Sexual Harassment

I listened as the young woman described the suggestive comments and the inappropriate touching. While I kept a straight face, inside my head I was aghast: “This still happens in the new millennium?!”
When she was done, I immediately picked up the phone and called the college of pharmacy where she was enrolled. Put through to an assistant dean, I identified myself and the student and then described what the student was having to undergo in her school-endorsed rotation. In short order, much to the college’s credit, the young woman’s story was verified, she was moved to another rotation, and the preceptor had charges filed against him by both local police and the board of pharmacy.
Sexual harassment is alive and getting along. While some studies indicate such harassment is declining, the persons still engaging in this behavior are doing so as outrageously as ever. Demanding sexual favors for promotions or good grades, inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching, etc continue unabated in some areas.
Pharmacy, unfortunately, is one of those areas. While more and more pharmacists are female, technicians are still, by a large majority, also female. One study showed that more than half stated that they had endured sexual harassment in some form during their careers.
Sexual harassment is defined as a form of sex discrimination in the workplace that includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.
There are two general types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment (HWE).
Quid pro quo was the first recognized and seen in the courts. This is where the person doing the harassing makes a demand and withholds something until sexual favors are granted. A promotion, endorsement, policy or procedure change, evaluation, and/or a good grade can be refused until and unless the harassing person gets what is demanded.
While recognized later, hostile work environment covers a much broader area. HWE does not always include sexual favors—it could be a person working in a pharmacy where the pharmacist makes inappropriate comments about customers (“look at the [breasts] on that girl” or “doesn’t he have a nice [rear end]?”), tells jokes of a sexual nature, or just commonly uses derogatory language of a sexual nature. The comments and language do not even have to be aimed at the person who is offended; just having to be in the environment that is offensive is sufficient to meet the criteria for sexual harassment. More cases are based today on HWE than quid pro quo
Some basics on sexual harassment:
–sexual harassment must emanate from someone higher up in the company to a lower ranked employee. The standard is that a lower ranked employee could be fried by someone higher up for such acts.
–though all early cases were male to female harassment (and this is still the majority of cases), sexual harassment can also exist female to male or same sex.
–depending on the egregious nature of the act, a single act of sexual harassment is actionable
–submitting to the demands of a harassing individual makes prevailing in a legal action much more difficult.
An employee being sexually harassed has certain requirements to meet in order for a lawsuit for sexual harassment to be viable. The employee must report the harassment within a reasonable time after the harassment begins. In one case, a technician lost a sexual harassment case for waiting six months before reporting. The court allowed as how fear of losing her job was a deterrent to reporting for a time, six months was too long. If you stay in the environment without complaint for a significant length of time, the court held, you have indicted your acceptance of the environment.
The employee must report the harassment to someone higher up in the company than the harassing individual. The exception to this is when the harassment comes from the highest person in the company. In such a case, go to HR if there is such in the company. Where there is no such department or person, see a lawyer.
One problem is proving the harassment. If others in the work environment do not support the claimant, it becomes a he-said, she-said, and a long time valued employee may be protected against unsubstantiated claims. A person claiming harassment should not hesitate long to complain, but long enough to gather sufficient evidence of sexual harassment.
Employers too have certain duties when they receive a sexual harassment claim. An investigation must be made by the company. The investigation must begin within a reasonable time—delay increases the employer’s liability. Also, the employer needs to remove the employee making the claim from the hostile work environment (this can be accomplished by removing the harassing individual instead of the claimant). However, the employee can be left in the hostile environment for a short and reasonable time while the investigation is ongoing. This is dangerous for employers; if the harassment continues, it is difficult to prove the time period was reasonable. Finally, employees may not be retaliated against for making such a claim, so long as the claim was reasonable. False claims are actionable by both the employer and the person accused.
Employers often pre-emptively address this issue in their employee orientation and/or employee handbook. There may be policies on dating and behavior by employees within the company. Be aware and follow them.
What about sexual harassment from customers/patients? First, this is true harassment. Second, employers are just as required to take action against these people as they are within the company. The general concensus among employers is to warn the customer upon his first harassing act (unless it is outrageous in nature) and then to ban the customer from the location if a second occurrence follows. The affected employee should have input into these decisions. Failure to act against customers engaging in sexual harassment of employees is as actionable as if the harassment came from another employee.
Sexual harassment still exists. Pharmacy employees should stand against it and take whatever steps are necessary when they see it.

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