Verbally Abuse Your Staff and You Could Be Sued by OSHA for Workplace Violence

In February 2013 OSHA posted a news release concerning a Florida small business and the business owner (Duane Thomas Marine Construction, LLC and Mr. Duane Thomas) for firing his employee after the employee expressed to him concerns that his behavior was threatening.

Immediately following the termination the employee filed a complaint with OSHA, who investigated the matter and found the employee has been wrongfully terminated following a whistleblower situation (to the boss who was also the problem). Subsequent to OSHA’s investigation the agency filed suit against Mr. Thomas and his company.

The suit seeks back wages, interest, and compensatory and punitive damages, as well as front pay in lieu of reinstatement. Additionally, it seeks to have the employee’s personnel records expunged with respect to the matters at issue in this case and to bar the employer against future violations of the OSH Act. 

The employee alleged that, on numerous occasions between Dec. 9, 2009, and Feb. 25, 2011, Mr. Thomas committed workplace violence and created hostile working conditions. He allegedly behaved abusively, made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, yelled, screamed and made physically threatening gestures, in addition to withholding the employee’s paycheck. The employee, who worked directly for Thomas, reported to him that he was creating hostile conditions. On Feb. 25, 2011, the employee filed a timely whistleblower complaint with OSHA alleging discrimination by Thomas for having reported the conditions to him. On March 18, 2011, Thomas received notification of the complaint filing. On March 23, 2011, Thomas had computer passwords changed in order to deny the employee remote access to files and then terminated the employee. OSHA’s subsequent investigation found merit to the employee’s complaint.

What impact might this have on the dental profession, which is largely comprised of small business owners? Unfortunately, we may one day find out the hard way because some dentists behave poorly toward their staff (and in earshot of their patients).

 

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One day a few months ago my daughter accompanied her friend to her orthodontist’s office. My daughter waited in the lobby for her friend. The girls later reported they heard the dentist hollering and using the f-bomb toward his staff. They laughed in embarrassment. My daughter, knowing what I do for a living, was not impressed by the dentist’s behavior (maybe one day she’ll take over the family business and I’ll have to rename my business Toothcop and Daughter Compliance Services).

I recently looked for an update to the case and found none, so it appears the case is pending. It will set a precedent one way or the other. I suspect Mr. Thomas will lose the suit.

What is clear is that OSHA is deliberate and certain about enforcing employer requirements to provide a safe work environment. Furthermore, that they are intolerant of workplace violence, even if the perceived violence is cussing and hollering at employees.

This takes me to another recent story….

I worked with a practice management consultant with a common client. The consultant, in effort to help the dentist and team ‘gel’ tried to get the team together for some after-hours bowling. The dentist declined the opportunity citing he didn’t want to socialize with his staff because he “couldn’t keep Mr. Happy in (his) pants.” Not only did the dentist say this to the female consultant, but also he said this in front of the entire staff.

In another instance I was in an office recently where the dentist has a strong type-A personality. He talks loudly and it seems he always hollers at his staff. This coupled with the fact he is a negative person. I have heard employees complain about how he cusses and demeans them in front of patients (doc, if you happen to be reading this I hope you get the message that you need to change your behavior).

Effective leaders do not need to use low level power tools as disrespect, public humiliation, intimidation, or foul language to lead their teams to greatness – not that these tools have any constructive use.

Dental practices, like other businesses, need to be professional environments where everyone presents with a certain decorum that is becoming of a person (or business) of class. There is no excuse for second-class behavior in professional industry. It seems OSHA agrees with this premise. Dentists should take note.

I have not heard prior discussion on this topic and am curious how common this issue might be. I have heard stories of quite a few clinical and front desk staff in recent years. I am concerned this is a common issue that needs to be addressed directly and publicly.

 

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