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C-Suite Must Lead on Sexual Harassment Policy

News  |  By John Commins  
   January 08, 2018

Hospitals and other providers are not immune to the sexual harassment complaints that have rattled the entertainment and political sectors. While strong sexual harassment policies are key, changing a culture has to start with top leadership.  

Peggy Strange, a veteran employment litigator with Jackson Lewis, spends much of her time providing sexual harassment prevention and training to hospitals and other healthcare venues.

Strange spoke with HealthLeaders Media about the components within effective sexual harassment policy and the importance of the C-Suite leading by example.

The following is a lightly edited transcript.

HLM: What needs to be in an effective sexual harassment policy?

Strange: The bigger issue is the need to sit down with the C-Suite, the physician and administrative leadership and say 'Hey, let’s have an honest conversation about what is going on here and try to get tools for how to deal with it. What should we be doing as an organization to get ahead of this curve?'

The policies are a piece of that. Are they robust enough? Some clients have a two-minute video with the CEO saying: 'We don’t tolerate this. We want to know if you feel in any way that you have a problem.'

Before we do that, we have to talk to the leadership and ask if they are ready to handle it when people bring problems forward. There are some who may ask 'are we digging up problems where there aren’t any?' The answer is you probably want to know if there are issues in your organization.

Really, what you want is to have leadership model expected behavior.  

HLM: Are you saying that changing the culture is the harder part?

Strange: I am not sure that policy is the easy part. It's a part of the puzzle, but it's got to be part of a larger undertaking by the hospital, the healthcare provider, to ask 'how are we as an organization going to respond to these developments?' Policy is one piece of it.

HLM: Does healthcare provide unique challenges for sexual harassment policy?

Strange: One piece of it is how are we going to manage physicians? There is always this struggle in the hospital setting between human resources and managing physicians. We have way more physicians as employees than we’ve ever had before. Is it the medical leadership that manages physicians? Because it needs to be a coming together of medical leadership and HR in a process for managing physicians that is more holistic rather than just focusing on peer review or medical leadership, particularly as more physicians become employees of hospitals.

HLM: How will the growing numbers of women physicians, nursing leaders and administrators affect the process of building effective sexual harassment policy?

Strange: It is a helpful development because anytime you have more and different voices at the table when you talk about solving the problem you are going to have different opinions about the best way to establish this environment; where we come together and model expected behavior in the work place so that everyone is working in the same direction.

HLM: Will we see more lawsuits?

Strange: I am not sure about the rise of litigation. Companies are getting out ahead of this, at least the ones that are doing the right thing in response and investing time and resources. With all of that organizations will be better equipped to handle complaints before they get to litigation.

HLM: What’s the best way to focus resources?

Strange: No. 1, training the C Suites and starting with that because we see a lot of organizations that may have the right policies in place but are your executives aware of how to manage these situations that sends the right message?

No. 2, training for managers, and also a lot of companies are looking at training for board members.

And you have to ask 'how are we getting these policies to our employees in a meaningful way? Can we do something on video, or provide something more meaningful to a generation that is much more computer savvy? Could we have a town hall meeting with employees?' Try to get the message out everywhere so folks know this organization is committed to a certain environment and you are free to come forward if that is not the environment you’re experiencing.

HLM: Who attends that first meeting with leadership to address cultural changes?

Strange: Start with the highest levels of management in a smaller setting and start planning for how we are going to address this issue throughout the organization. Bring in your highest levels of the organization; general counsel, chief medical officer, executive-level employees and discuss frankly what environment are we going to set, how are we going to set it, what are our concerns, and how are we going to address those, and are we going to be prepared if someone comes forward?

HLM: How do you ensure that your sexual harassment policy isn’t ignored?

Strange: Do you have people who are well-trained, well-equipped investigators; folks who can look into claims and help figure out what happened and what is the appropriate action and response to what happened?

We are working with clients on building investigative tool kits and how to conduct investigations. That is a whole other skill set that often doesn’t come naturally to people, which is understandable because it's not something we do every day. But, if you read anything about what is going on with the rise in claims, the investigation is the critical part. If you don't have good investigators and you've got folks who don’t feel like they’re being heard, that is how you get these 'me too' situations.

HLM: How do you know if your sexual harassment policy is working?

Strange: All of this is going to ultimately lead to a switch in culture where managers are going to be relied on to know their employees better so they have a finger on the pulse of what is going on in their organization and can identify if they see issues.

Are your managers trained to set the right culture, and are they aware enough that if they think something is going on they are going to track it down, rather than ignore it? Are they going to work close enough to the employees so that the employees trust them enough to bring issues to their attention?

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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