What does love have to do with it?

Jan. 1, 1996
Sexual harassment, that is. And the answer to the question above is: Absolutely nothing. It`s an illegal behavior that should not be tolerated in any dental practice.

Sexual harassment, that is. And the answer to the question above is: Absolutely nothing. It`s an illegal behavior that should not be tolerated in any dental practice.

Pamela Zarkowski, RDH

Sexual harassment. Depending on one`s experiences, the words may conjure up images of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, the movie "Disclosure," or perhaps a personal experience or observation. Sexual harassment is an issue in the workplace and specifically the dental office environment.

Dental hygienists need to be aware of the types of sexual harassment, examples of harassment, and preventive strategies. Hygienists and other staff members must understand that offensive behavior and language should not be tolerated.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment because of the gender of the individual. Therefore, sexual harassment victims may be male or female, and harassers may be of either gender as well.

The two types of sexual harassment include quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means "something for something." It occurs when an employee is subject to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. In each case, the employee also believes:

- submission to the conduct is either explicitly or implicitly a term of condition for employment.

- submission to, or rejection of, such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions, such as raises or dismissal.

- such conduct unreasonably interferes with work performance in that an intimidating or hostile work environment is created.

Sexual harassment in a hostile environment has been further defined as any type of unwelcome sexual behavior that contributes to an intimidating or offensive work environment. The harassment can include sexual propositions in which compliance is not attached to job benefits; innuendoes, comments, or references such as sexist jokes or questions about sexual behavior; and degrading or insulting comments about an individual`s sex.

Both male and female hygienists can be the target of sexual harassment. The opportunities for sexual harassment, either quid pro quo or hostile environment, are frequent. As a result of commentary on television or articles in magazines and newspapers, obvious examples of sexual harassment may be easily identified. Inappropriate jokes, pictures, or language may also be quickly labeled as wrong.

Yet sexual harassment occurs, and people continue to ignore the behavior or correct the situation. It is helpful to review some examples of sexual harassment. In addition, methods to prevent such situations should be highlighted in order to recognize actions that need to be corrected in the dental office.

Sexual harassment can take many forms. One needs to be sensitive to employers, colleagues, and patients in order to prevent sexual harassment. If harassment is occurring, offer guidance to stop it. No individual should be subjected to harassment as part of the employment situation.

Both employers and employees have rights and responsibilities, and both should be knowledgeable about their obligations. A dental hygienist may not be the target of harassment. She may rather observe or have someone confide in her about a harassing situation. So understanding harassment and the actions necessary to report harassment is important.

Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment include the following:

- Dr. Z. evaluates Tameka, RDH, as part of annual review. He specifically indicates that if she sleeps with him, her raise may be more significant.

- As part of a pre-employment interview, Dr. J. indicates that he likes to get to know his employees. He seems to indicate that he would like to get to know Angela, RDH, during off hours at a local motel to continue the interview. If she agrees to the after-hours meeting, the position is hers.

- Dr. S. likes to "catch" Judy, RDH, in the laboratory. He asks for a "hard" kiss. When she declines, he indicates that he will remember this when the holiday bonus decisions are made.

In most of the situations described, no one observes the behavior or hears the comments made. Dental hygienists may feel uncomfortable about the situation and recognize that it is inappropriate. However, they need not tolerate the scenarios described. A hygienist should never cast blame on herself for an encounter when someone is requesting something for something.

Requests for sexual favors or intimacy is never the result of a victim sending a message.

Examples of hostile work environments are more numerous. This type of sexual harassment may be more subtle than quid pro quo. Sexual harassment in hostile work environments may make one feel sad or unwanted, produce negative self-esteem, and is usually one-sided. Hygienists frequently excuse the behaviors or blame themselves rather than the harasser.

A hostile work environment may include situations such as the following:

- In the laboratory, Dr. P. asks Mary about her weekend trip. He begins by commenting that she seems happier. So she must have had a "great weekend that was really hot." Dr. P. always seems interested in Mary`s personal life, especially her intimate relationships with her boyfriend.

- Dr. Joe is a "wonderful employer," according to his staff. However, he asks his employees for a "kiss on the lips" in order to receive their paychecks.

- Dr. L. comments about how great Diane looks in her scrubs. He asks Diane to be sure and wear the scrubs with the V-neck on the days he works, as well as some sexy underwear.

- Dr. Y. requests a staff member to remove the patient bib on all big-breasted women so he can see the patient better.

- Brent is the dentist`s best friend. He comes in regularly for his maintenance visits. He has quite a few requests for the hygienist, including asking her to wear a tight uniform for his next visit or to sit closer. On some visits, he licks her fingers or plays games with his tongue.

- Andrew, RDH, frequently hears comments about his choice of dental hygiene as an unusual career, because of the significant number of women in the profession. The comments also include innuendoes that his choice of career must reflect his "alternate" lifestyle choices.

- Betsy hates to work alone late with Dr. H. He always manages to stand close to her in the X-ray developing room. Or he physically touches and corrects her position in the operatory as well as rubs against her at every chance he gets.

- Dr. E. always refers to the hygienists and dental assistants in his office as "my girls." He frequently states to patients, "My girl, Maria, will clean your teeth." He also uses other language as "honey" or "babe."

Each situation above contributes to an uncomfortable work environment. The dental hygienist is a licensed employee who deserves respect. No employee should have to work in conditions where the environment is uncomfortable. Sexual harassment is influenced by a relationship where one person has more power over another. This can be formal power, such as a male dentist employer over a female employee. It can also be informal power, where a peer has power over another. The individual that is the target of harassment feels powerless, both because of the experience and an inability to stop or remove oneself from the harassing situations.

Confronting Sexual Harassment

Steps can and should be taken to stop the harassment. The victims are not responsible for the harasser`s actions. They should not tolerate them in any circumstances. A variety of steps can be taken:

- Verbal confrontation. Say something to the harasser. Tell the individual you find the comment or behavior offensive. Be specific by naming the behavior and making it clear what is offensive. Demand that the behavior stop. Do not assume someone knows they are being offensive, or can decipher your discomfort through nonverbal cues.

- Hold the harasser responsible. Do not make excuses. Don`t pretend it did not happen or that you are misinterpreting something. A lack of specific comments or reactions protects the harassers.

- Write a letter to the harasser. Write a factual account of what occurred. Be specific about the date, the action or comment, and your feelings about the event. Explain what you want to happen next - the behavior must stop, for example. Send or deliver the letter, keeping a copy for your files.

- If the harassing continues, keep a record of dates, places, witnesses, notes, or comments.

- Give a copy of the letter to a supervisor. Prompt and immediate action should occur on the part of the employer.

- Employers or supervisors are responsible for creating a nonthreatening environment. If an employer does not take action (or if the harasser is the employer), hygienists should contact the state employment agency or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Sexual harassment is not appropriate under any circumstances. A patient that gropes at a hygienist or makes an inappropriate comments creates a hostile work environment. The hygienist`s job description does not include tolerating such behavior.

Informing the patient about the offensiveness of the behavior, leaving the operatory, and informing one`s employer are immediate actions that will send a clear message. A dental office should have a clearly stated policy that prohibits sexual harassment by employers, colleagues, and patients. This protects all individuals employed within the office, as well as the patients seeking services.

Obvious signs of sexual harassment may be ignored by hygienists. Instead, they rationalize the behavior of a patient, colleague, or employer. A satisfying employment environment acknowledges the importance of why no one should be subject to sexual harassment. It is also understood that steps can be taken to prevent sexual harassment.

Pamela Zarkowski, RDH, MPH, JD, is a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry.