The term "sexual harassment" refers to unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other conduct of a sexual nature directed at an individual whose submission to, or rejection of this conduct is used explicitly or implicitly as a factor in decisions affecting his/her hiring, evaluation, promotion or other aspects of employment. It also encompasses conduct that substantially interferes with a person's employment or creates a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment.
According to regulations issued in 1980 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), two types of sexual harassment are unlawful under Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act (1964):
- Quid pro quo harassment, in which the supervising employee "acts in the behalf" of the employer in holding out the employer's benefits as an inducement to the employee for sexual favors
- Hostile environment harassment, which may occur absent any economic effect, and which translates into a pervasive atmosphere of discriminatorily severe or unwelcome working conditions that interfere with the individual's work performance
Examples of sexual harassment include, but are not limited to:
- Unwanted sexual demands for sexual favors in exchange for favorable treatment or continued employment
- Repeated sexual jokes, flirtations, advances or propositios
- Verbal abuse of a sexual nature
- Graphic verbal commentary about an individual's body, sexual prowess or sexual deficiencies
- Leering, whistling, touching, pinching, assault, obscene or demeaning comments or gestures
- Display in the office of sexually suggestive pictures or objects
Your Liability as an Employer
Under the principle of respondent superior, the courts have consistently held that the employer is strictly liable in the case of quid pro quo harassment, whether or not the employer had been aware of the employee's conduct.
In hostile environment harassment, the employer may be held liable if management level employees had been aware of the existence of a sexually hostile environment and neglected to take prompt and adequate remedial action.
What You Can Do to Prevent Sexual Harassment
Prevention through education is the key to avoiding liability and to overcoming sexual harassment in the dental workplace. It is incumbent upon every dentist employer to educate his/her entire staff about sexual harassment and to review the specific procedures staff should follow if they feel they are being sexually harassed. These procedures should be designed to encourage victims of harassment to come forward. Every office should have a designated investigator for sexual harassment complaints. If the dental office is large enough, two people should be appointed to investigate the alleged harassment. Included in the office policy concerning sexual harassment should be a protocol for reporting and investigating any sexual harassment complaints. The protocol should be publicized and supported by the employer(s).
What to Do if an Employee is Being Harassed
If one of your employees claims to be a target of sexual harassment, it is important that he/she promptly and clearly notify the designated investigators of the alleged incident. The employee should be assured that, as an employer, you take all complaints of sexual harassment seriously, and that the investigators will do their best to explore the matter expeditiously and as confidentially as possible. A separate, confidential file should be created and maintained by the investigators. Through interviews with the complainant, the alleged harasser and any available witnesses, the investigators gather the facts, evaluate the evidence, prepare a written report and, finally, decide upon an appropriate action. (c) 1995