Where’s the line? Define, apply and maintain professional boundaries

September 7, 2022

Putting on scrubs and entering the dental office are both physical and mental signals to dental professionals that the workday has begun. With that workday, a certain standard of professional conduct toward patients and colleagues informs behavior.

While a professional demeanor seems like a straightforward expectation for practice leaders and employees during the workday, guidelines for behavior can become blurred when practice team members interact with one another outside of the office. Without external signals like scrubs and an office setting, both practice leaders and staff may feel some confusion about their rights and responsibilities.

The Dentists Insurance Company’s Risk Management Advice Line fields calls regarding how to handle practice challenges. Here are just a few of those calls that illustrate the risks of poorly defined professional boundaries.

At a professional conference

A practice leader invited and covered the expenses for several members of their team to attend a weekend dental conference. During the day, the conference offered educational workshops, lectures and panel discussions, along with opportunities to explore new products and technology. In the evening, there were events for staff to attend that encouraged socializing and networking.

Two of the members of this practice team were seen overindulging in alcohol during the evening events, and their attendance at daytime lectures was sporadic. The practice leader was frustrated and embarrassed by the behavior of these employees, feeling it reflected poorly on the practice and showed a disregard for the educational opportunities. However, the practice leader was uncomfortable addressing the employees’ behavior since it occurred outside of their place of employment.

In this situation, the Advice Line recommended having an honest, transparent conversation with the employees right away. The practice leader should clearly identify what behavior is expected of staff members when attending professional meetings and events.

At an after-hours office party

A dentist hosted a holiday party at his residence. Toward the end of the night, the dentist, who appeared to be intoxicated, allegedly approached an employee and made an inappropriate advance. The employee pushed him away and abruptly left his house in tears. She stopped showing up for work, as she felt uncomfortable being around the dentist.

A few months later, the office received a letter from an attorney representing the employee. The attorney alleged harassment and misconduct and issued a six-figure opening demand. After weeks of deliberations, the matter ultimately settled for a low five-figure amount.

When facing similar scenarios, TDIC’s Risk Management analysts remind dentists that they can help ensure high standards of behavior inside and outside of the office by clearly defining professional boundaries.

Understand your liability and responsibility

Often, employers and employees mistakenly believe events and activities that take place outside of the place of employment absolve them of the rules that exist in the workplace. This is not the case. Once an employer invites most or all employees to a hosted social event or party, that event is considered an employment function. The same standard applies to off-site training or conferences that an employer pays for employees to attend.

Risk Management analysts remind practice owners that standard harassment, antidiscrimination and workers’ compensation policies apply at company-sponsored events. Employers can and have been held liable for their employees’ behavior regardless of when or where it occurred. Celebrating off-site or after hours does not negate the responsibilities of an employer and poses risks. For example, if an employee drives under the influence and causes an accident, the employer can also be held liable.

While employees should be held accountable for their actions at employer-sponsored functions, establishing and maintaining boundaries creates a structure for employees to follow and know what is expected of them, regardless of the setting.

Communication is key

The best action practice owners can take to communicate and document expectations of employee behavior is to include an office policy in their employee manual. CDA member benefits include access to an employee manual generator and customizable sample manual templates. TDIC Risk Management analysts provide the following direction for including behavioral expectations in an employee manual:

  • Never assume that everyone has the same definition of “professional behavior.” Cite specific examples of unprofessional and unacceptable behavior as well as examples of respectful behavior and professional conduct.
  • Specify the circumstances in which professional conduct is expected. If there is a reasonable expectation that employees will be included in employer-sponsored gatherings or represent the employer at professional events, make sure to outline the expected rules of professional conduct outside of the office.
  • Maintaining an employee handbook is a critical point of documentation. Be sure to require staff to sign an acknowledgment for every employee manual or policy change and keep these acknowledgments in employee records.

It is also appropriate to provide staff members with friendly reminders of company policies for appropriate professional behavior before off-site events or in-office celebrations.

Plan events without alcohol

Risk Management analysts also note that many of the calls they receive concerning professional boundaries involve alcohol. Hosting parties at which alcohol is provided or meeting staff for drinks after work are not recommended. Employers risk potential liability claims when professional behavior is not maintained.

Drinking may hinder employees from using their best judgment. Because alcohol reduces inhibitions, remarks and behaviors can easily turn inappropriate. Allowing an event to become too casual and unprofessional can set the stage for a harassment claim.

Driving under the influence and underage drinking can also be cause for concern. Even if a party is held after work, employers can still be subject to workers’ compensation claims if an employee has an accident or becomes injured at the event. TDIC has advice and alternatives for safe celebrations.

Model professional behavior

Practice owners must be mindful that their individual style and personality dictate the office environment in which they and their staff work. They should model the same behaviors they expect from their staff members, abiding by the rules for conduct outlined in the employee manual. Always maintaining a professional demeanor with staff members can prevent addressing any future performance issues from feeling like personal attacks.

With acceptable and unacceptable actions clearly defined, everyone in the office will be less likely to cross the line.

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call1.877.269.8844. Reprinted with permission from the California Dental Association, copyright September 2022.


Was this resource helpful?