A recent decision of the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board serves as a reminder that health professionals who are also employers have an obligation to ensure that their workplaces are free of conduct that may be offensive to staff and considered unprofessional. In E.L.P vs N.S 2018 CanLII 1024 ON HPARB, the respondents, who were employees at a dental practice, lodged a complaint before the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario (“RCDSO”) alleging that the applicant, who was one of six dentist owners of the dental practice, had engaged in “dishonourable, unprofessional and harassing conduct against them”. Specifically, the respondents were concerned that:
- for at least the previous 12 years, the applicant has regularly removed his clothes, down to his underwear and at times, his bare chest, without attempting to cover himself;
- this conduct took place in their presence and in the presence of other staff members;
- the applicant removed his clothes in front of the closet where he kept his clothes or in a boardroom on the second floor, where one of the respondents worked; and
- once this conduct was brought to the applicant’s attention, it stopped. However, as a result of the emotional and mental toll, both respondents have been traumatized and have sought medical attention.
The Inquiries, Complaints, and Reports Committee (the “ICRC”) of the RCDSO initially decided that the complaint was an abuse of process as there were other venues available to resolve the workplace issues raised by the complainants; the issues raised did not involve patient protection; and, the issues raised appeared to be workplace employment issues. While the Committee was troubled that the College’s complaint process may have been used for another purpose, namely to further an ongoing business dispute, it was of the opinion that the concerns raised by the respondents were matters that should be decided on by a panel as they related to the applicant’s responsibility to conduct himself in a professional manner in front of his employees, some of whom are and his employees who are also his patients. The ICRC continued its investigation and found that the applicant failed to establish and maintain professional boundaries with staff members in that he changed his clothes down to his underwear in front of staff members and staff members who were also his patients. The ICRC concluded that:
- as an employer, it was inappropriate for the applicant to disrobe in front of his employees;
- the applicant’s conduct caused others to be embarrassed and created discomfort in the workplace;
- by changing his clothes in front of others, the applicant blurred the boundaries in his professional relationship with staff members.
The Board confirmed the ICRC’s decision and noted that “as a regulated health professional and employer, it is incumbent upon him to maintain a professional workplace and to conduct himself, at all times, in an appropriate manner with staff and staff members who are also patients. The Applicant is advised that changing his clothes in front of his employees may be considered a boundary violation. Boundary crossings or violations are often the slippery slope that leads to more significant boundary crossings and/or sexual abuse.”
The decision underscores the breadth of obligations regulated professionals may have and demonstrates that a matter which may be considered a workplace or employment issue may not be barred from being investigated and reviewed by the ICRC of a health professional college.
This blog post is made available for educational purposes as well as to provide general information. The views and information in this article should not be considered legal advice.