Dental office romances: Worth the risk?

By Donna Domino, DrBicuspid.com features editor

September 20, 2010 -- When it comes to mixing business with pleasure, dentists who get romantically involved with patients or staffers do so at great peril: They not only risk losing money and their reputations but their license as well.

Because dentists work so closely with their hygienists and assistants, office romances often blossom, say practice management advisors.

"I think it's pretty frequent," said Irvin Lubis, D.M.D., a former periodontist who now runs Dental Success Marketing. Many dentists have divorced their spouses to marry staffers, he told DrBicuspid.com. "It's a normal tendency; it's someone you work and spend more time with than your wife," he said.

But when such romances have sour endings, they can have huge ramifications -- financially and professionally. He called such behavior "unprofessional and unethical."

“It's something that
could not only risk your finances but your professional reputation, your license, and your career.”
— Irvin Lubis, D.M.D., Dental Success
     Marketing

"Office romances are always complicated, no matter how you look at it," Roger Levin, D.D.S., chairman and CEO of the Levin Group practice management firm, told DrBicuspid.com. "There is always the danger that something could go wrong, so not only is the doctor risking disciplinary action from their state dental board, they could also end up being hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit."

Many doctors don't understand that while they may have the right intentions, they are putting themselves in a legal framework of sexual harassment. "Most of these cases settle, and the dentists don't realize the high financial penalties that occur," Dr. Levin said.

Paul Edwards, CEO of the Center for Employment Dispute Resolution, which provides employee handbooks and human resources support for dentists, said he gets as many as 80 phone calls per week from dentists inquiring about how to handle such situations.

"Some will say, 'I'm having a relationship with a staffer. What should I do?' he told DrBicuspid.com. "It's really a gray area. I think a lot of dentists think it's just personal."

He described one dentist whose failed romance with his hygienist ended up costing him more than $20,000. The dentist, who was going through a divorce, had an affair with his hygienist, Edwards recalled. The relationship went on for about a year before they broke up. She continued to work there, but after about six months, the situation became untenable, and the dentist decided to fire her.

"He ended up giving her a very healthy severance agreement," Edwards recounted. "It cost him more than $20,000 to make her go away without filing a complaint. Relationships are like contracts: great in the beginning but awful when they break up."

EEOC complaints

Dr. Levin described a complicated situation in which a dentist had two ex-wives and a girlfriend all working in the same office together.

"This created an environment that impeded the success of the practice," he said. "There was an undercurrent of tension in the office that made the staff uncomfortable and hampered their ability to be as productive as they could have been."

Edwards said one dentist who was having an affair with a staffer called for advice. "I told him to have her sign an acknowledgement that she is not under duress and won't file a sexual harassment complaint, but attorneys will say it's not really worth a lot," he recounted. "It's better than having nothing, but people can't sign away their rights."

One of the most common complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is claims of retaliation, often by employees who were romantically involved with their bosses, Edwards noted. And if the charges are proved, dentists can be liable to pay punitive damages.

Repercussions of office romances

  • Contributes to staff turnover: Because the staff almost always knows what's going on, office romances often have negative effects on the whole office.
  • Exposes the practice to sexual harassment lawsuits.
  • Causes the practice to lose its ability to function well through lower morale, staff infighting, and higher stress. All these lead to diminished production by the individuals who are affected.
  • Results in loss of referrals and active patients because word gets around in the community.
  • Causes practice to acquire a bad reputation in the community.

Source: Levin Group

"That's where the money is," Edwards said. "Those are cases that attorneys really like to get their teeth into."

"If it doesn't work out, and the woman is bitter or angry or looking for retribution, they'll file sexual harassment complaints," Dr. Lubis concurred. "It is extremely problematic. We understand that these are matters of the heart. But as business owners, it's really important for dentists to maintain integrity with their employees."

In addition to professional liability insurance, dentists can also buy riders to cover sexual harassment claims, Edwards noted.

Sometimes female patients or staffers go after dentists because they have prestigious positions and good incomes, Dr. Lubis noted. "I've heard from attorneys of very nasty cases about women who are sort of predators and try to extort money under the threat of filing a lawsuit, even if nothing happened," he said. "It probably costs less to buy them off than getting into a lawsuit and besmirching your reputation."

One New Jersey dentist who had a relationship with a staffer that ended unhappily wound up facing criminal and civil charges and eventually lost his license, Dr. Lubis said.

Irate and frustrated former lovers can also file complaints with federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he noted.

Dental board regulations

Many state dental boards have regulations prohibiting dentists and their staffs from having any sexual contact, even consensual, with current patients. Violations of such rules subject practitioners to disciplinary action. A key issue is the fiduciary nature of the dentist-patient relationship since dentists have access to personal information about their patients, including medical history, financial information, and marital status.

"It can add ammunition to the fire," Dr. Lubis said. "Why get in the firing range if you don't have to?"

Dr. Levin added: "It makes no difference if the relationship is consensual or not. Issues such as breach of privacy, confidentiality, ethics violations, and the question of potential harassment are all possible cans of worms that could be opened by having an inappropriate relationship in an office setting."

"It's a nasty situation that could be nastier than a divorce in something that's not even a marriage," Dr. Lubis noted. "It's something that could not only risk your finances but your professional reputation, your license, and your career."

Copyright © 2010 DrBicuspid.com

 

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