Interoffice relationships: Red light or green light?

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Administrators, consultants offer advice for dealing with office dating

Although the fall air is cooling down, some relationships in your office might be heating up. Below are some of the stories and feedback your colleagues shared about romance in the office through “Practice Chat”—a free listserv open to physicians, office managers, and practice administrators.

Red light: Take control

It’s not if it happens but when. Roughly 40% of employees in all industries polled have been involved in an office romance. In healthcare, it may be even more, given that most medical practices are less formal.

Additionally, results have proven that a romance between a physician and an employee hurts practice productivity and may mean significant financial risk if there is a contentious breakup. Office romances should be covered in the employee handbook (see sample policy below), which should state that the employee discovered in an office romance will have to resign. If it is a physician, he or she needs to be informed how detrimental this romance is to the practice.

—Gail Lorenzen, CHBC, The Sage Group

Yellow light: Seek legal advice

It is important to have legal advice before terminating employment. Physicians are at big risk for sexual harassment claims or wrongful termination of an employee.

In a client group, I had to be the one to discuss with a physician that he was placing the entire corporation at risk by continuing the relationship. Corporations make the parties involved sign a very detailed waiver that prohibits either party from filing sexual harassment claims or wrongful termination.

Corporations usually allow office romances now, as long as there is not a supervisory relationship between the parties, and sometimes only if they work in different departments.

—Debra Phairas, president, Practice & Liability Consultants

Green light: Difficult but delightful

I know this is a most difficult issue. Because I have been married to the founding physician in our group of seven for over 30 years, I really cannot be objective, but I feel we have worked out the difficulties, mostly because I am harder on my husband than the other physicians.

Two of our physicians are married to each other, so their interoffice romance has flourished and produced two more children since they joined the group. In our personnel handbook, we describe inappropriate and unwarranted contact between physician and staff and have a policy for dealing with any such report by a staff person.

We protect the rights of all of our employees from unwarranted advances from another employee or physician. We have not required any form to be signed, but we have spoken openly to the partners and the physicians about the potential conflicts of romantic relationships and encourage discussion of any concern.

—A practice administrator

Red light: Caught and not so hot

I was part of a practice a while back (ten years) and a physician and a staff person were “caught” in the supply closet. The staff person was transferred to another site (thank God we had that option).

However, in this instance, I was made aware of it by office gossip and approached the physician at the site regarding the gossip. Once the employee transferred, the relationship ended. I was lucky. I don’t like to think of other scenarios that another employee could have seen and complained about, etc. The employee who told me was just “making me aware” and did not witness anything personally.

Each place I’ve been had a policy regarding intolerance of sexual harassment. There was a complaint process and procedure that was in place that the employee could use in the event they felt harassed.

—A practice administrator

Sample harassment and discrimination policy

Even if you haven’t had to deal with a relationship between staff members at your office, it’s still essential to establish clear guidelines and definitions of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Consider using some of the language below in your employee handbook:

Our practice is committed to maintaining an environment free of discrimination and harassment based on an individual’s creed, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, age, or any other class protected by federal, state, or local law.

We do not tolerate or excuse any form of harassment from anyone within the practice, and violation of this policy may result in immediate termination. The following are descriptions of behaviors that are prohibited and are unacceptable.

1. Harassment. This includes verbal or physical conduct that degrades another person, evidences hostility or intense dislike toward another person for any of the reasons listed above, or creates an environment that is offensive and uncomfortable, and results in affecting a person’s work performance or employment opportunities.

2. Unwanted behavior. This type of behavior includes verbal abuse, unwelcome offensive verbal comments or behaviors that relate to a person’s marital status, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability, such as epithets, slurs, stereotypes, threatening or intimidating remarks and acts, or written or graphic material that degrades or is hostile to another employee.

3. Discrimination. Discrimination is unlawful and injures the integrity of our practice. We prohibit the making of employment decisions based an individual’s creed, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, physical or mental disability, age, or any other class protected by federal, state, or local law.

4. Sexual harassment. This is illegal and is not tolerated at our practice from employees or patients. It includes but is not limited to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal, written, or physical conduct with sexual overtones.

5. Other violations. Additional actions that could result in disciplinary measures or termination include: repeated and deliberate sexual comments, sexual jokes or drawings/pictures, uninvited touching, physical gestures that are sexual in nature, and the invasion of an individual’s space in an intimidating manner. Any complaints of harassment, unsolicited behavior, discrimination, or sexual harassment should be directed to the administrator or manager.

Source: The Medical Group Management Association. Adapted with permission.

Your practice may also want to outline what steps to take to file a grievance and how such issues are resolved. Likewise, establish a forum, whether it be a comment box or via e-mail, where staff members, physicians, and even patients can transmit complaints privately or anonymously. This may encourage someone who is experiencing harassment but is hesitant to report the incidents, which will allow you to investigate further.