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Sexual Harassment in the Nursing Workplace


Nurses often undergo different types of sexual harassment in the workplace. Although understanding how to curb the vice is an important topic in the nursing field, even the most experienced professionals may find it difficult to detect or even affirm its existence (Cogin & Fish, 2009). However, this difficulty does not excuse them from the responsibility of being attuned to the various interactions in the workplace that could lead to inappropriate sexual behavior. Particularly, nurses in leadership positions have a duty to be knowledgeable about the kind of interactions that go on under their watch, and that could be misconstrued as unwanted sexual advances (Vessey, DeMarco, & DiFazio, 2010). Using a case study approach, this paper explains the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace and outlines possible actions that could be taken to mitigate it.

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Proven Sexual Harassment Case

An incident occurred in 2016, where a male physician inappropriately touched a female nurse at a health facility in New York City when he was conducting a pre-employment medical examination. The case had a significant impact on the victim’s mental health because she did not report it immediately. Instead, she persevered the stress and worked with the physician until six months into her job when she notified authorities. This case also motivated two of her colleagues, who also admitted that the same person sexually harassed them when they were undergoing their pre-employment examinations. They also said that they suffered from stress and anxiety of having to work with the same physician and often battled with the thought of whether they should reveal what had happened to them or not.

When the case garnered public attention, the three nurses sued the physician and the medical facility for sexual harassment, and they received $3 million in compensation. The physician was also deregistered from the practice. The organization suffered reputational damage because many community members who had been helping it in its work withdrew their support. Other ramifications that emerged from the incident were the premature retirement of some employees who felt the need to “protest” the actions of the physician. Lastly, the health facility suffered significant financial losses because of worker absenteeism and low morale, which were also directly associated with the incident (before it was arbitrated).

Action Plan to Prevent Sexual Harassment

The efficacy of an action plan to prevent sexual harassment largely rests on both employers and nurses. The list below, which is adapted from the recommendations of the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (2017), outlines key tenets of an action plan that should prevent the occurrence of the incident described above. In this action plan, employers should:

  • Set out policies on what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Outline where sexual harassment claims should be reported
  • Develop an anti-harassment policy together with all concerned stakeholders
  • Discipline all offenders
  • Protect nurses who come forward to report sexual harassment claims
  • Show commitment to addressing sexual harassment claims by making it clear that anti-harassment policies apply to all cadres of workers in the organization
  • Monitor and revise policies in the workplace to make sure that they are effective in preventing the vice from happening
  • Support the nurses who come out and report acts of sexual harassment. More importantly, they should be encouraged to talk more about them and take decisive steps to solve such issues. The key to yielding the best results in this context is to set up mechanisms that would support the complainant throughout the report filing process.

At the same time, nurses have a duty in the action plan because they should:

  • Understand sexual harassment by familiarizing themselves with the organization’s policies. They also need to examine their feelings and attitudes towards sexual harassment and see that their behaviors correspond to the organization’s expectations on the same.
  • Be conscious and aware of engaging in potential sexual harassment behaviors, including being knowledgeable of the subtle forms of inappropriate behaviors that could emerge in the workplace. They also need to watch and discourage unwanted sexual behaviors, according to the company’s policies and guidelines on the same.
  • Pay attention to other people’s responses when having innocent conversations to avoid incidences of inappropriate sexual behaviors. They should also be made aware of the fact that not many people want to be touched or hear sexually-oriented jokes.
  • To confront all types of sexual harassment behaviors and (if possible) notify authorities and the aggressors of how the inappropriate acts are affecting them.
  • Seek confidential advice on how to solve acts of sexual aggression. Nurses should also document all acts of sexual harassment, communicate their feelings to the harasser, and notify them of how their acts are affecting them negatively.

Steps that could be taken to Address Sexual Harassment

According to Workplace Answers (2015), the most effective and common way of educating employees about sexual harassment in the workplace is to conduct sexual harassment seminars. Such sessions should be undertaken at least once every year and need to involve illustrations to make nurses understand how sexual harassment could happen in the real work setting (Workplace Answers, 2015). The first step that should be completed in such training sessions is informing the nurses of their rights (Fallahi-Khoshknab et al., 2015). The second step is to set up an official complaint process where nurses who feel aggrieved can report such incidences anonymously or confidentially. The second step that should be taken is to act on complaints swiftly and decisively. Therefore, if an act of sexual aggression is affirmed, there should be prompt remedial action. According to MacKusick and Minick (2010), such actions should reduce employee turnover.

Seeking partnerships with the human resource (HR) department is important in meeting the above goals and in minimizing incidences of sexual aggression in the workplace. One way to do so is to make sexual harassment assessments part of the recruitment and hiring process such that potential employees are evaluated based on their record of ethical conduct. For example, employees who have been accused of sexual harassment should not be considered for hire. Similarly, the HR department should be encouraged to periodically evaluate employee performance based on how well they adhere to the organization’s rules regarding sexual harassment (Friborg et al., 2017).

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This study has shown that sexual harassment is a common problem in the nursing field. The example highlighted in the paper also demonstrates that it may have serious ramifications for employees and the concerned organizations alike. Addressing the vice requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders to educate nurses about their rights and to create supportive frameworks that would motivate them to report such cases. Comprehensively, health facilities should be encouraged to address the problem as opposed to ignoring it or wishing it away.


Cogin, J., & Fish, A. (2009). Sexual harassment – A touchy subject for nurses. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(4), 442-462

Fallahi-Khoshknab, M., Oskouie, F., Ghazanfari, N., Najafi, F., Tamizi, Z., Afshani, S., & Azadi, G. (2015). The frequency, contributing and preventive factors of harassment towards health professionals in Iran. International Journal of Community Based Nursing and Midwifery, 3(3), 156-164. Web.

Friborg, M.K., Hansen, J.V., Aldrich, P.T., Folker, A.P., Kjær, S., Nielsen, M.D., Madsen, I.H. (2017). Workplace sexual harassment and depressive symptoms: A cross-sectional multilevel analysis comparing harassment from clients or customers to harassment from other employees amongst 7603 Danish employees from 1041 organizations. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 675. Web.

MacKusick, C.I., & Minick, P. (2010). Why are nurses leaving? Findings from an initial qualitative study on nursing attrition. Medsurg Nursing, 19(6), 335-340.

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. (2017). Prevention of sexual harassment. Web.

Vessey, J.A., DeMarco, R., & DiFazio, R. (2010). Bullying, harassment, and horizontal violence in the nursing workforce: The state of the science. Annual Review of Nursing Research, 28(1), 133–157.

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Workplace Answers. (2015). A practical guide to preventing workplace sexual harassment. Web.

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