HOD addresses sexual harassment

Speakers at AVMA Convention 2019 discuss understanding, prevention, and workplace dilemmas
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#ME TOO handwritten on Post-It notesClients have sent improper gifts and made inappropriate comments suggesting that a veterinary visit could be more than medical to Dr. Lindy O'Neal, but she is assertive when that happens.

Dr. O'Neal said she is pretty confident and bold and tends to shut those types of comments down quickly. She said, "I have experienced sexual harassment from both clients and veterinarians. I would say more so from clients than my colleagues, thank goodness."

Dr. O'Neal is a small animal veterinarian and owner of Animal Medical Center in Rogers, Arkansas. She has been in practice for 10 years and has worked in veterinary medicine for about 20 years.

"Sexual harassment in the workplace is more common than people believe. Social norms are changing—for the better—and everyone is becoming more and more aware of what behavior is and is not acceptable," Dr. O'Neal said.

In response to the #MeToo movement, veterinary leaders are moving forward with a strategy to further increase awareness of sexual harassment in the profession and create resources. The AVMA House of Delegates voted unanimously to approve a resolution concerning sexual harassment awareness during its regular annual session in August in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with AVMA Convention 2019. Speakers at the convention also spoke about understanding and preventing sexual harassment and about workplace dilemmas relating to sexual harassment.

The approved resolution recommends that the AVMA Board of Directors charge the AVMA Council on Veterinary Service to collaborate with the Student AVMA and the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America to investigate the current harassment policies that the AVMA provides to its members and develop additional resources.

Tracey Gray-Walker, CEO of the AVMA Trust, said during a reference committee meeting that the conversation is fundamentally about showing respect and common courtesy for one's colleagues.

Dr. Franklin
Dr. Cindy Franklin, alternate delegate for South Dakota in the AVMA House of Delegates, discusses a resolution concerning sexual harassment awareness during the regular annual session of the HOD in August in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with AVMA Convention 2019. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

The original resolution, submitted by nine state VMAs and the American Holistic VMA, proposed that the Board conduct a survey to discover how widespread sexual harassment is in the veterinary profession. However, many HOD representatives suggested that the survey was an unnecessary step and that the information would not change the actions required by the industry.

Sexual harassment education 'would be an eye-opener to show just how frequent, how subtle, but how dangerous this type of behavior can be.'

Dr. Lindy O'Neil, Arkansas alternate delegate in the AVMA House of Delegates

"I don't think it matters if it (the survey) comes back 10%, 50%, or 70%. That percentage is not going to make us more or less concerned about the problem and what we should do," said Dr. Cindy Franklin, alternate delegate for South Dakota, during the HOD meeting.

The resolution was amended to remove the portion requesting that the Board conduct a survey. The approved resolution directs the Board to report back to the HOD during the winter 2020 meeting in January regarding its actions related to the topic and the resolution.

Dr. O'Neal, who is the alternate delegate for Arkansas, believes that training programs and increased awareness with videos, for example, that showcase different forms of sexual harassment could be beneficial for staff.

"It would be an eye-opener to show just how frequent, how subtle, but how dangerous this type of behavior can be," she said. "Even if someone is lucky enough to work in a harassment-free workplace, this type of training will help in other areas of their life."

She said this is a part of the well-being puzzle that the profession is trying to put together.

Understanding and prevention

Sexual harassment is typically defined as conduct of a sexual or sexist nature that is unwanted and negatively impacts the receiver. The behavior can be further broken down into three categories: visual or nonverbal, such as explicit photos displayed in a work environment; verbal or written, which can be the refusal to use a person's preferred pronouns, for example; and physical, which could be touching someone without permission, explained Michele Laaksonen, PhD, during a session, "Understanding and Preventing Sexual Harassment," on Aug. 2 at AVMA Convention 2019.

"Some of the more frequent ones (forms of verbal sexual harassment) that we hear is calling a grown woman a girl," Dr. Laaksonen said. "That can be considered sexual harassment. … Another common example is telling a male that he is doing something like a girl. We hear that a lot in sports analogies like, 'He throws like a girl.'"

Dr. Laaksonen is a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Southside Center for Violence Prevention in southern Virginia, a nonprofit providing services to those affected by sexual and domestic violence.

She suggests that a person should ask the following questions when considering whether certain behavior can be viewed as sexual harassment:

  • Is the behavior sexual in nature?
  • Is the behavior unwanted?
  • Is the behavior one-sided?
  • Is the behavior part of a larger pattern or severe?
  • Does the behavior cause emotional discomfort to the receiver?
  • Does the behavior interfere with a person's occupational or academic performance?
  • Does the harasser hold power over the subject?

"There are a lot of behaviors that a lot of us do without thinking about it because we might have people in our lives that we have different boundaries with," Dr. Laaksonen said. "But when we are in the workplace, those boundaries need to be reconsidered."

