You’ve probably read about celebrities or politicians being caught up in “cancel culture”—it’s defined in the dictionary as a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles. In dentistry, cancel culture may elicit thoughts of patients cancelling appointments due to the uncertain times we currently live in during the pandemic and thoughts of the risks associated with dental procedures.
But is there a different type of cancel culture in dentistry? Can RDH professionals be shunned from within the dental community—which, regardless of geographical size, in all respects is a small, strong, loyalty-driven community of professional peers?
As dental hygienists are leaving the profession in more numbers that have been seen in decades, either as part of the employment trend known as the Great Resignation or from the fears associated with the continued unknowns of pandemic, what happens when one small "mishap" involving someone who doesn’t want to leave the profession ends up with career-altering repercussions?
Recently I heard about Kayleigh,* a hygienist in a small rural town where the six dental offices located there had very little turnover. After her RDH licensure, Kayleigh worked for more than 10 years at the office where she received dental care as a child. Kayleigh’s patients loved her and her coworkers loved her, and everyone respected her work ethic and her professionalism. Kayleigh always told her patients, her friends, and her family that she “would do her job for free if she didn’t have bills to pay!” In her mind, she was living in her own personal dental utopia and working in her perfect dental home.
One ordinary day
Then one ordinary day in 2018, Kayleigh requested a dentist exam on her last patient of the day. During the examination, Kayleigh pointed out on the bitewings a bad crown margin on a newly cemented crown and noted that the patient was having sensitivity associated with the new crown.
What Kayleigh perceived to be her professional responsibility, her dentist perceived to be an insult to his dental competence. After getting a scowl from Dr. XX, Kayleigh noticed a distinct charge to the atmosphere within her operatory. She completed her patient and proceeded with her end-of-day activities while trying to quiet the foreboding feeling that resounded in her gut. Midway through typing up her chart notes, one of the assistants stuck her head into Kayleigh’s operatory to tell her that Dr. XX wished to speak to her in his office immediately. Kayleigh’s heart dropped, and a heart-wrenching sense of urgency made her hands shake as she typed her last notation.
She stepped into Dr. XX's office and was immediately presented with a written list of criticisms and complaints, some from Dr. XX but most from her coworkers. Kayleigh felt blindsided. How could there be so many unjustified judgments that had never been addressed before? Kayleigh had scored in the “exceptional contributor” range for every evaluation cycle and had received promotional-type raises because of her exceptional work ethic for every year of her 10-year tenure. Despite her 10 years’ worth of positive evaluations, Dr. XX informed Kayleigh that she was the most unprofessional, incompetent, inefficient, and unethical RDH he had ever encountered and that she should retrieve her belongings and leave. Fired? Kayleigh’s brain was swimming. Fighting the urge to pass out, she grabbed her purse and left.
Insufficient, subjective, and potentially discriminatory
The days that followed were some of the most difficult that Kayleigh had ever experienced. Her coworkers—her “friends”—threw gas on the proverbial fire as Kayleigh was made aware of social media postings and even some old-fashioned gossiping of her very publicized firing. To add insult to injury, Kayleigh was refused unemployment and was forced to reenter the workforce before her heart and emotional state had a chance to heal.
She updated her resume and with the hopes of getting back to doing what had been her treasured and most cherished job, she went door to door to the other offices within her hometown to offer temping services. However, everywhere she went, office managers and dentists informed her that there wasn’t a need for any temps. Kayleigh branched out and went to neighboring towns but was also turned away—even though some of those practices had advertised for temps on social media platforms.
After weeks of rejection, Kayleigh was notified by a fellow RDH that Dr. XX was providing “do not hire” references to all offices within a significant geographic region. Apparently, Dr. XX’s bruised ego was enough for him to “cancel” Kayleigh with his DDS colleagues.
How can so many dental offices make a personal decision against hiring Kayleigh? All the decisions were based on a statement that simply said “do not hire.” This is insufficient, subjective, and potentially discriminatory. These types of biased hiring practices that are independent of a candidate’s qualifications, experience, and general suitability could be grounds for a banned candidate to sue for defamation.
In their article called “Cancel Culture is Coming for You,” Thomas Less and Clayton Coutts write that cancel culture is insidious not because it is overt but because it is so underhanded. It proceeds slowly, stealthily, and often invisibly. If people think about it, they might already in the process of being canceled—for in refusing to speak out, we cancel our voice. We cancel our judgment. We cancel our enlightened values of liberty and fairness. We cancel our moral principle. We cancel our humor. We cancel our integrity.
Time to fight back
Kayleigh found out the hard way that cancel culture is not just for the rich and famous. Unfortunately, it can hit you square in the stomach. But she also decided to be the prototype of courage. She refused to have her voice cancelled! Her keen sense of right and wrong and the injustice of the moral dilemma she was living in prevented her from ignoring the personal ramifications of Dr. XX's actions.
She gathered 10 years’ worth of employee evaluations and scrutinized every word for any indication that her professionalism, ethics, or clinical competency had ever been addressed. Armed with her exceptional evaluations, Kayleigh consulted with an attorney. Based on her desire to right the wrong done to her, her attorney agreed that any communication between two employers for the purpose of preventing employment of an individual is a legal issue that is addressed by state law.1 Kayleigh’s attorney submitted a cease and desist letter to Dr. XX, and Kayleigh was hired for a position 10 minutes from her home in an office where she’s respected for her clinical competency and her moral values for pursuing a matter in efforts to prevent others from suffering as she had.
What happened to Kayleigh could happen to anyone. She was fortunate that her meticulous administration skills in keeping all necessary and completed correspondence with Dr. XX was just the evidence of proof that she needed to prove she had been wronged. Her empowerment of vindication and her desire to continue in the profession she loved proved that integrity is stronger than any “cancel culture” mentality. We are fortunate that our profession is full of heroes like Kayleigh who will forever strive to advance dental hygiene by maintaining ethical principles, pursuing veracity, and preserving fidelity.
*Author’s note: The facts of this article are representative of individual experiences. Identities and details have been altered to protect the anonymity of the RDH who shared her experience.
1. Are you on a recruiting “blacklist”? Resume Insider. December 2021. https://resumeinsider.net/blog/blacklist