When Does Disrespect Become Harassment?

By Christina Folz | SHRM Conference Today

To promote a safe and respectful workplace, HR should take both seriously

There is no law against being a jerk—but that doesn’t mean employees waive their right to function in a respectful environment when they come to work every day.

“The line between disrespect and harassment is very thin,” said Matt Verdecchia, a senior trainer with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life division, during a concurrent session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition. “We need to be more sensitive to insensitivity.”

It’s up to HR professionals to build cultures of tolerance and kindness, because doing so is the best way to ensure that bad behavior doesn’t turn into illegal harassment, Verdecchia said. He spelled out the following differences between harassment and disrespectful behavior.


Harassment is unlawful conduct focused on “what” a person is, based on the protected factors laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Verdecchia said. These include race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, military status and sexual orientation.

The classic example, in which a manager tells an employee that his or her job is contingent on engaging in sexual activity, is referred to as quid pro quo harassment. But the second form—wherein an employee is made to feel uncomfortable by another worker’s discriminatory behavior—can be difficult to distinguish from garden-variety disrespectfulness.

“Hostile work environment is far different and far more frequent [than quid pro quo],” Verdecchia said. He cited the example of someone telling a racist joke within earshot of another employee. “Where’s the line? Is it reasonable that someone could think that type of behavior could have an impact on somebody’s ability to do their job?”

To meet the legal requirement for harassment, the conduct must be both unwelcome (and the offender must be made aware that it is unwelcome) and pervasive, Verdecchia noted.

“Most one-time incidents do not constitute harassment,” he said. For example, one employee telling another that she is “hotter than Atlanta asphalt in July” is not necessarily harassment—if the offender makes no additional remarks after being told the comment was inappropriate.

Other important facts about harassment:

  • Men can harass men and women can harass women.
  • Harassment doesn’t have to be directed at a specific individual.
  • Offenders can be supervisors, co-workers or nonemployees.
  • The conduct needn’t be intentional; what is offensive is in the “eye of the beholder.”
  • Harassment can be verbal, nonverbal, physical or written.
  • Age-related harassment is the fastest growing form in the U.S.
  • Any employee can go to any manager with a harassment complaint.

Disrespectful Behavior

Verdecchia defined disrespectful behavior as a lack of consideration or regard for co-workers, including their privacy, physical space, belongings, viewpoints and philosophies. It can become bullying when people pick on particular individuals. “Bullies usually have very specific targets,” he said.

Examples of disrespect include malicious gossip, threats or intimidation, giving people the silent treatment, and the unwelcome use of profanity.

While not unlawful, disrespect saps employee morale and is typically the first step toward harassment and possibly even workplace violence. “If you want a safer work environment, start promoting a more respectful work environment,” Verdecchia said. “The two are connected.”

That’s why HR should have clear policies and procedures spelling out the disciplinary actions that will result from behaving badly—and work with managers to ensure they are enforced.

“Behavior doesn’t change without consequences or incentives,” he said. “An ant doesn’t leave a picnic.”

Employee Assistance expert to share how employers can  respond to and prevent harassment

Plymouth Meeting, PA, June 6, 2017 — West’s Health Advocate Solutions, a leading independent clinical healthcare advocacy provider, announced today that Matt Verdecchia, M.S., CEAP, Senior Trainer/Organizational Development for EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate, will present a session during the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Annual Conference and Exposition, to be held June 18-21, 2017, in New Orleans.

Verdecchia, who specializes in workplace training programs and has more than 30 years of experience in the behavioral health field, will discuss the critical issue of “Insensitivity or Harassment: Where Is the Line?” on Tuesday, June 20 at 7:00 AM CT.

Harassment in the workplace continues to make headlines across the country, but understanding how to appropriately address this issue can help organizations prevent incidents from escalating and reduce risk.

“Understanding what constitutes harassment is the first step toward stopping it,” said Verdecchia. “Harassment can have negative repercussions throughout the organization, but it is possible to take steps to proactively prevent inappropriate behaviors from becoming harassment.”

Verdecchia will share an overview of this issue as well as offer important information about how session participants should effectively and appropriately respond to incidents to protect their employees and decrease liability for their organization. Attendees will also learn the difference between disrespect and harassment, why employees have a difficult time reporting harassment, and how to avoid frequent mistakes when addressing issues of harassment and discrimination.

The SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition is the largest conference for human resources professionals, drawing thousands of participants each year to learn more about the latest developments and strategies from renowned industry experts.

