Addressing management issues

May 1, 2009

Edited by C. Anne Pontius, MBA, CMPE,

Employee harassment complaints

Q A female co-worker
has complained privately to us about a male employee who passes her as
he comes into work as she leaves. Over some weeks, they struck up a
conversation a time or two. Her story is that she was talking about
“business” when he suddenly made a crude remark. She ignored it the
first time but later learned that he had said similar things or worse to
another employee on his shift. She agreed that we should complain to our
manager, who then took our comments to the lab director. When we checked
back with our manager, he said that no one was allowed to use
vulgarities in the workplace. So far, there has been no public
announcement or new policy about such behavior, nor has our co-worker
been talked to directly about her complaint by any of the authorities in
our department or from the hospital’s Human Resources (HR) office. What
should we expect if rude language and off-color comments continue as we
understand they have? How long does it take to correct this type of
behavior? We thought a second offense would mean his reprimand or
suspension. We told our friend to ignore him or leave at a different
time to avoid him. If he is making comments to other hospital employees,
is that not illegal?

A According to Alton
Sturtevant, “Definitions of harassment usually consider it to be any
unwelcome verbal, written, or physical conduct that makes the recipient
feel uncomfortable or that shows hostility by the perpetrator of the
action. Harassment is not limited to sexual situations only and
relates to actions that may intimidate personnel or create an offensive
work environment which would interfere with an employee’s work
performance. For specifics relating to your case, refer to your
facility’s personnel policies for a definition and a description of
action to take in cases of suspected harassment.

Harassment is not limited to sexual situations only.

“As to any general announcement of new policies
relating to the incidents, perhaps there is no need for new policies.
Old ones may apply and just need to be enforced. Based on continuing
harassment, it would certainly be appropriate to talk to the HR
department to voice concern. HR should respond relating to policy and
what it expects the recipient of such harassment to do when confronted
with a first-time offense or even a recurrence. HR should not be
expected to relate specific actions taken by that office against any
guilty party.

“Incumbent on administration and HR is having
policies and taking immediate action if workplace harassment occurs. HR
should 1) ensure that employees are trained to recognize workplace
harassment and 2) have an effective system in place to eliminate
harassment, if present. Employees have a legal right to expect this to

Marti Bailey explains, “Your manager and/or HR
have not followed through appropriately on the complaint. Although there
may be no public announcement or new policy as a result of the
complaint, the person making it should receive a personal
response from either the lab manager or an HR representative.

“Unless your hospital is behind the times, a
sexual-harassment policy should already be in place that covers use of
foul language. If so, there would be no need for a new policy. Public
announcements in regard to sexual harassment complaints are not
appropriate. The accused should be spoken to privately; anything that
comes out of the conversation should remain confidential. Only
widespread complaints might prompt an appropriate public
announcement; but even then, sexual-harassment training would be in

“In order to resolve sexual-harassment issues,
the staff has to be educated on the subject. Then, they will understand
that the only way to correct problems is through reporting. When people
fail to speak up, or think harassment is something they must either
learn to tolerate or just ignore, they condone it. The responsibility of
every employee is to report what they perceive to be sexual misconduct,
and let HR make the determination. I wonder if a second offense was ever
officially reported. I would also fault your lab manager and lab
director if they did not contact HR regarding the complaint. HR needs
to be involved
with any complaints of sexual harassment. The
thing for the person who made the complaint to do now is to request a
meeting with both the lab manager and an HR representative present.

“If you continue to be harassed, find a lawyer
and file a sexual-harassment suit against your employer. The employer’s
responsibility is to end this harassment. If those charged with that
responsibility fail, the right thing to do is to take legal action.”

Bottom line: The employer is
responsible for having a harassment policy for dealing with such issues.
are responsible for adhering to such policy, including
reporting violations
. The offended person has a responsibility to
let the perpetrator know she is personally offended by the perpetrator’s
actions and that there is a facility policy that prohibits such
behavior. The offended person should report to the appropriate authority
(as defined by policy) at that time; and if it happens again, superiors
have a responsibility to act on reported allegations, which (in most
facilities) requires HR to be involved. Do not tolerate or ignore policy
violations, as they can escalate or become widespread.

Lack of training

Q Our supervisor has
been with the hospital since Noah sailed the ark. While she is genial
and knows her lab stuff, she is hesitant to provide quality training to
the extent that we had hoped. None of usis afraid to learn to use
new systems and any required software. We believe that she is, and thus,
does not understand it is crucial for the rest of us to be thoroughly
trained so as to do our jobs correctly. How can we make it clear that
while she may be afraid of new lab inventions, her fear puts us in
jeopardy, not to mention patients’ safety. We need more training,
proper training
, before we are caught up short. How do we get her to
take off her blinders?

