MPHP has spoken with some physicians who were not aware that their behavior was considered by others as harassment. With that in mind, we are presenting some information that defines sexual harassment and provides guidelines for identifying when one’s conduct is unwelcome. Also included are some recommendations for responding to harassing conduct.
Sexual harassment is present when unwelcome conduct on the basis of gender affects a person’s job. The US Supreme Court identifies two types of unlawful sexual harassment. The first involves harassment that results in a tangible employment action. For example, a supervisor who makes continued employment dependent on some sexual favor. The second type is creating a hostile environment. This conduct can come from anyone, not just someone who has supervisory authority. Behaviors that may contribute to a hostile environment include:
✦ unfulfilled threats to impose a sexual quid pro quo
✦ discussing sexual activities
✦ telling off-color jokes
✦ unnecessary touching
✦ commenting on physical attributes
✦ displaying sexually suggestive pictures
✦ using demeaning or inappropriate terms, such as “babe” or “honey”
✦ using indecent gestures
✦ sabotaging the victim’s work
✦ engaging in hostile physician conduct
✦ granting job favors to those who participate in consensual sexual activity
✦ using crude and offensive language
These behaviors can create liability only if they are based on the employee’s gender and are severe or pervasive. Even if unwelcome conduct does not constitute a legal violation, employers have moral and organizational reasons as well as egal incentives to address and correct that conduct at its earliest stages.
To create a sexually hostile environment, unwelcome conduct based on gender must meet two additional requirements: (1) it must be subjectively abusive to the person(s) affected, and (2) it must be objectively severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find abusive.
Because the legal boundaries are unclear, the best course of action is to avoid all sexually charged behavior in the workplace. If you’re not certain if a behavior would be considered harassment, ask yourself these questions:
• Is this verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature?
• Is this conduct offensive to witnesses?
• Is the behavior being initiated by someone who has power over the other?
• Does the employee have to tolerate that type of conduct in order to keep his or her job?
• Does the conduct make the employee’s job unpleasant?
Even if you do not find the conduct personally offensive, remember that some of your associates might, and avoid behavior that is in any way demeaning on the basis of gender.
Responding to Harassment
How to respond to harassment is a subject of some debate. It is best to first review your company’s policy on harassment and the recommended procedure for filing a complaint. You’ll need to know what the company provides to protect you as a complainant.
Some authorities recommend that if you find either gender-based or sexually oriented conduct offensive that you make your displeasure clearly and promptly known to the harasser, spelling out exactly what you find offensive. These authorities assert that since the definition of harassment involves unwelcome
conduct, it is best to establish the fact that the behavior is in fact unwelcome. If you do file a complaint, you do not have to report the incident to your supervisor first, especially if that is the person doing the harassing. They also recommend that recurring incidents be reported promptly. Keep in mind that sexual harassment is an organizational problem, and the employer wants to know about it so it can take prompt and appropriate action to ensure that no further incidents occur, either with you or with others.
Also, keep in mind that although sexual harassment is generally committed by men against women, any form of unwelcome sexual advance against employees of either gender may be the basis for a case.
MPHP has many years of dealing with sexual harassment and sexual boundary issues, in addition to working with substance abuse and mental health problems. Please contact us for assistance, as these concerns are important and legitimate.
Resources on Sexual Harassment
Harassment issues should be dealt with before they become problems, Karen Capen, Can Med Assoc J. 1997:156: 1577-9. Sexual harassment of female doctors by patients, Susan P. Phillips and Margaret S. Schneider, New England Journal of Medicine 329:1936-1939, Dec 23, 1996, No. 26 Editorial, The insulting physician “code of conduct”, Lawrence R. Huntoon, MD, Ph.D, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Vol. 13 No. 1, Spr 2008. Prevalence and correlates of harassment among US women physicians, Erica Frank, MD, MPH, Donna Brogan Ph.D, Melissa Schiffman, MD, Arch Intern Med/Vol. 158, 352-358. Sexual harassment in academic medicine: Persistence, non-reporting, and institutional response, Delese Wear, Ph.D, Julie Aultman, Ph.D, Med Educ Online 2005: 10:10 Sexual Harassment (Malpractice issues in radiology) Leonard Berlin, AJR 2006:187:288-293.