Prevalence and Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Pharmacy

August 19, 2019

Sexual harassment can come from both coworkers and patients. 

The #MeToo movement-the social campaign against sexual harassment and assault-has created national dialogue about harassment in the workplace. Since it started in October 2017, the movement has focused the media spotlight on the destructive issues that workplace harassment can cause the victim and organization. 

I recently opened up a social media conversation with pharmacists on the subject to find out about their experiences with workplace harassment. I was bombarded with replies. 

Although the pharmacists who responded told stories of harassment from a coworker or supervisor, the most common source of harassment was actually from patients.

One pharmacist who worked at night estimated that she has received 60 inappropriate telephone calls over three years. 

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While many harassing phone calls to pharmacists focused on drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, inappropriate touching or unsolicited comments by patients in the pharmacy were also noted. Several pharmacists even reported that patients would suggestively remove their pants when getting a flu shot. 

To be clear, sexual harassment is a problem that can involve women and men. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 20% of sexual harassment charges brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC) between 2005 and 2015 were made by men. 

Talk About the Problem

Sexual harassment may have nothing to do with the recipient’s age or looks, according to a 25-year district leader for a major pharmacy chain. (Note: Because of the drugstore chain’s policies, we cannot publish the source’s name. The fictitious name of Mary Smith, PharmD will used instead.)

If you are experiencing sexual harassment from a coworker or subordinate,  you should discuss the issue with human resources or with your direct supervisor, Smith says.  

Many corporations have an “open door” policy, Smith explains, which means you can speak to whomever you feel most comfortable about a harassment problem, whether that is another coworker, a supervisor, or someone in human resources. The goal of this policy is to offer employees several options to talk openly about an incident or concern. 

When it comes to reporting harassment, many companies post information about who to contact in the company’s break room. Some corporations also have set up an anonymous employee phone line that employees can use if that makes them feel more comfortable. 

With so many options, Smith says that issues can often be quickly resolved. Each of the major pharmacy chains have extensive training modules about sexual harassment and its different forms. 

When it comes to harassment, remember that actions or situations can be understood or interpreted differently by different people. One person’s compliment can be another’s unwanted or unsettling remark. The training modules walk employees through the types of scenarios that can occur, and they may be beneficial “in preventing incidents.”

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Harassment can be subtle, and anyone who encounters it may wonder: Is it me? Smith stresses that although it may seem easier to ignore the problem and walk away, we need to empower each other and handle the situation. 

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Often, resolving an incident of harassment may take a simple conversation, one that can perhaps take place to deal with  situations when a person does not realize he or she is being insensitive or out of bounds. But if the situation is more serious, it may need to be escalated and investigated by human resources.

“Sexual harassment by someone above you is when it becomes trickier,” Smith says. “In many cases, people don’t feel comfortable complaining, especially when it is a supervisor.” The employee worries about the consequences: “If I complain, is this person going to make my life miserable? Will people believe me?”

Alexis Winsten Mancuso is the assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh. She oversees human resources at the center and has more than 35 years of human resources experience. Regardless of where you work, Mancuso explains, harassment is a form of employment discrimination, which violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 

What to Do

Anyone who believes he or she has been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace has the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which covers employers with 15 or more employees. Additionally, most states have a Human Relations Commission, where employees can file a complaint. Although these are not the first options in dealing with harassment, employees should know they have both local and federal rights, regardless of the size of the organization, she says.

To report harassment, start by talking to your immediate supervisor, as well as to your company’s human resources department or representative.  The goal is to try to stop the offending or inappropriate actions immediately.

Typically, there is an investigation conducted by human resources. Once the investigation is complete, the human resources department will determine next steps. If punishment is warranted, it can take the form of an apology, more training, or termination, depending on the severity of the harassment. 

It is important to note that both sides will be heard during the investigation;  everyone is innocent until proven guilty.  

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Chain pharmacies often have more structured training programs and policies in place against sexual harassment, but it can be a trickier issue at an independent pharmacy. The bad news is that in some cases, you “may just have to leave the job,” Smith says. This happened to her when she was younger, and in that case, the entire staff left the pharmacy because of inappropriate behavior by the owner. 

Don’t let the fear of not finding another job stop you, Smith says. You might not find something that works perfectly for you, but there are pharmacy jobs out there.

Mancuso agrees with Smith that one option is to simply leave. You have to take care of yourself and make sure you are in a safe environment. If the environment is led by someone who doesn’t have the same values, chances are that’s not an environment that you would want to work in.”

She also notes that in an independent pharmacy, you can turn to the state level Human Relations Commission to file a complaint, or you can locate your state/local Office of Victim Services, which can help support and guide employees through the process.  

From the Patient 

What if you are being harassed by a patient? Dealing with harassment from a patient can be a delicate situation. “While it’s very easy to deal with open hostility... harassment often presents as subtle,” Smith explains. “You would be surprised at how many people never say a word.” The first thing to do, is to say, “I am not comfortable with this.” This sentence stops many uncomfortable encounters, because some people may not realize what they are doing or how it affects others. “Because we live in a civilized society, 90% of the time if you tell someone they make you feel uncomfortable, the behavior will stop,” she says. 

What to Do

If the inappropriate behavior continues, notify your direct supervisor and work out a plan of action, Smith says. Sometimes, a patient can be banned from the store if he or she persists.

“Part of our job, whether male or female, is to empower ourselves to make it clear to those who are acting inappropriately, and use our voices, advocate for ourselves, say ‘Please stop.’ We have every right to do that,” Mancuso advises.

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What about social media like Facebook or Twitter and harassment? Many pharmacists receive friend requests from patients. Mancuso advises declining these requests. “If you accept a request, you’ve just invited someone into your life, and that changes the nature of the relationship.” She assures pharmacists that there is nothing wrong in declining the invite and if asked, say, “Thank you, but I keep my Facebook very private.”

Preventing harassment is key. All pharmacists and organizational should play a role in safely and effectively addressing sexual harassment when it surfaces in the workplace, Mancuso says. 

In pharmacy school, prospective pharmacy students should be taught how to deal with situations of harassment from patients or coworkers. Mancuso suggests working within the company, if necessary, to form an employee committee to research and recommend policies. 

“Nothing should prevent us from using our voices in a positive way to bring about the right policies, procedures, and approaches,” she advises.

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