Content Dam Rdh En Articles Print Volume 38 Issue 3 Content Dam A Culture Of Respect In The Workplace Leftcolumn Article Thumbnailimage File

A culture of respect in the workplace

March 1, 2018
JoAnne Gurenlian, RDH, notes that it’s not a pleasant topic, but sexual harassment needs to be discussed in the dental profession, so members feel empowered to step forward.
Training on sexual misconduct can help colleagues cope with incidents

Joann R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD

I recently attended the Fourth Global Dental Hygiene Research Conference, where I had one of those sidebar conversations that come up while waiting for a meeting. Some colleagues and I discussed the latest scandals occurring in the US, seemingly one after the other: Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer. While these very public issues of sexual harassment and misconduct were paramount, we ventured into wondering how many of our dental hygiene colleagues have experienced these behaviors in the workplace.

Inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace is not a topic of continuing education courses and not one we tend to cover much in entry level dental hygiene programs. We don’t teach what it means to have a safe, protected, and respected work environment, and how to report cases of sexual violation. Maybe it’s time we did.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination and it is unlawful. It violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to workplaces with 15 or more employees. Many dental practice settings are smaller. In those cases, protection from sexual harassment may be covered under a state or local law.

The EEOC1 and the National Women’s Law Center2 define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, offensive remarks about a person’s sex, severe or pervasive conduct that is generally intimidating, hostile, or offensive, or when a person’s submission to or rejection of sexual advances is used as the basis of employment decisions or a condition of employment. Victims and harassers are both men and women, and the harasser can be a supervisor, employer, coworker, client, or patient.

The National Women’s Law Center reports that at least one quarter of all women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and no occupation is immune from this phenomenon. Further, and sadly, the majority of women who are victims do not file a complaint. Their reasons include fear of losing their job, not being believed, feeling that nothing can or will be done about the situation, and embarrassment about the circumstances.2

We don’t teach what it means to have a safe, protected, and respected work environment, and how to report cases of sexual violation. Maybe it’s time we did.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to create a culture of respect in the workplace. We can prevent inappropriate sexual misconduct from occurring by offering training sessions on the topic just as we do for infection control, CPR, and medical emergencies. Employers need to understand their responsibilities to their coworkers, staff, and patients. Employees need training as well about how to handle these very uncomfortable situations. Everyone needs to know their rights and responsibilities.

In the event that an unwelcome behavior occurs, inform the harasser that you want it to stop immediately, unless you’re in fear of your safety or your job. If necessary, seek assistance from someone in a position of authority. Review the policy and procedure on sexual harassment and use that to promptly report the incident. Document the incident, your work performance, and any incidents of retaliation you might experience as a result of reporting the harassment. Keep copies of any written harassment documents as well as performance and work records. Network with coworkers, friends, and family. If these steps do not help end the problem or result in retaliation, the National Women’s Law Center recommends taking legal action.2

This is not the most comfortable topic to write or read about. Of all the columns I’ve written, this one strikes a chord, even with me. I worry about my colleagues because I suspect something of this nature does happen, perhaps more than we care to admit. We work in close quarters and sometimes people become a little too familiar. I wonder how many have felt taken advantage of or abused by something that was said, inappropriate touching, or more. How many have kept this to themselves their entire careers?

Perhaps with this public acknowledgment of the violation of women (and men), we may soon see a substantive change within organizations. Maybe the next generation of dental hygienists need never know about this type of violation.

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and past president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.


1. Sexual harassment. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website. Accessed November 29, 2017.

2. Frequently asked questions about sexual harassment in the workplace. National Women’s Law Center website. Accessed November 29, 2017.