Data are sparse regarding sexual harassment in the veterinary profession, but the behavior can be experienced by anyone, and the perpetrator can be anyone. An online poll from Bovine Veterinarian reports that 82% of female veterinarians say they've experienced sexual harassment or discrimination, and 78% have witnessed a female veterinarian experiencing harassment or discrimination.

A recent Medscape survey gathered information from 3,700 human health physicians and found that, of those surveyed, about one in 10 female physicians have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in the past three years.

However, research also shows that 85-95% of victims don't report the harassment, according to Dr. Laaksonen. She suggests that practice owners create and enforce a sexual harassment policy and training program, which can change the social norms that lead to lack of reporting. The policy should be written and reviewed by authors of multiple disciplines, she said; it should address how to report sexual harassment whether it is coming from a client or a supervisor and how to document the behavior, and the policy should be reviewed annually.

Dr. Laaksonen also advises conducting a survey to ask questions about the workplace culture and environment. She recommends talking to new hires and staff about the sexual harassment policy and making people aware of the local resources available to them.

Tips for employees who are being sexually harassed include telling the harasser to stop, documenting everything, and using whatever complaint procedure is available, if there is one, according to the JAVMA commentary "Sexual harassment issues in veterinary practice" (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2007;230:1007-1010).

There are a lot of behaviors that a lot of us do without thinking about it because we might have people in our lives that we have different boundaries with. But when we are in the workplace, those boundaries need to be reconsidered.

Michele Laaksonen, PhD,  clinical psychologist

Workplace dilemmas

Dr. Charlotte LaCroix of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, spoke at AVMA Convention 2019 on trending dilemmas in human resources, including dilemmas relating to sexual harassment.

She outlined the following two scenarios:

  • Two doctors and three paraprofessionals are crammed in a small examination room to evaluate a very interesting-looking oral tumor in a dog. As Dr. Phil takes his turn to evaluate the mouth, he brushes against technician Lisa's chest. Is this harassment? As a manager, how should you handle this situation if Lisa alleges harassment?
  • Dr. Samantha tells receptionist Margaret that she's lost a lot of weight and must be getting a ton of attention from men because she looks "smoking hot." Margaret feels uncomfortable and tells the practice manager she was sexually harassed.

Management needs to investigate in both situations, Dr. LaCroix said. She continued, "So much of this is based on our history and where we come from, right? I mean, we see differences in demographics on this. The reality is that managers must all be trained to be sensitized, which includes the owners and the employers, and there are two levels of training. There is training at the management level, and then there is sensitization of all your employees."

Dr. LaCroix said the employee manual should have a clear policy regarding sexual harassment. The policy should do the following:

  • Define sexual harassment.
  • State in no uncertain terms that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
  • State that wrongdoers will be disciplined or fired.
  • Set out a clear procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints.
  • State that any complaint received will be fully investigated.
  • State that retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

Dr. LaCroix recommends training employees and training managers and supervisors at least once a year. "These sessions should teach employees what sexual harassment is, explain that employees have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, review your complaint procedure, and encourage employees to use it." Training for managers and supervisors should educate them about sexual harassment and explain how to deal with complaints. For small businesses, training via webinar is more affordable than hiring someone to come into the practice.

In investigating a complaint, Dr. LaCroix said, a manager should interview the person making the complaint, with a focus on quantitative information. The manager also should interview any witnesses confidentially. The manager should put together a report with a conclusion. Then the manager should talk to the person complained against. Actions might include training, suspension, or termination.

A member of the audience asked, "How does this work if a staff member feels harassed by a client?" Dr. LaCroix said a manager needs to have a conversation with that client—and can fire a client who can't behave.

California VMA providing sexual harassment webinar

California this year started requiring employers with five or more employees to provide training and education regarding sexual harassment for all employees. The California VMA is offering a webinar to help veterinary practices meet this requirement.

The law requires at least two hours of sexual harassment education for all supervisory employees and at least one hour of sexual harassment education for all nonsupervisory employees by Jan. 1, 2020, and once every two years thereafter. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act previously required employers with 50 or more employees to provide sexual harassment education to all supervisory employees.

The CVMA webinar is open to veterinarians, veterinary technicians, hospital staff, and veterinary students. The first hour of the webinar is for all employees. After a 15-minute break, the second hour of the webinar is for supervisors only.

The CVMA is offering the webinar at noon Pacific time on Wednesday Oct. 16 and at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Wednesday Nov. 6. The cost for nonsupervisors is $20. The cost for supervisors is $35 for CVMA members and $60 for nonmembers. Groups must register for the first webinar by Oct. 6 and for the second by Oct. 26. Individuals must register for the first webinar by Oct. 13 and for the second by Nov. 3.

The AVMA policy "Harassment and Discrimination-Free Veterinary Workplace," provides guidelines to help veterinarians create an employment policy to address harassment, including sexual harassment, and discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission provides information on how to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC to complain about harassment.

Related JAVMA content:

HOD to discuss sexual harassment in profession (July 15, 2019)