Actionable sexual harassment in the workplace can be committed by anyone. Put simply, an employer may be liable for creating a hostile work environment when an employee reports harassment to the employer and the employer fails to take steps to remedy the situation.
As we have shown in past posts, while most harassers are co-workers or supervisors, that is, people working for the same company, harassment can come from customers in retail stores, delivery people, and, yes, even parrots. The issue for the employer is to remedy the hostile workplace situation which the harassed employee claims has been created, no matter the source of the harassment.
A university study from Australia has revealed a startling statistic — more than half of female general practitioner physicians have been harassed (many more than once) – by, of all people, patients. The nature and extent of the harassment was found to be, in descending order of frequency: requests for an inappropriate examination; inappropriate exposure of body parts; gender-based remarks; inappropriate gifts; sexual remarks; and touching or grabbing.
Of the harassed doctors, 66% found it necessary to make personal changes or to change their consulting style, i.e., they adopted a more formal manner, changed or did not perform examinations, kept their personal life more private, changed their dress, and/or did not work alone or “after hours.” Besides the harassment suffered by the doctors, general patient may be a collateral victim of the harassment if the doctors are forced to change the way they treat patients.
This study did not appear to delve into the critical issue of whether and to what extent the doctors were solo practitioners or were employed by others, such as hospitals — a key distinction when it comes to employer liability, of course.
The kicker of all this: the study revealed that only a small handful of these doctors had ever received training relating to sexual harassment by patients. This statistic is, alas, not all that remarkable given our experience with US employers, most of whom conduct no harassment training at all, for either managers or employees.
Training would go a long way towards changing these unfortunate statistics.