1. Lockhart, Lisa MHA, MSN, RN, NE-BC

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Q: What constitutes sexual harassment and just how prevalent is it in the healthcare environment?

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A: Although the term sexual harassment can be broad and open to interpretation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature...when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment; unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance; or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." Sexual harassment is often thought of as being perpetrated by men; however, this is a false assumption. And sexual harassment doesn't necessarily have to be an "overt" proposition, touch, or gesture; any behavior can be interpreted as hostile, unwarranted, and sexual in nature if the recipient is uncomfortable with the interaction and feels threatened or demeaned. Sexual harassment may be subtle and unintended, but still just as damaging.


Sexual harassment can be patient to staff or staff to patient, supervisor or physician to staff or vice versa, and peer to peer. Many employees are reluctant to report the occurrence for fear of being bullied or not believed. Even worse, many nurses feel that harassment, such as inappropriate jokes, suggestive comments, and being grabbed by patients, just comes with the job. A 2005 study queried nurses in four states to determine how they reacted to harassment and its effect on their relationships with patients. The results indicated that although some nurses ignored the behavior and others addressed it head on, incidents of harassment resulted in nurses feeling distanced from patients and like their ability to provide effective care was compromised.


The American Nurses Association (ANA) has challenged us as nursing professionals to end sexual harassment in our workplaces by adopting a zero-tolerance policy. The ANA recommends that "every nursing employer and schools of nursing education have a written policy statement on sexual harassment." Tough policies that are collaborative in nature, disseminated widely, and enforced fairly and equitably are essential, and must come both from the top down and the bottom up.


All levels of employees and service lines must be educated about the less obvious forms of harassment and what constitutes a hostile work environment. The same principle that we use for safety concerns applies: Stop the line! Report any incidents of harassment that you see occur or experience yourself. Involve your supervisors and peers in reporting. Empower all professionals to be able to say without fear, "No! This behavior isn't okay" or "I feel uncomfortable with this conversation."


Open dialogue between all disciplines is vital. Being respectful, supportive, and honest encourages a culture of unity. And empowering yourself and your peers to say "no" makes a clear statement that sexual harassment in the workplace won't be tolerated.




American Nurses Association. Position statement background information: sexual harassment.


Associated Press. Inappropriate patient behavior tough on nurses.


Subedi S, Hamal M, Kaphle HP. Sexual harassment in the hospital: are nurses safe. IJHSR. 2013;3(6):41-47.