When smartphones, side gigs and odors disrupt the office

Addressing sensitive topics and expectations with policies
September 9, 2019

Have you ever considered how you should address unusual or troublesome employee conduct in your practice? With so much emphasis on the need for employers to establish written policies mandated by federal, state and local laws, it’s easy to overlook the important day-to-day employee management policies on everything from hygiene and smoking to use of personal electronic devices.

Employees often look for loopholes when they try to justify behavior outside your expectations, and they look to your employee policies to find them. Your employee policies should provide guidance to reinforce your expectations.

Employers will find it easier to enforce the “rules” and address inappropriate employee conduct when rules are in place. When employers do not have written policies that define conduct expectations or their policies are not consistently applied from employee to employee, confusion and potential claims of discriminatory treatment can arise. 

Discussed below are four areas of employee conduct and attire expectations that you might consider addressing through a workplace policy, if you don’t already have one in place.

Excessive device usage

Smartphones, tablets and wearable technologies have become an integral part of employees’ everyday lives. While many dentists are voicing their concerns over employees’ excessive use of cellphones and watches, very few have an office policy in place to address this issue. Those who have a policy often have difficulty enforcing it because employees argue that they need to have their cellphones on them during work hours in case of “emergencies.”

When used excessively, these devices may cause problems such as distracting employees from work, disturbing patients and other employees, posing security or HIPAA risks and, lastly, creating potential infection-control problems.

Employers may establish policies that direct all employees to keep these devices (powered off or in silent mode) with their personal belongings and limit usage to rest and meal breaks. When eliminating all calls or restricting use, you will want to address how your employees’ family members will reach them during working hours in case of a true emergency.

If you choose to implement a policy, be sure you are willing to enforce it with all staff, not just the individual who may be abusing their phone. Also, remember that any office policy you implement will only work if you follow the policy as well. If you use your phone between patients, the rest of your staff will start to think it is OK to use theirs.

Fragrance, grooming and personal hygiene

Because employees of dental practices generally work in close proximity to one another, it is easy for excessive or offensive odors to become an issue. Employees who are heavy-handed when applying fragrances, smoke on breaks or don’t tend to their personal hygiene may not be mindful of how body odor can cause a disruption in the office. Other employees may feel uncomfortable and, in extreme cases, be unable to perform their jobs. Employees may also begin to talk about the problem in the workplace, which disrupts work even more.

Employers should have a policy in place that outlines the practice’s expectations for professionalism and grooming. This can include or exclude the use of accessories, perfumes, gum, deodorants and soaps, etc. As a representative of your office, you can clearly communicate in detail what you expect.

However, employers need to be cautious when addressing grooming standards. “Neat and clean” is fair, and it leaves the employer free to address individual cases that arise as opposed to having a standard that is discriminatory. However, be mindful of certain grooming practices that are based on race, culture or religion, such as dreadlocks, which typically are protected by law.

Employers should address these topics privately and with sensitivity. Body odor may be caused by a medical condition, poor hygiene or a specific diet, to name a few possibilities. If the issue is not addressed appropriately, it may run afoul of disability laws.

Attire and personal expression

Creating different policies for different job titles or departments can be an acceptable practice in some circumstances. Establishing a different dress code for front-office versus clinical employees could be based on a legitimate business justification — maintaining a professional appearance in a front-office environment, where patients interact with employees on business matters, versus a clinical dress code where employees will be working chairside.

Discrimination laws generally do not inhibit your right to determine appropriate workplace dress. In fact, you have a lot of discretion in setting appearance standards. Employers often have a “maintain a professional appearance” dress code, which can be challenging when the weather is hot. It is permissible to ban flip-flops, open-toed shoes, shorts, tank tops and other unacceptable clothing. Because the different dress codes are based on a legitimate business necessity rather than any protected class (e.g., race, gender or national origin), they would not be considered discriminatory.

Employers should be cautious not to impose different standards on men versus women because such different treatment could be viewed as sex or gender discrimination or could violate gender identity or gender expression protections. Employees must be allowed to dress consistent with their gender identity or gender expression.

Employee ‘side gigs’

Side businesses are a great way for employees to supplement their income. However, if a patient complains that they felt pressured by an employee to purchase products, supplements, personal training or skin care, how will you respond? Or maybe you discovered that an employee is using practice time, patient information or property to conduct business. Not only do you have an issue of patient care and patient information confidentiality, but also potential time theft.  

Your practice policies can include statements that indicate employees are not to use their work time or office contacts to advance their private business or personal interests, as these practices can place patients and staff in an uncomfortable position when propositioned to purchase goods unrelated to their dental care.

Have controls in place

Whatever you decide, it is important be consistent when holding your employees accountable to the standards you set. It’s much easier to discuss and thoroughly document an issue with employees who fail to adhere to standards when standards have been set.

As a best practice, employers are encouraged to review policies annually and to discuss with employees any areas and expectations that need addressing. If you need to develop new policies or update your current ones, post any changes and their effective date so the employees are aware. All staff should sign an acknowledgement and you want to place this acknowledgement in each of their employee files. Keeping policies top of mind ensures not only that employees are keenly aware of employers’ expectations but that employers are seeking to comply with mandatory policies.

Reference the CDA Practice Support resources “Sample Employee Manual,” “Practice Policy Revision Employee Acknowledgement Template” and “Employee Discipline.” All are available in the CDA Practice Support resource library.


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