Sexual Harassment: How Well Do You Understand?

Molly PereiraFeatured News

By Lynne Curry
From the Winter 2018 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Sex harassment—we think we know what it is—unwelcome sexual conduct that impacts the workplace. But what happens when one of your colleagues, employees or patients believes something is or isn’t harassment, when you believe the opposite?

What if you’re the one who is wrong?

You might think the situations that have taken down Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and others couldn’t happen to you. After all, you don’t walk around in a robe or physically grapple with employees.

That said, consider these scenarios:

  • You and your long-term employees casually joke in ways you consider innocuous, or you make casual statements you don’t even mean, such as, “All I want is to make a good living and have a cute assistant.” Then, a new staff member takes offense. What if this staff member doesn’t say anything, but uses a smartphone to record the casual joking, which might not sound as innocent when played out of context to a regulatory agency?
  • One of your employees, who appreciates a more casual work setting, makes comments that upset another staff member. Even if you didn’t hear them, if it happens in your practice, you may be responsible, according to the standard of you “knew or should have known.”
  • Your spouse works with you, and you and your spouse occasionally hug or touch each other casually, and it offends a staff member. What are considered reasonable and unreasonable actions by a couple in a relationship or family members in a professional setting?

If a jury or regulatory agency finds you guilty of any of the above, your practice might pay hundreds of thousands of dollars. You might find yourself spending thousands of hours talking to regulatory agents and attorneys, or spending thousands of dollars on those attorneys. The climate has changed—and we need to as well.

How well do you know sexual harassment? Don’t let yourself be taken in by these three myths:

She never said “stop,” and so I didn’t know.
While courts, juries and regulatory agencies agree that alleged victims have some responsibility for saying “stop” or “that makes me uncomfortable,” they don’t have sole responsibility. Judges, juries and regulatory agencies recognize that victims may be too intimidated or fearful of job loss to speak out. They hold employers and managers responsible for noticing harassment and never harassing.

It’s easy/impossible to prove.
We’ve all heard it’s, “he said/she said.” Except it’s not. After conducting several thousand investigations, I can tell you it’s generally possible to say “harassment probably occurred” or didn’t.

Unlike criminal court, in which guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt or the court of public opinion in which innocence needs to be proven or guilt may be assumed, sexual harassment case decisions rest on the basis of a preponderance of the evidence. When all the facts are presented, what will 12 reasonable people—the jury—conclude? Will they agree that what was done was “no big deal?”

He insists he didn’t harass her. She claims he did. So it’s a stalemate.
You’ve probably met two individuals who can’t tell you whether harassment occurred or didn’t: the too-thin-skinned and the totally clueless. According to those thin-skinned, even sideways looks register 6.4 on a sensitivity Richter scale. According to the clueless, no one should be offended unless they “meant it” or managed the difficult feat of offending themselves.

Ultimately, 12 jurors render a verdict. Thus 12 jurors told the thin-skinned female to lighten up when she sued, after her co-worker watched a Seinfeld episode and the next morning repeated a one-time dictionary joke about the name Delores rhyming with a part of the female anatomy.

Jurors similarly surprised the construction crew members who thought it funny when they wrote their female co-workers’ names in the snow when relieving themselves. “Just a guy thing,” said the construction crew’s management. “Gross sexually-laden harassment,” declared the jurors.

Dental offices have a unique environment where staff members work in very close proximity to one another. Many offices are small in nature, adding to the intimacy that staff members know and relate to each other. It is increasingly important to be aware of personal behavior and boundaries in the workplace, no matter how well you know your co-workers. Don’t let yourself believe in a myth.

About the Author: Dr. Lynne Curry, SPHR (senior professional in human resources), is regional director of Training and Business Consulting for Avitus. You can reach her at, and @lynnecurry10 on Twitter. Lynne is the author of Solutions and Beating the Workplace Bully and works with multiple dental practices.

CDA Sexual Harassment Policy
The CDA takes sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct by its volunteers and member dentists very seriously. Ethical behavior is a Core Operating Value of this organization.

The CDA Board of Trustees approved a sexual harassment policy for all volunteers in June 2016. The policy states that all volunteers and CDA officers are expected to conduct themselves in a professional and businesslike manner, at all times. Conduct that may violate this policy includes, but is not limited to, sexually implicit or explicit communications whether in:

  • Written form, such as cartoons, posters, calendars, notes, letters, and emails.
  • Verbal form, such as comments, jokes, foul or obscene language of a sexual nature, gossiping, or questions about another’s personal life, or repeated unwanted requests for dates.
  • Physical gestures and other nonverbal behavior.

If you believe there has been a violation of this policy by any CDA member, please notify the CDA executive director, president or a staff member.