Sexual Harassment in Healthcare: Doctors and Nurses

Interviewer: Leslie Kane, MA; Interviewee: Susan Strauss, RN, EdD


June 27, 2018

In This Article

How Do Accusations Get Investigated?

Medscape: Two percent of physicians responding said they were accused of sexual harassment. A couple said their behavior had been wrong, but others, on interpreting their comments, appeared to be cases of false accusations and they were exonerated upon investigation. But it brings up a fear that many have expressed: that there seems to be no recourse for people who are falsely accused. How does an organization investigate an accusation when it's "he said, she said"?

Strauss: In my experience, many HR personnel—in all industries, not just healthcare—have not been trained on how to conduct an investigation. Consequently, they may not even recognize harassment or know that they have a responsibility to investigate. They also need to understand that not every complaint requires an investigation. But they need to know what the investigative process is. What are the steps? How do they determine credibility? How do they draw their conclusions?

Investigations, when someone is falsely accused, can be very difficult. For an organization, it is not illegal to fire an employee over a suspicion of misconduct. However, if the organization learns how to properly conduct an investigation, or even brings in experts, they are more likely to make the correct assessment. Because investigators often have not been trained in conducting investigations and how to draw conclusions, they believe they have to "prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that the behavior occurred. That is an incorrect standard to apply; it is a standard for a crime, not for a civil rights violation. The standard used should be "preponderance of evidence"—meaning, more likely than not that the misconduct either did or did not occur.

Additionally, the investigator may end up with a "he said, she said" situation where a determination cannot be made. Sometimes, then, the accusation is said to be false, when in fact it isn't known whether it is true or not, or the wrong standard is applied. It is also possible that the accuser felt harassed even though the behavior is found to not be harassment by the investigator. However, false accusations do occur and can have a devastating impact on the accused, both personally and professionally. Depending on the severity of the false accusation, it could very well merit termination of employment.

Medscape: Do you think that with the increased attention on sexual harassment, these occurrences among healthcare professionals will become less frequent?

Strauss: I think that bringing attention to this serious issue can only help to change the climate and ultimately lessen the amount of sexual harassment and abuse in the healthcare industry. We are supposed to be a healing environment for our patients, and yet we treat our colleagues so rudely and sometimes even criminally. I feel optimistic that by bringing this out in the open, the change will be positive.


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