Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It is not a new issue. Rather, it has gone on for some time with lasting, damaging after-effects for those who experience it and nurses are no exception.
Sexual harassment can take the form of physical harassment of a sexual nature, offensive remarks about a person’s sex and offensive comments about a person’s gender generally, as examples.
The harassment must be so severe that it creates a hostile work environment, affects the ability of the person to carry out his or her employment responsibilities or results in an adverse employment decision made by the employer, such as a demotion or firing.
Both federal and state laws exist to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. When a charge is filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by an individual, the EEOC has the authority to file the case in federal court seeking compensation for the victim.
In June, a Florida RN was allegedly the target of sexual harassment at a pediatric medical practice where she worked. She went to the EEOC to file her claim against the practice and provide details about a physician’s conduct. The EEOC filed its case against the practice in federal court.
What the EEOC’s claim says
According to the EEOC’s case filing, the RN was employed by the pediatric medical practice for about nine years, first as an LPN working part-time during her nursing school program and, upon graduation, as a full-time RN.
One of the physicians at the practice, who was also its vice president of the board of directors, allegedly accosted the RN by coming up behind her while she was sitting at her computer and pressing his groin against her back for several seconds. The RN was unable to move away.
When walking toward each other in a hallway approximately two months later, the RN stopped walking to allow the physician to pass her. Rather than continuing to walk past the RN, the physician allegedly grabbed the RN by her hip and firmly squeezed it.
Neither incident was consented to by the RN. Each was unwelcome.
The RN, consistent with the practice’s harassment-free policy, reported the incidents to her direct supervisor, the office manager.
The office manager verified the conduct was unacceptable and directed her to report the physician’s conduct to its human resources department. She also arranged work stations to limit the interaction between the two.
After contacting the human resources director and detailing the events with the director via e-mail, the RN was interviewed by the human resources director and coordinator.
The RN shared that she was concerned the physician’s behavior would continue. She was anxious and uncomfortable about working near him. She also stated she wanted the physician to be aware of her concerns and stop the harassment so they could continue their respective work roles in a civil manner.
Practice investigates sexual harassment claim
Shortly after the interview, the RN was informed that the pediatric practice’s investigation was completed and was unable to verify her allegations.
The RN was then informed she would be transferred to another of the practice’s offices, effective the next day.
The RN did not consent to this transfer and told the human resource director and coordinator that she did not want to be transferred because the transfer would cause her personal hardship, which she shared with them.
Moreover, the RN said there was no need for a transfer because the office manager arranged for the RN and the physician to work on opposite sides of the office to limit their interaction.
The RN was told she had no say in the matter, that nothing could be done to change the physician’s behavior and the change would allow her to be more comfortable at work.
Rather than the RN continuing her direct patient nursing responsibilities at the new practice setting, her role was to sit at the front desk, answer phones and schedule patient appointments.
In addition, her hours of work were reduced and she was not authorized to work overtime.
Due to these changes, the RN’s work conditions were so unbearable, she had no choice but to resign.
What the EEOC’s claim requests for the RN
The conduct of the medical practice was unlawful under Title VII when it retaliated against the RN for reporting the physician’s sexual harassment to its human resource personnel. Her sharing of the harassment resulted in a retaliatory change of employment.
The change of employment caused the RN unwarranted difficulty, took away her ability to practice nursing care, reduced her pay and made working conditions at the new site so difficult she was forced to resign.
Among other demands, the EEOC wants the court to order the practice to:
- Grant an injunction prohibiting the practice from retaliating against employees who are protected under Title VII.
- Pay the RN appropriate back pay with prejudgment interest — the amount determined at trial.
- Pay compensation to the RN for her emotional pain, suffering and humiliation — the amount determined at trial.
- Pay the RN punitive damages for its malicious and reckless conduct — the amount determined at trial.
- Institute and implement policies, practices and programs that will provide equal opportunities for women.
What this suit means for you
Because this case was just filed, the outcome will not be determined in the immediate future. Even so, its filing has important implications that you need to keep in mind if you encounter sexual harassment in the workplace. They include:
• Federal and state laws prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace
- Never think you have to endure sexual harassment.
- If you believe you are encountering sexual harassment by anyone in the workplace, emphatically tell the harasser you do not want the conduct and demand that it stops.
- Keep a personal, confidential diary of each harassing event with details as to date, time, conduct that occurred, who else was present, where the harassment took place, what you said to the harasser and what (if anything) the harasser said.
- Consult with a nurse attorney or attorney as soon as possible concerning the harassment to explore your options and get help with handling the harassment in your workplace.
- Report the harassment immediately pursuant to employer’s policy and procedure.
- Document the reporting in your personal, confidential diary as to what you said, what was said to you about the reporting, the date and time of the reporting and who was present.
Like this RN, you can file a charge with the EEOC without an attorney should you want to. The EEOC will review and evaluate your charge and as was the case with this RN, may file a case on your behalf in court.
Know that exercising your rights against sexual harassment in your workplace protects not only you but all other employees who may be experiencing sexual harassment as well.
Take these courses to learn more about protecting patients and yourself:
Sexual Harassment and Retaliation CE for Nurses
(1 contact hr)
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that constitutes an unlawful employment practice in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This statute prohibits employment-based discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, national origin or sex in all aspects of the employment process, from recruiting through termination. As the result of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, plaintiffs need not prove that they have suffered an ultimate employment action, such as involuntary termination, to file a claim of retaliation after filing a discrimination complaint under Title VII. Employers and employees need to understand the implications of Title VII in the workplace environment.
Preventing Violence in the Healthcare Setting
(1 contact hr)
Violence in healthcare settings reflects the chaos of a broader work environment. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines workplace violence as “violent acts (including physical assaults and threats of assaults) directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Experts not only agree on the extent of violence in the healthcare setting, but also concur on its best treatment: education and prevention. Nurses heighten their awareness and expertise in dealing with violence in their professional settings by learning to identify risk factors and warning signs, and by applying interventions that can shield their patients and themselves from harm.