Urgent message: Workplace harassment has been categorized as an “epidemic” by workplace experts—with medical businesses like urgent care being no exception. To address, stamp out, and ultimately prevent workplace harassment, urgent care leaders must be vigilant in developing and enforcing the policies, procedures, and guidelines necessary to ensure that our centers are safe and welcome places to work for everyone.
Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.
For many, the “workplace” conjures images of a professional, structured environment wherein employees of varying skill levels, experience, and education work together in cooperation and receive compensation for performing a job.
But employees are still imperfect human beings, each bringing with them their own unique virtues, biases, flaws, and prejudices to the workplace. When this dynamic is combined with working in close quarters with other unique individuals on a day-to-day basis, those biases, flaws, and prejudices can emerge and give rise to behaviors that create a hostile workplace for others.
This is a real and growing problem. In fact, experts say that “workplace harassment,” in all it’s forms, is not only on the rise, but is at epidemic levels. The Workplace Bullying Institute, based in Bellingham, WA, for example, released a poll that asserts a whopping 54 million U.S. workers—or 37% of the total workforce—stated that they have experienced workplace hostility and harassment. Workplace harassment can occur in a variety of forms; left unchecked, the consequences can be devastating, including:
- Costly lawsuits
- Lowered productivity
- Lowered morale and engagement
- High turnover
- Subpar performance (which negatively impacts the bottom line)
The urgent care setting is no exception. Especially given the differences in status, influence, and income among staff members—say, a physician provider who runs the business and the entry-level front-desk staff—along with the natural tendency for coworkers to become too casual in their daily interactions over time, and you have the ingredients for workplace harassment and hostility.
Common Types of Workplace Harassment
Although workplace sexual harassment gets most of the attention and headlines, there’s a broad range of categories of workplace harassment, albeit less commonly cited.
Here, we describe what most HR experts recognize as the common types of workplace harassment:
Discriminatory harassment. Discriminatory harassment occurs when a person belonging to a protected class experiences harassment. These classes are protected by state and federal law and include the following:
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
- Veteran status
An example of gender-based harassment in urgent care would be a male medical assistant being teased or ridiculed for having what some might consider a “woman’s job.” Racial harassment could include making racist jokes, uttering racial slurs, or repeating racial stereotypes around minority employees. Similarly, harassment based on nationality would include comments or behaviors meant to belittle or demean foreign-born team members.
Physical harassment. Also considered workplace violence, this harassment entails threats of violence or actual physical contact. “Playful” shoving of a colleague, a physician physically “directing” a staff member by force to a location or position, a two-handed shoulder grab from behind, or making a threatening physical gesture can all be classified as physical harassment. It doesn’t matter the intent; the recipient is the sole decider as to whether the behavior is threatening.
Sexual harassment. Unwanted and unwelcome advances, behavior, or conduct of a sexual nature. And although commonly cited statistics show that nearly half of all female workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, men can be victims of sexual harassment, as well. In fact, sexual harassment can be between members of the same or different sexes, including those who self-identify as the opposite sex, and involve heterosexual or homosexual activity. A variation of typical sexual harassment is quid pro quo harassment, where the harasser is someone in a position of power and authority; in urgent care this could be a physician, owner, manager, or nurse. In this case, the harasser will either implicitly or explicitly communicate that if the recipient provides romantic or sexual services, they can earn perks like a promotion or a raise or avoid a punishment such as demotion or termination.
Verbal harassment. Borne mostly of personality conflicts, verbal harassment could include unwelcome and unprofessional yelling, cursing, or insulting the victim, regardless whether it occurs in public or private. Because this type of harassment is not considered as serious as the others, it can go unresolved for a long time and, when the harasser is in a position of authority, can reap damaging psychological effects.
Cyberbullying. These days there is little separation between the online world and the workplace; hence, workplace harassment over digital media has become much more prevalent. Especially on social media and company digital channels, spreading lies, gossip, and sharing humiliating information and pictures makes this category a growing concern for employees and employers.
Third-party harassment. This is harassment from someone outside organization, like a vendor or supplier, who is guilty of one of the other forms of harassment toward an urgent care employee. In one instance, a government agent conducting a tax audit took an interest in the office receptionist, making frequent unannounced visits and sitting in the lobby for prolonged periods of time. Low-status employees are typically the target of third-party harassments.
When the Workplace Turns Hostile
All the aforementioned types of harassment have the same result: a hostile workplace. With today’s medical workforce featuring more diversity than ever, traditional conventions such as gender roles, racial and cultural dynamics, and openness of sexual orientation are being tested and challenged. As such, employees who impose their personal biases and prejudices on their colleagues create a work environment that is uncomfortable, stressful, and tense. This type of climate has a clear negative impact on a patient care business like urgent care, as it requires its staff to be engaged, upbeat, and empathetic to properly perform their duties. And for the employees who don’t quit and instead decide to “hang in there” in the face of hostility and harassment, their energy is sapped, emotional labor goes through the roof, and they experience stress-related health problems such as high blood pressure and ulcers. It’s not uncommon for a harassed employee to call in sick often or take stress-related Family Medical Leave Act time.
Addressing Workplace Harassment
Regardless of the changing dynamics of today’s workforce, all employees have the right to employment with dignity where their contributions are respected by the urgent care center’s owners, management, providers, and coworkers. The oft-cited reason people in urgent care commonly state for choosing a career in healthcare is the ability to “help people.” Urgent care employers, therefore, have a duty to provide a harassment-free workplace wherein people feel comfortable fulfilling their personal purpose of serving and treating patients. This leads to greater employee engagement and satisfaction, which in turn translates into better patient experiences and better financial performance for the business.
To that end, the following section provides a roadmap that urgent care leaders and HR personnel can follow to address and prevent workplace harassment and protect themselves from legal liability.
- Develop a zero-tolerance harassment policy. The first step in dealing with workplace harassment is to develop and enforce a written policy that makes it clear that harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. The policy should clearly outline what harassment is, provide examples of harassment in all its forms, and lay out the disciplinary measures that will occur, up to and including termination. If there is an existing policy, ensure that it is up to date, revisited at regular intervals, and signed by all employees.
- Create a formal procedure for making harassment complaints. An employee who feels they are being harassed or are in a hostile workplace should have specific tools available to address the situation in a confidential manner. The process of filing a complaint should be simple and direct, without a lot of bureaucracy to navigate. Additionally, the employee should feel safe submitting their complaint without fear of revenge or retaliation, even if the employee they are accusing has a higher position or status.
- Conduct a complete and thorough investigation. Urgent care leadership must take every complaint seriously and thoroughly investigate each incident. Do not ever leave it to the involved parties to “work it out” among themselves, even if they were friends prior. In a small business like urgent care, every party will be familiar with each other and there may even be friendships involved. The investigator, therefore, must be 100% objective, regardless; gather all the facts, document the entire process, and carry out the proper remediation without delay. Even better, the investigator should be an independent neutral third party to ensure the investigation is fair and unbiased.
Most forms of workplace harassment are prohibited by federal and state law, with legal consequences that can hurt an urgent care’s financial health (not to mention its reputation in the community). This makes it imperative that urgent care operators and leaders take the epidemic of workplace harassment seriously, develop comprehensive policies and procedures for handling and preventing harassment, and ensure that all employees feel comfortable and welcomed in the workplace and associated digital channels.