Lately the media has had a field day with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. No one should deny that the issue should be addressed. However, the media hype and sensationalism is overshadowing the right for the accused to be considered innocent until proven guilty. This is a societal trend that is exposing some much larger themes all of us – especially those in the field of dentistry – should be paying attention to.
In their 1997 book “The Fourth Turning” Howe and Strauss discuss in detail how and why the current era is, and will continue to be, a time of disruption and discontinuity. While one may choose to disagree with their concept of the cyclic nature of history, we can clearly see evidence in society today that supports the idea that we are in a fourth turning period. We see this expressed in terms of political upheaval, loss of civility in society and expression of suppressed anger among groups of people who self-identify as repressed.
Why is dentistry potentially in the cross hairs for sexual harassment claims? Dentistry still has more male than female doctors, although the mix is changing. Most dentists operate in solo offices employing a number of ancillary staff who are primarily female. The profession of dentistry involves high intensity and physical intimacy with both patients and staff. However, we should remember that sexual harassment can take place between members of the same or opposite sex. Therefore, great care should be exercised to maintain professional relationships. It is critical that doctors and staff have training in, and practice the use of, Emotional Intelligence in all interactions with the office team and patients. Often the doctor, patients and staff have long standing relationships that can lead to feeling that the group is really a large family structure rather than an employer/employee/ professional relationship. When this relationship changes for some unknown reason the doctor/employer can be at risk for a claim of sexual harassment.
Our view is that it is only a matter of time for the “trickle-down effect” of the media hype to infect the profession with harassment claims. If the claims are true and can be proven then the offender deserves punishment. If the claims are unproven, however, and used to take retribution against someone they could easily ruin a dental practice. Take action now to get the target off your back.
Whether you are practicing in a metropolitan area or a small town the stigma of a TV crew pushing a microphone in your face or the face of one or your staff showing up on the evening news would severely damage your practice and your life. Thoughtfully assess your management style and human resources practices. Take action now that demonstrates you are accountable and hold your staff accountable to prevent sexual harassment in any form.
When did you last review and update your office policy manual? Does it have a specific section on sexual harassment prevention? A few states mandate sexual harassment prevention training but most do not. What other human resources practices might put you at risk? How do you handle hiring and termination interviews? Do you record them, with permission, or have a third person present? Your employee files should be just as detailed and meticulous as your patient files. And they should be in a secure location. Take a look and confirm that you have clear and detailed information that is unbiased in the files that records and supports the actions you have taken.
Doctors, take the time now to participate in training your office in the prevention of sexual harassment. Consider making the training part of your yearly mandated training just like updating your CPR program. You can hire an outside firm to do this as a lunch and learn session or use one of the Power Point files that are available from numerous sources on the internet. An example is noted below. 
As our society continues to evolve and societal norms change, this and other behavioral issues will emerge as triggers of emotional frustration or opportunities to grow and mature. Be accountable and help those around you understand that accountability will prevent the need for looking over your shoulder to see if there is a target on your back.
 Howe and Strauss, the Forth Turning, Broadway Books, 1997