How to avoid allegations of sexual harassment and/or discrimination: Five things you need to know

June 30, 2009
A tendency by dentists to downplay their power and overlook problematic behaviors can result in allegations of sexual harassment and/or discrimination.

by Mitchell Karp, Esq., MSOD

Ask any dentist, "On a scale of one to 10, how powerful are you?" and you'll likely get a low numerical response. That's because most dentists don't strut around their office thinking, "I'm a powerful person." Ironically, this tendency to downplay their personal power may lead many dentists and other health-care providers to overlook problematic behaviors that could result in allegations of harassment and/or discrimination.

Although the dentist may rate him or herself a five or six on the 10-point power scale, everyone else in the office--including patients--would probably assign the dentist a much higher rating. It is this gap between the way one perceives oneself and the way others perceive us that leads to misperceptions and misunderstandings. If a person sees him or herself as not very powerful, how could that person possibly engage in harassment or discrimination?

Many people overlook two important facts:

1. Other people may perceive us as more powerful than we see ourselves.

2. Consequently those people may be reluctant to let us know when something we say or do makes them feel uncomfortable or not respected.

When power imbalances are not acknowledged, it's difficult to establish a mutually respectful work relationship. Dental offices that do not foster mutually respectful work relationships are more likely to face work-related mistakes and misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication, damage to productivity and morale, disciplinary actions and/or legal liability, and damage to image and reputation. This article discusses five rules to help dentists and other health-care providers understand their rights and responsibilities in creating office environments that promote mutual respect.

Rule 1: Forget the Golden Rule and use the Platinum Rule.
A positive work relationship is one in which both parties feel respected, valued, and motivated, which will ensure outstanding performance. Building positive work relationships involves both parties communicating their needs, preferences, and concerns before reaching an agreement. Many of us were raised with the Golden Rule as our guide: "Treat others the way you want to be treated." This works as long as everyone is just like you and shares your values, sensibilities, and sense of humor. In today's multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural environment, people with different personalities, values, backgrounds, and perspectives must interact in ways that promote mutual respect. Using oneself as the litmus test (e.g., "I wouldn't find this offensive so I guess it's okay") is a naïve and unreliable technique.

Opt for a Platinum Rule: "Treat others as they would like to be treated." This requires paying attention, noticing other people's preferences and sensibilities, and not making assumptions. When in doubt, ask before launching into a joke or engaging in unwelcome touching or other behaviors that may offend or demonstrate a lack of respect for others.

Respect is not a "what," it's a "how." It's a way of interacting. It means taking the time to understand another person's perspective. It means maintaining a professional image at all times. It also means being responsive to other people's concerns and feelings and responsibly speaking out against inappropriate behavior. Respect and harassment can mean different things to different people. What is respectful behavior in one culture may have a very negative connotation in another. Building a respectful work relationship and preventing harassment involves noticing how we approach people who are either different or similar to ourselves. Diversity--working with people who are different than us--is an increasingly common reality in all workplaces.

Rule 2: Ask yourself, "Is this appropriate workplace behavior?"
Many behaviors are easily identified as crossing the line. For example, most people readily agree that yelling at someone or touching them in a sexual way is always inappropriate workplace behavior. But there are many behaviors that may cause some disagreement in terms of appropriateness. How can you tell which behaviors will be perceived as crossing the line?

There are three questions people should use to navigate the confusing arena of appropriateness:

1. Would you say or do the same thing if it were going to be put on the front page of a dental journal or local paper (e.g., "Dentist A told the following joke in the office" or "Dentist B asked her chairside assistant the following question.")

2. Would you say or do the same thing if your spouse or child were standing next to you?

3. Would you say or do the same thing if the person were a different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or age?

If the answer to any of these questions is "I'm not sure," that's a good indication you should reconsider your actions. Some of the behaviors that have led to accusations of harassment and/or discrimination include:

• Making jokes about someone's race, religion sexual orientation, or physical appearance
• Making requests or demands for sexual favors
• Telling vulgar or sexist jokes
• Using sexually patronizing language (e.g., calling someone "babe" or "honey")
• Discussing sexual exploits or asking questions about a person's sexual experiences or practices.

