The following guidance is intended as a starting point for AVMA member veterinarians, and not as a definitive statement of the law concerning harassment and discrimination. Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws may differ greatly from state-to-state and from city-to-city. Federal, state and local laws prohibit harassment and discrimination based on an individual's actual or perceived protected class or the actual or perceived protected status of the individual's relatives, friends, or other associates, which may include, but not be limited to, such categories as sex, color, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, marital or parental status, or military or veteran status, medical condition, citizenship status, pregnancy status, or disability (physical or mental). Moreover, depending on the size of a practice/workplace and/or the affiliation of a practice/workplace with public entities, these laws may or may not apply to that practice/workplace. Each practice/workplace, therefore, should consult an attorney who is knowledgeable in employment law in its jurisdiction, to determine which federal, state, and local laws apply before developing a harassment and discrimination-free workplace policy or any employment policy.
Establishing such a policy assures individuals in the workplace that the organization is committed to preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Management has a responsibility to address complaints of harassment or discrimination in the workplace, as well as complaints of harassment or discrimination between staff members and other outside parties doing business with a practice/workplace (e.g. contractors, vendors, or clients). The AVMA Policy on Harassment and Discrimination-Free Veterinary Workplace is intended as a guide for management in the veterinary workplace or setting to develop a specific policy tailored to the circumstances of that workplace. In addition, having an established harassment and discrimination policy that is well written, well communicated to staff, and appropriately enforced, will aid in the defense of any external legal claims. This is why it is so important to consult an attorney who is knowledgeable about the employment laws in the practice's/workplace area for specific guidance and legal advice.
The policy should help employees understand and recognize harassment and discrimination, and how to deal with it appropriately. The policy should address what employees need to know about harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. The organization's policy should be clearly communicated so that employees know how to comply.
A policy regarding harassment (unwelcome conduct) and discrimination (unequal treatment) in the workplace should set forth the organization's strong commitment to maintaining a work environment where employees are treated with dignity and respect, and where harassment and discrimination are not tolerated. The policy should clearly describe all individuals who are covered by the policy and the range of consequences for violating the policy, such as disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment. The policy should, at the very least, set forth each of the categories protected by the discrimination laws applicable in the practice's/workplace's state and locality.
Harassment, including sexual harassment
The AVMA recognizes that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. Harassment, or unwelcome conduct, may become illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim being fired, demoted, or not promoted. Sexual harassment is a common form of harassment and includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. To ensure a work environment where harassment is not tolerated, the policy should clearly describe the type of conduct that is in violation of the policy, which may include a broader range of conduct than is actually unlawful in order to make the workplace more comfortable. Employees should also be informed that the policy extends beyond the workplace to other work-related settings, such as business trips, meetings, and business-related social events. Employees should also be informed that harassment based on all protected categories is equally prohibited by the policy.
Procedure for filing a complaint of harassment or discrimination
The organization's policy should clearly outline the procedure for employees to file a complaint of harassment or discrimination. Employees should be informed about the process that will ensue after a complaint is filed so that they know what to expect, including setting the expectation of privacy and confidentiality.
The policy should define retaliation and inform employees that retaliation will not be tolerated. Retaliation can come from the organization or from individuals, and can be directed at the person who made the complaint or individuals who participated in the investigation.
- In addition to having a member of management as the designated staff member to whom complaints of harassment and/or discrimination are to be made, it is important that staff members have an alternate designated staff member(s) to report complaints to in the event the primary contact is identified as the source of harassment and/or discrimination.
- Staff members should sign an acknowledgement and receipt form when they receive a copy of the written policy.
- In addition to the written policy, staff should also receive meaningful training on the policy, and their rights and responsibilities under the policy. This will also assist in the defense of any outside legal claims. Some states require employers to conduct mandatory anti-harassment/anti-discrimination training for staff annually or within other specified timeframes; this training may also be required to maintain professional licensure.
- All members of the management staff should be advised that they are accountable for the effective administration of this policy and that they may have personal liability for failure to adhere to the policy.
- Once a complaint is received, a fair and impartial investigation of the complaint should begin immediately. These investigations should be conducted as confidentially as possible, on a need-to-know basis. The employee filing the complaint should be interviewed in confidence, as well as the individual(s) against whom the complaint has been filed. Any witnesses to the alleged harassment should also be interviewed in confidence if necessary. The investigation and the results should be fully documented in writing.
- Once the investigation has been completed, if the charge is found to have merit, appropriate disciplinary action should be taken against the employee who violated the policy, up to and including immediate termination of employment based on the severity of the infraction. It is important that disciplinary actions be applied in a consistent manner, and that they are sufficient to stop the harassment and to prevent its recurrence.