A Marti Bailey opines,
“It seems odd to me that if your supervisor is uncomfortable with new
equipment, she would take training so lightly. In fact, I would think
just the opposite — her fear would compel her to ensure that her staff
be as well trained as possible. Also bothersome is that nowhere do you
say that you have talked to her about the problem, and she has either
refused to listen or to change her perceived views regarding training.
It seems to me you may be making judgments about your supervisor that
may not be substantiated.

“You or others of the staff need to sit down and
talk with your supervisor regarding training issues. Be able to point
out exactly where and when training failures occurred along with the
consequences. This is also your opportunity to step up to the plate and
offer to take responsibility for training on future new equipment. This
should include detailing training needs, arranging for training of
trainers, scheduling training of the staff, and documenting completion
of training by all who need it. Depending upon your laboratory size,
this might have to be a shared responsibility with someone else. But at
any rate, positive action on your part would be by far more beneficial
to everyone than complaining about your supervisor’s shortcomings.”

Alton Sturtevant addresses the question this way:
“It is not uncommon for some of us to be intimidated by the complexities
of new highly computerized equipment while we are comfortable with the
chemistry of the assays and equipment, not so dependent on the new
Windows-based systems. I see this uneasiness with basic PC-based
software used for correlation studies and other work, so what you
describe is not surprising to me. Most techs are good at troubleshooting
and operating automated equipment. The new computer interfaces have
introduced another factor that is hard for some to overcome.

One of the best success stories I have witnessed is when a
section supervisor divided the chemistry department into areas of
responsibility among all its techs.

“One approach I have seen work well is for a
senior lab tech or team leader to suggest to the supervisor that a
younger tech be delegated to lead the entire instrument training on the
new workstation, permitting her to operate within a role which would
allow her to develop leadership traits for future leadership-accession

“Sell your supervisor on the benefits of
delegation and leadership development for this next approach to work
well. One of the best success stories I have witnessed is when a section
supervisor divided the chemistry department into areas of responsibility
— such as electrophoresis, automated chemistry, therapeutic drugs,
proficiency testing, QC and so on — among all department techs. This
division of labor gave the supervisor and manager more time to work on
the bigger picture: new test development, physician relations, and
additional projects, while making personnel development functioning at
the maximum with a great sense of ownership and teamwork in a well-run
department staffed with well-trained personnel. Many of the personnel in
the department went on to become managers and supervisors within the lab
or at other institutions. I am confident this approach will work well in
your situation.”

Larry Crolla opines, “Contact the technical
support staff from the vendors in question to see what can be arranged
as far as training goes (i.e., length, timing, different shifts, and
other details). Then, when you go to your boss, you can have a solution
in hand. Simply say that to keep up with employee competency
requirements required by various regulatory bodies, a great idea would
be to get more training on your equipment. If she agrees, then present
the information you obtained so she can use it to go forward. Offer to
take on this education coordination. If she has discussed this with you
and told you not to get involved, you might have a problem. So be
careful how you present your findings, so as not to appear as having
gone behind her back. I like staff to bring solutions to their problems;
they get involved, making the manager’s job easier.

Bottom line: This challenge sounds as if
it involves some generational issues. A multitude of Internet resources
exist to help deal with a mixture of employees (just ‘google’
generational workplace issues). I wonder if those who have the desire to
learn about the equipment picked up and read the manufacturer’s
operator’s manual, rather than depending on another person to tell them
what to do? Involve the staff in the solution, being careful not to
isolate or intimidate anyone. Spread and rotate responsibilities so all
interested employees have the chance to learn.

“Management Q & A”
provides practical, up-to-date solutions to
readers’ management issues from a panel of laboratory management
experts. Readers may send questions to Anne Pontius at
[email protected]
Unless otherwise noted as “confidential”
by readers, all queries will be considered for publication without
further notice to them. Names, institution, city, and state will
be removed before publication. The following panel of laboratory
directors, managers, and supervisory technologists have provided their
input in the answers given in this column: Marti K. Bailey, MT(ASCP),
work unit leader, Pathology, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical
Center, Hershey, PA; Lawrence J. Crolla, PhD, consulting clinical
chemist, Departments of Pathology and Respiratory Care, Alexian Brothers
Hospital, Elk Grove Village, IL, West Suburban Medical Center, Oak Park,
IL, and Northwest Community Hospital, Arlington Heights, IL; and Alton
Sturtevant, PhD, laboratory director, LabCorp, Birmingham, AL.

Anne Pontius is a senior medical practice
consultant with State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Company in Brentwood,
TN, and president-elect of CLMA 2007-2009. Send questions to Ms. Pontius
[email protected]