For more information about Verdecchia’s session and the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition, please click here. Attendees can also stop by the Health Advocate’s booth #355 to learn more and view a demo of Health Advocate’s new member engagement website and mobile app.

About West’s Health Advocate Solutions

West’s Health Advocate Solutions makes healthcare easier for over 11,500 organizations and their employees and members nationwide.

Our solutions leverage a unique combination of personalized, compassionate support from healthcare experts using powerful predictive data analytics and a proprietary technology platform including mobile solutions to provide clinical support and engage members in their health and well-being.

Our members enjoy a best-in-class, personalized concierge service that addresses nearly every clinical, administrative, wellness or behavioral health need. Our clients benefit from high levels of engagement, improved employee productivity and health, and reduced medical costs, while simultaneously simplifying and upgrading their health benefits offerings.

For more information, visit us at www.HealthAdvocate.com



Episode 7: Addressing Critical Incidents in the Workplace

When a critical incident or disruptive event occurs in the workplace, it is imperative that organizations respond quickly to help employees, minimize further risk and preserve productivity. In this episode of Health Advocate’s Ask the Expert series, Nancy Shriner, EAP+Work/Life Training and Critical Incident Coordinator with West’s Health Advocate Solutions, discusses how organizations can address critical incidents in their workplace.

By Emma Court | MarketWatch

After his daughter was born, Ted Phillips wasn’t expecting to get slapped with a $3,500 bill from the hospital’s anesthesiologist.

Phillips, who works in health care in Boston, Mass., soon found out that while the hospital was in-network, the anesthesiologist was not. The hospital’s billing office told Phillips he’d have to pay it.

Undeterred, he kept making calls — to the hospital, the anesthesiologist and the insurer — and was eventually able to resolve the issue.

Still, the back-and-forth did cost Phillips, albeit in a different way: he spent about five to seven hours making the phone calls, mostly while at work. Most of the offices involved “are open 9 to 5, which is difficult,” he said.

“I work in this industry, I’ve dealt with this back-and-forth, I’ve dealt with insurance for this long now,” he said. “How many people just pay that bill because they don’t press it?”

The problem, one many consumers face, has gotten a lot easier for Phillips since then. Now, through his health benefits at work, he has access to a medical bill advocate, that helps individuals navigate their medical bills and the complex terminology of health insurance plans.

Medical bill advocates and other such third-party businesses have sprung up in the gaps and blind spots of America’s complicated, fragmented health care system. These services make sense of health bills for consumers and even fix errors in them.

In the process, these businesses can reduce wasteful health-care spending and possibly even improve health outcomes. Their numbers have exploded. And they’ve become even more important as high-deductible health plans — which put employees on the line for thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses — have increased in popularity.

But these services face a persistent challenge: many employees don’t know that they have access to them.

Though confusing medical bills are pervasive, utilization rates for professional help remains low. The ultimate success of these businesses will hinge on how well they use technology to change awareness and access, according to many in the sector.

The business of medical bill advocacy

For decades, advocates have warned consumers that their medical bills could be rife with errors.

That would appear to be a consumer issue, but it’s also a problem for employers, since they provide health insurance to a majority of Americans and pay the lion’s share of the cost.

“Smart employers who want to save their money and their employees money know the best way to slash health-care costs is to improve benefits,” said David Chase, a health-care entrepreneur who now runs a nonprofit institute. Medical advocacy services are “one piece of that,” he said.

Advocates like Pat Palmer, who has been working on medical billing issues for 24 years, encourage individuals to request an itemized bill and search for clear mistakes, such as being charged for more time in the hospital than you actually spent there, or for a drug that you never got.

But for other, more-complex errors, most consumers find the experience of making calls to the health insurer and medical provider overwhelming. Often, the task requires specialized understanding about the health-care system and how it works, the nuances of an individual’s health plan and even a level of medical knowledge.

Then there are the logistics. It can be hard to even find a time during the workday, or a place at work, to make these calls.

“You’re in the hallway, on the phone with the biller, the insurance company. Before you know it, an hour has gone by,” said Dr. Raffi Terzian, senior vice president of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate, a leading company that works with employees to navigate health care and insurance problems. “It’s a time sink. It’s a time robber.”

Moreover, insurance brokers and human resources departments don’t have the ability — or the bandwidth — to answer all of peoples’ questions, especially as high-deductible health plans increase the number of questions asked, said Jason Dzurka, director of marketplace solutions at Maxwell Health, a benefits platform for small- and medium-sized businesses that is also Phillips’ employer.

