduct, which should be widely distributed to employees, should address this important issue.
Here is an example of an opening statement for a code of conduct: "A general code of conduct is established in order to provide a framework from which everyone in the organization can effectively work with one another. It will provide a basis from which trust, respect, honesty, and open communication can flourish. We shall maintain a working environment that is free of harassment of any type. Employees are expected to show proper respect and consideration for one another at all times."
The code of conduct also should establish these distinct responsibilities, which employees must support:
1. All managers should treat co-workers and employees with dignity and respect. This means managers and employees must identify objective methods for dealing with disagreements and problems.
2. Any differences in opinion should be referred to appropriate management levels for resolution and discussion.
3. All employees must be honest and forthright in their dealings with one another.
4. It is the responsibility of all employees to avoid intimidation in their interactions with co-workers. No individual should fear reprisals or be discouraged to give their input because of overt threats.
5. Reputation is important to all members in the organization. It is unfair to attach negative stereotypes to any individual.
6. Everyone’s input is valued and should be respected regardless of length of service, position, age, personal appearance, or any other personal characteristic.
7. The organization shall provide reasonable training to employees to ensure they can perform their duties in a professional manner.
8. Any violations of the above responsibilities should be reported to the corporate compliance officer or human resources department.
Once you receive a report of personal harassment, you must take immediate corrective action. (See story, p. 46, for advice on how to respond.) Most individuals will take advantage of the opportunity to make a positive change in their behavior. In some serious cases, it may be necessary to transfer or even terminate individuals who are not committed to changing their negative behavior. Organizations can avoid such drastic action by providing ongoing training that focuses on how to deal with personal harassment.
An effective prevention program includes a commitment to ongoing training and communication. Diversity training seminars, which help managers, employees, and physicians deal with various age groups, nationalities, genders, religions, and racial distinctions, are an important first step.
The goal of diversity training is to teach employees how to respect and understand all individuals they encounter in the workplace. Such training should be mandatory for all employees and physicians.
Personal harassment should be part of this training. The more employees know about how destructive personal harassment can be in the workplace, the more likely it will cease to be a factor.
As organizations become more high-tech, it will be more important to communicate that personal harassment will not be tolerated. E-mail, voice-mail, and the Internet will not eliminate the personal harassment issue.
Organizations must communicate consistently to employees the importance of treating each other with respect. All employees, regardless of age, status, race, gender, or how well liked they are by their supervisor or co-workers, should have the right to a positive and equal opportunity work environment.
When personal harassment is allowed to rear its ugly head, it can have a severe impact on employee morale and team productivity. It is a mistake to believe that we are going to like everyone in the workplace. It is an even bigger mistake to allow some individuals to destroy workplace harmony by unjustly harassing their fellow workers.
Personal harassment has now become an issue that organizations can no longer take lightly. It represents a serious challenge to the ultimate success of the organization.