Neal Howard, the host of Health Professional Radio, interviewed Kate Fenner, PhD, RN, Managing Director of Compass Clinical Consulting, about sexual harassment in the healthcare setting. This is part 2 of a two-part interview. Access part 1: “Sexual Harassment in Healthcare: How to Prevent?” here. You can also listen to the complete interview on audio, “Sexual Harassment in the Healthcare Setting.”

Cultural & Communications Barriers in Reporting Sexual Harassment Incidents

Neal Howard: What would you say are some of the underlying cultural and maybe communication issues that prevent many of these sexual harassment issues from both staff members and possibly patients or even visitors of patients from even being reported in the first place?

Kate Fenner: Good question. Hospitals are hierarchies. There are centers of power and there are people who are in relatively powerless positions. And people who are in powerless positions frequently feel impeded from reporting on situations where they feel degraded or harassed. But the typical example in a hospital is in the operating room, where it’s a very tense environment, where there are very powerful people and very powerless people, and there are numerous instances where instances of harassment come out of ORs for that reason. It’s a cultural hierarchy and it’s hard to report up and not feel like you’re at risk for some sort of…

Neal Howard: Retaliation.  

Kate Fenner: Retaliation, thank you. So hospitals is tough that way. Patients frequently don’t see themselves as having significant rights. They are the recipients of care, they feel helpless, a lot of things are attacked in terms of what happens when you become a patient in a hospital, so they may not recognize that certain behavior is inappropriate or they may not feel like they have the freedom to say anything about that behavior, particularly if that behavior comes from a very important caregiver.

So, it’s a lot of tricky minefields in the healthcare and hospital environment that don’t exist in other environments to the same extent. I mean unequal power relationships are everywhere, but hospitals are particularly structured.

Taking on the Imbalance of Power

Neal Howard: When you have this perceived and very real imbalance of power in the hospital, the doctor-patient setting, how can you make sure that this is addressed in your organization, that people feel that they do have the right to speak out and that someone will take whatever action is necessary?

How do you build that within your organization?

Equal in the Eyes of Your Standards

Kate Fenner: I think the important part is to prove that your policy doesn’t exist on paper to live your values so that no matter who is accused, there is a thoroughly credible and fair investigation and that if the complaint is substantiated that the appropriate steps are taken regardless of how important the individual is within the organization. There’s a great case that comes out of California where a transport person was accused of using inappropriate language in his responsibilities, and he was terminated and in the same institution, a surgeon had been similarly accused and nothing was done. You can’t do that. You have to demonstrate that we’re all equal in the eyes of the standard. That it’s the fanciest neurosurgeon who may be tremendously skilled but is held to the same standards around decency and importance as the lowest orderly or nurse.

Neal Howard: Now, Kate, where can we go online and get some more information about Compass Clinical Consulting and possibly some more about how sexual harassment is viewed and dealt with in a healthcare setting?

Kate FennerCompass Clinical Consulting is at and we would be delighted to have people take a look at the website. This work is oriented towards our hospital accreditation and regulatory compliance services if they’re specifically looking. Another great resource is the EEOC, the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission has tremendous documentation on definitions of sexual harassment and policies about same, what to do with it. And then also, I’m going to use the acronym, because I’ve used it so often, I can’t remember what the name stands for: SHRM, The Society for Human Resources Management, has some excellent training materials for people who are interested in downloading for a really minimal fee for some materials. But we’re delighted to talk with people about the whole prevention, detection, remediation (PDR), which is if you are a health professional that’s an old set of initials, so PDR around sexual harassment, I’d be delighted to chat.

If you missed part 1, make sure to read “Sexual Harassment in Healthcare – How to Prevent?”

Additionally, you can access Kate’s full radio interview here: “Sexual Harassment in the Healthcare Setting.”


Further Reading on Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environments

Compass’ Services: Helping Healthcare Organizations Prevent, Detect, and Remediate Sexual Harassment Allegations

Article: How Healthcare Leaders Refuse to Tolerate Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the news: Heads Up on Sexual Harassment in Healthcare Settings

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