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Issue: 61 - Jan 15, 2014
Risk Management: Sexual Harassment Policy and Related Issues
By: Marsha L. Heinke, CPA
Marsha L. Heinke, CPA, Inc

Employee claims of employer wrongdoing seem to grow faster than Petri dish colonies. The considerable overgrowth of threats demand employer awareness of laws such as those against sexual harassment and prevention effort through implementation and maintenance of policies, training, documentation, and other activities. Veterinary practice administrators can reduce the probability of claims and cost of claims defense whenever they inevitably occur and whether valid or not.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act covers sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, so the law has been on the books a long time.  Sexual harassment claims have risen dramatically since 1985.  In recent years (2010-2012), claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) numbered 7,500 to 8,000 per year, with approximately 54% resulting in a finding of no reasonable cause, yet still costing emotion, time and legal fees to resolve. Awarded monetary benefits totaled $41-$45 million per year, not including benefits obtained through litigation (http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/sexual_harassment_new.cfm).

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” (http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm).

There are two types of sexual harassment: “quid pro quo” and “environmental.” Quid pro  quo  sexual  harassment  occurs  when  submission  to  or  rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct forms the basis of employment decisions affecting the individual.

Environmental sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual conduct that unreasonably interferes with the individual’s job performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment,” even if it leads to no tangible or economic job consequence.

A key component of sexual harassment claims is that the conduct was unwelcome by the victim.   Importantly, the victim does not have to be the person harassed but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

Veterinary practice owners and administrators should take all possible steps to prevent harassment from ever occurring in their practices. Once harassment has occurred, an employer can do little or nothing to escape liability if the employee has suffered a “tangible job action” (termination, demotion, less pay, missed promotion, etc.) as a result of supervisor misconduct.

What are effective actions to take?

  • Affirmatively raise the subject: communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
  • Communication should occur at the point of new employee hire, as part of the on-boarding and orientation process.
  • Policy should be communicated in writing through the employee handbook, appropriately reviewed by  the  practice’s engaged employment law  attorney, who can also raise any issues that should be addressed pursuant state law, in addition to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent federal guidance.
  • Regularly (annually) train all employees about sexual harassment and what to do, such as speaking up as a victim and telling the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop.
  • Provide an effective complaint and grievance process that employees know to follow immediately.
  • Supervisors and owners should know to take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
  • Provide a hotline for all employees as an alternative means to immediately report harassment, anonymously if desired, and remind them of it regularly; a hotline option is a good way to show the employer provided training and a communication line when and if a complaint occurs.
  • Learn about and purchase  Employment  Practices  Liability  Insurance  as  a resource for claim defense, training materials, and an avenue for basic consulting assistance in the event of a perceived or actual problem.

The practice’s engaged attorney, HR specialist, and insurance broker are all resources for help. Most importantly, be familiar with the EEOC website and materials available on it. An astute practice  manager  will  tap  this  resource  regularly  by  instituting  and  refreshing  a  regular program of staff training. An annual refresher meeting can be completed in a half hour or so, through good preparation.

Finally, our firm provides two affordable resources that most practices will find efficient and useful. Our Sexual Harassment Training Package provides the materials required for basic employee training purposes. These materials are updated annually and contain guides for practice owners and managers to assist in staff training. A PowerPoint presentation and certificate of completion are included.

Our firm also sells subscriptions to a practice hotline, availed to practices of all sizes through the Dare to Care program. The Dare to Care program supports your practice’s HR policy, employee training, and supports patient and client care by aligning the team with common business ethical values. The program includes a quarterly topic presented through posters and a newsletter geared to encourage ethical behavior among team members. Visit our website at www.vpmp.net or email Alicia A. Foss, CLSC, SPHR at afoss@vpmp.net for more information.

By: Marsha Heinke, DVM, EA, CPA, CVPM

Marsha L. Heinke, CPA, Inc.

934 Main Street

Grafton, Ohio 44044

Phone: (440) 926-3800

Fax: (440) 926-3801

www.VPMP.net