Sexual Harrassment in the Community Pharmacy: Advice on Addressing It

DECEMBER 10, 2017
Sexual harassment, lately it seems to be in the news every day. For some reason, the Matt Lauer story just had me completely shocked. He seemed like the boy next door, the soccer coach, a truly nice man. I could not believe my ears (actually my eyes, as I saw the news flash across my phone screen). It got me thinking about harassment in the pharmacy setting.

When I was PIC in a chain for many years, I had many young female pharmacy technicians. We had one technician in particular who attracted an abundant amount of attention because of her likeness to Angelina Jolie. Most comments from both male and female patients were harmless and along the lines of "You look just like Angelina Jolie!"  There was one time, however, when a male customer was becoming inappropriate with her and I was able to quickly put a stop to it and scare him off. 

I decided to take one of my unofficial pharmacy group Facebook polls to see what others were experiencing in terms of sexual harassment in the pharmacy. I was surprised at the large number of comments over the next day or two. My inbox was also flooded with personal stories of harassment. 

It is surprising how many common situations people shared. Many stories started with male customers asking questions about Viagra and quickly turning inappropriate. Some employees reported coworkers harassing them even off-duty, sending inappropriate text messages at all hours of the night. Some stories are too appalling to even share here. One pharmacist shared her opinion that "sexual harassment at work is so common that many people just put up with it or think it's normal. And if you complain that something is inappropriate? Well, then you're being overly sensitive."

I spoke with Marlena Lang, Human Resources Director, for advice for pharmacy staff on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. From everyone's stories, I could tell a lot of people are afraid to report harassment. Ms. Lang explained, "Many times this apprehension is based upon concern for how they may be treated or perceived throughout the investigation process and after. In some situations, it may impede a woman/s chances to grown within an organization."

For larger organizations, federal law requires that a policy must be in place that outlines policies and procedures surrounding sexual harassment as well as bullying and coercion.

I asked Ms. Lang what the first step should be, if someone is feeling harassed. Should they go directly to the person?  Ms. Lang commented, "In my opinion, this depends on the situation. In a vacuum, I would recommend that the person tell the harasser that he or she feels uncomfortable; however in many of these situations, it does not play out as simply as that-being able to immediately address the concern. Predatory harassers can build on each interaction over time, a type of grooming behavior that raises a woman's level of tolerance, or feeds her insecurities. For this reason, outside intervention may be the best avenue to document the behavior with either a supervisor or with HR (remember, not everyone has an HR person).
Ultimately for larger organizations, there is a complaint process and the person feeling harassed should utilize that process. It is not uncommon to discover that what appears to be an isolated incident, is not."

Interestingly, Ms. Lang also noted, "when you are seeing high profile cases in the media, please understand that most employers do take complaints seriously, because they are motivated to do so. We are at a tipping point where women are projected to represent at least an equal half of the workplace by next year-why would you chase away talent? This is particularly significant if an organization wants to develop women and minorities in leadership positions. The most successful organizations diversify their talent."

I asked Ms. Lang what to do if the supervisor does not resolve the situation.

"Again, this depends on the organizational structure. If there are prescribed steps in the process, the supervisor being the first level, then follow the process. OCR and state level human relations commissions are an option. If the position of the harasser requires a state license, his/her license may also come under review," she explained.

When this kind of behavior is reported, many people share that they are afraid of ramifications. I asked Ms. Lang if there are any ramifications for the person reporting the incident. "I will tell you no, but what may be occurring in the mind of the woman submitting the complaint may feel differently. Obviously not every case is created equal and it is possible the employee who submitted the complaint may have performance issues that must be addressed. I would caution the employer to approach such concerns carefully should this be the case as it may be perceived as retaliation for issuing a complaint."

She added, "sexual harassment and discrimination can impact all genders. Perhaps the most isolated population for such complaints are gay and lesbian incidents."

The takeaway here is that we must be vigilant in making sure we (ourselves, our fellow pharmacists, our technicians) are working in a comfortable environment free of harassment. From my situation above, some situations can quickly be resolved and others may need assistance. Familiarize yourself with your company's policy on harassment so that if a complaint arises, or if you have a complaint yourself, you will know what steps to take. Knowledge is power!

Have you fought back against harassment in your pharmacy? I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to email me anytime about this subject or any other topics you would like to discuss that are happening in your pharmacies
[email protected]


Karen Berger, PharmD
Karen Berger, PharmD, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2001. She has worked in community pharmacies for over 16 years as a Pharmacist in Charge, staff, and floater pharmacist for a large chain. Currently, she is a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy in Northern NJ. She can be reached at [email protected]
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