While we are on the topic of inappropriate behavior, I want to offer a cautionary note about office romances. The two romantically involved people often think they're keeping it a secret. Ironically, they are usually the last ones to realize that everyone knows about their affair. Workplace romances are problematic because they foster allegations of favoritism, disrupt the work-related power dynamics, and often lead to inappropriate displays of affection during work hours. In addition, these office romances inhibit open communication. In most cases, workplace romances don't last long, and when a break-up occurs the office environment becomes unbearable for everyone.

Finally, remember that just because no one says anything or complains directly to you, doesn't mean the behavior is OK. Silence does not mean consent. Many people may find something objectionable but be reluctant to draw attention to their discomfort. So instead of telling you, they'll leave the office and tell their friends and colleagues--and you may never know the damage you've caused to your reputation and career.

Rule 3: It's not your intent; it's your impact that matters.
I think it's fair to assume that no one wakes up in the morning saying, "Let's see how I can harass or discriminate against someone today!" Yet people DO engage in behavior that others see as harassing or discriminatory. Saying "I didn't mean it" will not insulate you from liability. Over the last 25 years, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and both federal and state courts have frequently ruled that behavior that is inappropriate, harassing, or discriminatory violates the law, even when the individual did not intend to harass or discriminate.

Rule 4: Remember that power is always present.
As a general rule, those who feel less powerful are always aware of power. In other words, if asked, "Who are the people who make your life miserable?" most people point up the power ladder to those "above." People are quick to point to those situations where they feel like a victim. Now imagine if someone were to ask, "Who are the people who you make miserable?" Those names don't come to mind as readily. The reason is that being in the more powerful position allows us to downplay these power dynamics. I call this dynamic "the power not to think about your power."

It is essential for dentists to be aware that they will be perceived as dentists 24/7. We do not elect to "step out of role." We should assume that we are "in role" all the time and our words and actions will be perceived as that of employer or "person in charge," whether the conversation takes place in the break room, parking lot, at an office outing, or before the first patient walks in the door. Recognizing and being attuned to these power dynamics is imperative.

Rule 5: Invite constructive feedback.
Even if we adhere to the first four rules, despite our best intentions, each of us will undoubtedly say or do something that may have the unintended consequence of making someone else feel uncomfortable or not respected. We'd each prefer that people talk to us rather than about us, especially if we've said or done something problematic.

How does a dentist facilitate this process? By asking questions and eliciting feedback. For example, a simple inquiry to the dental team might involve asking them the following questions:

1. What do I say or do that promotes mutual respect within the office?

2. What do I say or do that undermines or hinders mutual respect within the office?

If you are uncomfortable engaging in an open conversation, it might be easier to invite your team members to submit their responses anonymously in writing. Another alternative is to reiterate your intention to have mutually respectful work relationships and to specifically ask that if anyone feels that something you said was inappropriate or offensive, to let you know, preferably in person, but if not, then by sending you a note or e-mail. If you are not defensive and thank the person for the courage to give feedback, that message will be shared throughout the office, and next time it will be easier for you to elicit constructive feedback.

Good relationships take work
Some of us are very skilled at fostering mutually respectful work relationships. For others, it takes time, effort, and practice. In most dental offices, work relationships take work. By adhering to these five rules, you can minimize your risk and maximize your ability to foster mutually respectful work relationships.

Mitchell Karp, Esq., MSOD, president of Karp Consulting Group, Inc., is a national and international consultant, coach, and trainer. He assists organizations and individuals in developing productive work environments free of bias, harassment, and discrimination. He also specializes in team building, diversity initiatives, and conflict resolution. He can be reached at (212) 629-9158 or Karp Consulting.

For more information, visit one of Mr. Karp's Web sites at Vallot Karp or Karp Consulting. Mr. Karp holds a BS in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, a JD from Rutgers Law School, and a Masters of Organization Development from American University.