Unwanted sexual conversations

Feb. 1, 2013
I've been a dental hygienist in the same practice for six years. The doctor is easy to work with and treats me with respect.


Dear Dianne,

I've been a dental hygienist in the same practice for six years. The doctor is easy to work with and treats me with respect. All of us get along well together, and I have been happy working here.

However, a situation has developed that has been causing me considerable discomfort. One of my coworkers and her husband have become involved in a "spouse-swapping" group. She sits around at lunch in our staff lounge and talks about their sexual escapades in shockingly graphic detail. She is a married woman with two elementary-aged children. The first time she shared her secret weekend life, I was dumbfounded! I can't get some of the things she said out of my mind.

I don't consider myself to be prudish, but I do not enjoy hearing about my coworker's deviant sexual practices. I live too far away to go home for lunch, and I certainly do not want to eat in restaurants every day because of the expense. Sometimes I go sit in my car to eat my lunch, but in the summer it's often too hot and in the winter it's too cold. Besides, why should I have to go to such extreme measures to have a peaceful lunchtime? I've considered talking to the doctor about this, but it is downright embarrassing. What should I do?

Embarrassed RDH

Dear Embarrassed,

Just when I think I've seen or heard it all, something new bubbles up. I've been in dentistry 40 years, but I don't think I've ever encountered a situation like you have described. Take heart, because for every problem, there is a solution!

What you've described is a form of sexual harassment.

According to the website, uslegal.com, sexual harassment occurs when a person is subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature to the extent that it creates an abusive or hostile working environment. Interestingly, sexual harassment goes beyond mere conduct to include such things as pornography and unwelcome sexual conversation/communication. Additionally, many have held the misconception that for sexual harassment to occur, the harasser must have "bad intent." Intent is not relevant. The reality is that what may be viewed as harmless by some is deemed offensive by others.

Under U.S. law, there are two types of sexual harassment. The first is called quid pro quo, which is Latin for "something for something." This refers to the demand for sexual favors in return for maintaining one's employment. The second form of sexual harassment is called hostile work environment. "A hostile work environment is one in which unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature creates an uncomfortable work environment for some employees. Examples of this conduct include sexually explicit talk, sexually provocative photographs, foul or hostile language, or inappropriate touching." (http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/svaw/harassment/explore/1whatis.htm).

The federal entity that governs sexual harassment is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC has written guidelines that form the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  1. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment.
  2. Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals.
  3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. (29 C.F.R. § 1604.11 [1980])

A key word in this guideline is the word unwelcome. When employees are subjected to unwelcome or uninvited sexual conduct or communication, an unlawful action has occurred.

Words and images are powerful! When people sit around and talk about their raunchy behavior, their words paint images in the minds of the hearers. Like a song you can't get out of your mind, a mental image can become mentally oppressive. It is a form of psychological injury. The dangers of visual pornography are well documented, often leading to mental addictions that can wreak havoc on the viewer's mental and personal well-being. You are being subjected to a type of verbal pornography.

The affront to personal dignity that occurs as a result of sexual harassment, by definition, detrimentally affects the work environment. In past cases, the courts have held "that a hostile work environment will detract from employees' job performance, discourage employees from remaining in their positions, and keep employees from advancing in their careers. The Title VII guiding rule of workplace equality requires that employers prevent a hostile work environment." (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Sexual+Harassment)

According to statistics, hostile work environment lawsuits are increasing. In a recent hostile work environment lawsuit against the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a certified surgical technologist contends she became a target of scorn because she took offense at the sexual banter in the operating room. The nurse complained to several managers at M.D. Anderson about the sexually charged atmosphere, which included allegations of profane language and sexual remarks during surgery while working with one of the surgeons, according to her lawsuit.

Just as prevention is the best way to eliminate oral disease, prevention is the best way to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Your office should have a well-written guideline that defines what constitutes sexual harassment. Prohibited conduct must be stated in an understandable way. Furthermore, the guidelines should state that any type of sexual harassment is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated in the workplace. Your office policy manual should outline a complaint process in the event sexual harassment occurs. There should be a prompt investigation into the allegations followed by appropriate disciplinary measures.

Any employer who does not take appropriate action after receiving a complaint of sexual harassment can be held liable. In some states, sexual harassment is viewed as a civil wrong, or tort, which may be the basis for a lawsuit against the harasser and the employer who failed to take action. As EEOC guidelines state, "With respect to conduct between fellow employees, an employer is responsible for acts of sexual harassment in the workplace where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) knows or should have known of the conduct, unless it can show that it took immediate and appropriate corrective action."

It is imperative that you talk to the doctor about this situation. How can he do anything about it if he doesn't know the unwanted sexual talk is happening? It is every employer's obligation to provide a workplace that is free from harassment. Rather than risk a future lawsuit, it is probably in the employer's best interest to terminate the employment of the staff member who unabashedly discusses her kinky sex life. Her very presence is a constant reminder of her behavior. If I was the doctor, I'd be worried about who else knows of her escapades and how that might reflect on the practice. RDH

All the best, Dianne

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. Dianne's new book, "The Consummate Dental Hygienist: Solutions for Challenging Workplace Issues," is now available on her website. To contact her for speaking or consulting, call (301) 874-5240 or email dglass [email protected]. Visit her website at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com.

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