Romance, risks and regret: The drama of interoffice dating

December 7, 2021
Quick Summary:
Interoffice relationships pose risks to the dental practice, including perceptions of unfair treatment and favoritism if a supervisory relationship exists; potential that if the relationship deteriorates, claims of sexual harassment will later develop; allegations of conflict of interests and more. See three case studies from TDIC's Risk Management Advice Line and learn how to protect yourself and the practice.

Love and romance can blossom just about anywhere, including in the dental setting.

While most relationships don’t begin with the end in mind, the failure to forecast possible repercussions of a breakup can result in big problems for your business. In a dental office, staff get to know each other well by working in close quarters and often sharing common interests. It is inevitable that there will be some sparks. But occasionally flirtation can develop into a mutual attraction or an uncomfortable misunderstanding.

Here are just a few scenarios:

–   A relationship develops between a dental team member and the practice owner whose wife is the office manager. Once the affair is revealed, the owner could feel pressured to terminate the employee and the whole practice could be embroiled in office drama.

–   An interoffice relationship ends and one of the parties, feeling hurt and angry, lashes out by leveraging inside knowledge or making accusations. This could mean exposing the practice to scrutiny through emotion-fueled allegations of questionable billing practices, OSHA violations or breaches of confidential patient and staff information.

–   There is a misunderstanding, and the perception of the relationship isn’t mutual. A touch, gesture or comment, like a hug at a holiday party, is perceived as having romantic intent — or worse, sexual harassment.

Couldn’t these issues occur at any small business? Yes, there is the potential for relationship risks in any office. However, the demographics of dental offices tend to make these issues statistically more likely.

While dentistry is becoming increasingly more diverse, and women are outpacing men as new dental school graduates, just 34.5% of practicing dentists in the U.S. today are female, according to the Health Policy Institute. It won’t be long before there is gender parity in the profession.

However, the rest of the dental team isn’t pacing the same. When it comes to registered dental hygienists, Delta Dental recently reported that 98% are female and so are 97% of dental assistants and 97% of office managers. This means that there is still a high number of practices with a male supervisor and an all- or almost-all female staff. So, it can be statistically more likely for a dentist to have a relationship — one with an imbalance of power — with a staff member.

And spousal working arrangements aren’t uncommon in dentistry, with the wife more likely to be in the position of office manager. Interoffice dating fuels drama and opens the practice up to friction, fraught working relationships and significant liability risks. In addition, sensitive personal, business, health and financial information can all become weaponized.

What are the risks to your practice?

  • The development of perceptions of unfair treatment and favoritism if a supervisory relationship exists.
  • Personal discomfort that other employees may have over public displays of affection.
  • The potential that if the relationship deteriorates, claims of sexual harassment will later develop.
  • Allegations of conflicts of interest, impaired business judgement and confidentiality breaches on the part of a supervisor involved in such a relationship.
  • The negative impact on employee morale.

Where can you turn for guidance?

As a benefit to CDA members and TDIC policyholders, the Risk Management Advice Line provides confidential, no-cost guidance on how to handle challenging practice situations. In 2020 alone, the Advice Line received more than 18,000 calls. Year after year, a consistent source of caller concern has been the chaos created by personal relationships within the dental office. While dental professionals know that interoffice dating is unwise, often when emotions take over, judgement can be clouded.

Case study: A relationship ends

In a recent Advice Line call, the dentist stated that he did something he was “told not to do” and dated a registered dental hygienist on his staff. As what often happens in workplace relationships, it didn’t work out and they mutually decided to end the relationship. The dentist shared that the hygienist was a good employee and there were no performance concerns; however, he was anxious there could be awkward encounters and conversations in the future. It wasn’t until the relationship ended that he began to consider how uncomfortable the situation could be. He asked the analyst what his recourse was if she spoke about him negatively to other employees or her behavior became toxic and how to proceed if he decided to terminate her.

The dentist expressed that he wanted to speak to the hygienist proactively and let her know he hoped there wouldn’t be friction at work and that she didn’t plan on creating workplace drama with the other employees.

The analyst advised the dentist not to project potential problems and to only address issues as he would with any of the other employees, if and when they actually arose. As an employer, he should remain objective, take it day by day and address performance or behavior issues with her using a fair and reasonable approach. 

Case study: A secret revealed

In another call, an associate dentist was concerned that the actions of the practice owner may have ramifications for her and the rest of the practice. It had recently come to light that the owner had been carrying on a long-standing affair with one of the staff. The relationship was exposed when the office manager fired a long-term employee. The employee, who felt her termination was unfair, then had an angry outburst in the office and expressed regrets for participating in the cover-up and secrets. 

The associate dentist only learned of the issue at the time of the outburst, and she was concerned that the former employee was looking to attack anyone associated with the practice. Could she or others be dragged into this office drama that could reflect negatively upon her and the practice?

The analyst advised that while the former employee could potentially pursue an employment claim against the owner-dentist and the practice, the associate dentist was not responsible for supervising the employee, conducting performance reviews or paying her wages, so it was unlikely that she influenced the termination decision.

It’s important to note that associate dentists, in their roles as licensed practitioners, can be seen as supervisors. Liability would extend beyond the owner if facts around sexual harassment are general knowledge in the office, or there is awareness of an issue, but no action is taken.

What can you do to protect yourself and your practice?

  • Keep interoffice relationships professional. As always, dentists must model the behavior they want to see in the practice. Set clear boundaries, as you do with patient relationships, neither initiating nor encouraging romantic interest. The best relationships can become strained and hard to maintain; the worst end in retaliation and harassment claims.
  • Know that termination may be off the table. What’s the most dangerous part of dating an employee? You’ve possibly lost your ability to monitor, discipline or sanction them. Regardless of the trajectory of the relationship, your employee can become impregnable against termination.
  • Take sexual harassment prevention training. As of 2019, the California Legislature required sexual harassment prevention training for businesses of at least five employees, with separate training for managers and non-managers. Practices of every size can benefit from specific guidance on complying with anti-harassment laws and learning how to detect and report inappropriate behaviors. 
  • Add a layer of protection as an employer. Consider adding employment practices liability coverage. As an endorsement to your professional liability policy, EPLI provides protection if you or one of your employees is sued for harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, or failure to promote employment-related issues. 

Outside the workplace, romance may know no bounds. But, before pursuing any personal relationship within the practice, take a moment to imagine the worst-case scenario. If a romance ends badly, the collateral damage could be much more than you or your practice’s reputation can afford.

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call 800.733.0633. Reprinted with permission from the California Dental Association, copyright December 2021. 


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