WASHINGTON, DC-More often than not, today’s medical offices are businesses employing numerous staff people, as well as other physicians. In a seminar at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, panelists described the many legal pitfalls of employing people in a medical office. Most of them revolved around accusations and charges of discrimination-which often appear difficult to avoid.
Explore this issue:February 2008
You Can Hardly Say Anything Anymore
Sally Garr, JD, a partner in the Washington, DC, law firm of Patton Boggs and Chair of its Employment Law Group, spent more than a half-hour describing the many ways in which an employer can be sued for discrimination-and the many ways in which he or she can lose the case.
Although some of the examples she presented were more relevant to academic institutions and hospitals, Ms. Garr emphasized that a physician in private practice is indeed an employer and is just as responsible for maintaining a nondiscriminatory environment as are employers with much larger staffs.
She began by defining the parameters of a discrimination claim and the ways in which employers can protect themselves. A member of almost any minority or legally protected group can claim discrimination, and a suit can be brought on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, color, national origin (of oneself or one’s family), religion, physical characteristics, physical disability, and almost anything that is perceived as being outside the American mainstream, which in itself is difficult to define.
Ms. Garr described what employers must have in place to defend themselves:
A written policy that makes clear the office’s complete prohibition against discrimination in any form. All employees must be made aware of the policy and given a copy.
Managers must be given appropriate training in what discrimination is and how to prevent it, and they in turn must make certain that all employees understand the rules of conduct.
The physician employer must have a complaint procedure in place, and employees have to be made aware of that as well. Pick the right person to head your complaint process, said Ms. Garr, Otherwise, no one will use it. The person must be recognized as having integrity and enough power inside the office so employees will believe retaliation won’t be permitted.
All policies and procedures must be applied consistently to all employees, and employees who are similarly situated must be treated similarly. For example, if occasional slight tardiness is acceptable for white employees, then black employees who are sometimes a few minutes late may not be punished.