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Culture, psychology complicate many office issues

By Steve M. Cohen  bio

You are probably tired of hearing about it, but some people never seem to understand that sexual harassment is not OK. “No” really does mean “no,” and the workplace is not a singles bar. Sexual harassment can also be a form of bullying or predatory behavior.

Regardless, sexual harassment is not acceptable and organizations that fail to deal with it make a mistake in many ways. These mistakes can threaten the life of an organization or business.

Sometimes, however, the issue involves differences in how people view things. I suspect that might be of special interest to many medical offices for a number of reasons.

I had a case involving a sexual harassment complaint by a female graduate student against a dean at a large university. I was on retainer with the university. My role was especially fortunate because the statutes only allow 72 hours to begin a sexual harassment investigation. My job was to understand the situation, assess the severity, and make a report.

Sexual harassment allegations are serious, but there are other factors as well. The criterion for determining sexual harassment is this question: “Would a reasonable person find this behavior offensive?” If yes, you probably have sexual harassment. If no, you probably don’t.

In this case, the allegation was that the dean had invited the female student to lunch. He didn’t sexually assault her, discuss or imply anything of a sexual nature; he invited her to lunch. It turned out that he consistently did this with all of the school’s new grad students—it was all very collegial and aboveboard. Regardless, the female student filed a complaint.

It turned out the woman was a native of Pakistan and married. To her culture, an invitation from a man who was not her husband, father or son had illicit intentions. In her eyes, it sincerely was sexual harassment.

Schools are required to self-report allegations so I advised the provost to hotline the case to his state’s relevant department even though I felt no harassment would be found. The state investigated and in fact found no basis for the complaint. They shut down any further opportunities for recourse from the student and she withdrew from the program.

Although the rules may vary somewhat, this can happen in any business or organization.

Management needs to be aware of cultural differences within the organization as much as possible. We all have different thresholds resulting from our upbringing, and these cultural differences exist separately and apart from the laws and rules that apply in the business setting. In hindsight, these differences seem clear. In some cases they are subtler.

Bullying and harassment is very real, and the future of a business or organization can hinge on eliminated them. If an allegation does occur, go with mediation as it puts the authority to decide in the hands of the disputants, and allows for facilitation instead of arbitration.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC is President/Partner of Labor Management Advisory Group, Inc. and HR Solutions: On-Call, both based in Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit or call (913) 927-0229.

The above information is shared by a guest contributor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Medical Office Manager.









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