A leading hospital was concerned about the behavior of two prominent surgeons, widely known for treating other staff with contempt, displaying frequent emotional outbursts including screaming, and making condescending remarks and insulting members of the medical team. The leadership was worried about whether the hospital was headed towards a lawsuit.
The lawyer the hospital consulted tells them there doesn’t appear to be any legal threat. The physicians don’t tell sexual or racial jokes. They don’t make comments about appearance, ethnicity, age, religion, or national origin. They were not physically threatening any staff.
“No illegality, no problem” was their mentality. They were paying attention only to behaviors that seem to cross into illegal territory; ignoring the impact of behaviors that are legal no matter how unacceptable. The hospital leadership knew that the department these problematic surgeons worked for had trouble attracting and retaining top talent. There was a toxic atmosphere that made nurses and other professional caregivers reluctant to speak up if they noticed a problem during or after surgery. But those problems went unaddressed since nothing illegal was happening.
Probing The Edges Of The Law
One side effect of using illegality as your only standard to define unacceptable behavior is that people focus on identifying the boundaries of the law rather than appreciating its goal.
A number of laws, for example, are targeted at making sure companies do not create a hostile workplace. So I’ll get questions like, “Surely not every dirty joke is illegal. What’s the boundary?”
My response is, “Why on Earth would you want to find out? What is the benefit to your organization if you define a boundary between a dirty joke that may border on harassment and one that doesn’t?” Just because a joke may be legal, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.