Preventing sexual harassment in veterinary medicine

sexual harassment
In this article:
  • Find training resources to prevent workplace harassment in all forms.
  • Understand legal requirements for sexual harassment training.
  • Learn ways to keep sexual harassment out of your workplace.
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Sexual harassment prevention training

These AVMA Axon® webinars will help you build a safe, harassment-free workplace and explores risk management, the impact of harassment, and available resources and tools.

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sexual harassment

Harassment is unwelcome conduct and can create a hostile or offensive work environment or result 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.

Workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, remains a persistent problem and often goes unreported. Workplace harassment first and foremost comes at a steep cost to those who suffer it, as they experience mental, physical, and economic harm. Even beyond the impact to the individual, workplace harassment affects all workers, and its true cost includes decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational harm.

Every member of the veterinary profession can play a role in putting an end to unacceptable workplace behavior. A commitment to a diverse, inclusive, equitable, and respectful workplace is necessary—but not enough. At all levels, across all positions, an organization must have systems in place that hold employees accountable. Leadership, accountability, and tailored training are crucial to stopping and preventing harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own—it's on all of us. We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves. The following resources and information can help you play an active role in ending workplace harassment.

Training to prevent sexual harassment

Many states require businesses to implement training to prevent sexual harassment. View resources to identify your state's requirements.

Training resources 
  • This AVMA Axon webinar will help you build a safe, harassment-free workplace and explores risk management, the impact of harassment, and available resources and tools. Learn more
  • This AVMA Axon webinar meets Illinois state requirements for sexual harassment prevention training and is a practical guide for all veterinary professionalsLearn more
  • AVMA PLIT offers a training module on sexual harassment. Learn more
  • As a starting point to prevent harassment and discrimination in your practice, view AVMA's guidance for member veterinarians regarding the establishment of a policy to assure individuals in the workplace that the organization is committed to preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Learn more
  • As a program designed to teach participants how to create healthier, safer, more inclusive veterinary teams, practices, and organizations, the Brave Space Certificate Program includes a module on preventing workplace harassment. Learn more
  • A positive workplace culture has a large impact on preventing harassment. Commit to a healthy culture of respect through the AVMA Workplace Wellbeing Certificate Program. Learn more

Five ways to keep sexual harassment out of your workplace

It's on all of us to stop and prevent sexual harassment. Here are five actions you can take to oppose sexual and other types of harassment in your workplace and to help ensure that the veterinary profession is safe and equitable for all.

Commit to a culture of respect

Company culture can be the greatest indicator of and influence on the prevalence of harassment in a workplace. A workplace culture that puts a premium on respect, diversity, equity, and inclusion often leads to fewer instances of harassment.

Individual employees can commit to championing a culture of respect at all times. For employers, making sure that employees are held accountable for negative behavior is paramount. You may also consider publicly acknowledging and rewarding individuals who go above and beyond in contributing to a positive and respectful work environment.

Implement policies and procedures

Clear policies are vital because they delineate what is, and what is not, acceptable behavior across all levels of an organization. Sexual harassment can be subtle actions as well as overt behaviors. Educating staff about the range of comments and actions that are inappropriate is an important step; all employees should understand that even seemingly small transgressions will not go unchecked. The AVMA has developed guidelines to help veterinarians create an employment policy to address harassment and discrimination.

Implementing straightforward procedures is also critical and should enable employees to easily report—and managers to quickly respond to—any instance of harassment. Another benefit of set procedures is that they can help keep you and your organization from falling into a frantic "crisis mode" if a situation arises that must be addressed.

Lead by example

A company's culture is indelibly linked to its leadership and relies heavily on whether its leaders "buy in to" the culture themselves. As a leader in your organization, it is especially important for you to model appropriate behavior and address when an employee is not adhering to company expectations.

Revamp your training

Training, as all veterinarians know, is an essential part of education. But experts believe that traditional sexual harassment trainings—which focus mainly on antidiscrimination laws and legal implications—aren't impactful. Instead, training should be a more holistic tool to help build the company culture you desire—one of respect and inclusion.

The most effective trainings are interactive and dynamic. They should be conducted on a regular basis for all employees and should address situations that are likely to arise in your specific work environment. You may consider offering team members the opportunity to anonymously submit scenarios for discussion, which they themselves have experienced. Bystander training also has been shown to be a particularly effective method of empowering employees to take action when they witness harassment.

Enforce accountability

Even the best policies are all but useless if they aren't enforced in a timely and meaningful way. When an organization enforces its harassment policies, it demonstrates upper management's commitment to creating a harassment-free environment where individuals will be held accountable for their behavior. It gives employees confidence that these policies and procedures will be upheld, too, should they ever need them.

Additional resources

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force report

In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace released a landmark report on the subject. See their key findings.

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British Veterinary Association (BVA) report on discrimination in the veterinary profession

In 2019, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) released survey results showing that about one quarter of veterinary professionals experience or witness some sort of discrimination in the workplace or in a learning environment. See their full report.

Learn more