Hospitals are trying to make medical billing better and more affordable, said Tom Nickels, executive vice president of government relations and public policy at the American Hospital Association. He said they’re working on tools for better price transparency and that they “pledge to work with patients” on billing issues.

But in the meantime, others have picked up the slack — and are paying for it. In the individual health insurance market, services from health technology company HealthJoy come at an additional cost to the consumer.

When it comes to employer-sponsored plans, the employer or even the insurance broker may pay, since “they see it as a valuable service for the cost,” said Dzurka. “And when you compare it to the cost of health care, it’s substantially lower — a very small percentage.”

Confusing medical bills pose a problem both to worker productivity and to employee benefits more generally, said Brian Marcotte, chief executive officer of the nonprofit National Business Group on Health, which represents large employers on health policy issues in Washington, D.C.

In other words: If workers don’t understand their benefits, they probably aren’t benefiting from them.

“Employers are recognizing that the system is too complex for employees to be sophisticated enough to navigate this,” he said.

Beyond medical bills

Tricia Taylor’s 13-year-old daughter uses an insulin pump to manage her Type 1 diabetes. That can mean testing her sugar levels as many as 10 to 12 times a day using a FreeStyle test strip, the only kind her insulin pump works with.

But Taylor’s insurance company wanted her daughter to use a different type, and wouldn’t cover the FreeStyle strips. The expense was adding up, costing Taylor about $180 a month, she said.

After working with the health-care technology company Accolade, which is offered as a benefit at the propane company she works for, Taylor was able to get the strips covered. The trick turned out to be a letter from her daughter’s doctor, explaining that the FreeStyle strips were the only ones that worked.

“It was a big, big blessing,” Taylor said. With some time, she might have been able to figure it out on her own. But “it was time that, as a working parent, I did not have.”

Now, Accolade is helping Taylor with something new: finding an in-network facility for her daughter.

Help with chronic diseases is just one of the many services these businesses now offer.

Health Advocate, which works with nearly 12,000 employers and health insurers to serve more than 40 million members, can answer “nearly any question related to health care that you can think of,” Terzian said, from coordinating care to helping with medical decisions, finding doctors and second opinions, providing wellness services and more.

These are available not just to the employee but also typically to their spouse, dependents and parents or parents-in-law, he said.

Folding in so many services makes these businesses more attractive to employers. And increasingly, the scope of companies with access to health advocacy services is growing beyond large employers to companies of all sizes.

It’s also a way to engage more people, who call in about one issue — often, about their medical benefits or understanding a medical bill — and can then find out about the other services offered.

“A client will call us for often a simple question related to their bill or benefits plan — is this doctor in network, what’s my deductible,” said Samantha Steinwinder, Accolade’s vice president of marketing. “In most cases the health plan will answer the question and send them on their way. We use the call to find out what’s going on in the individual’s life… it helps us uncover what’s happening with the health-care system with that individual.”

How it all hinges on technology

Unlike a lot of other services and technology platforms people use, customers can go months or years without interacting with a health advocacy service.

This creates an “out of sight, out of mind” effect that is one of the industry’s biggest problems, Marcotte said: “If I don’t need it, I don’t think about it. And when I do need it, I forget that it’s available.”

The mission of these businesses will hinge on data and technology, and how well they’re used to communicate with and engage consumers.

For example, “if I’m contemplating surgery, there may be indications in my claim data that triggers a flag,” and sends a push notification to the patient about decision support services, Marcotte said. Other data triggers could prompt similarly personalized information and resources, he said.

We’re “at the tip of the spear of a lot of this. It’s growing and it’s growing rapidly,” he said.

Health Advocate says that of those who have access to their service, 40% have used it at least once, with the figure rising to 90% under “best practices.”

Technology may also provide a lift. Maxwell Health says it sees higher utilization of Health Advocate through its platform than Health Advocate does alone, which it attributes to its technology.

Since these services work best when they’re both convenient and immediate, many health advocacy businesses have structured themselves for the smartphone era.

HealthJoy, which aims to be the “Siri for health care,” is mainly a mobile application, with emails and push notifications structured to move customers into the app (although there is the option to call in). The company works with about 15,000 members from the individual market, and recently started contracting with employers, of which it now has 100.

“It’s really hard to be top of mind as a point solution. So we really focus on trying to say ‘we’re help for anything,’” said Chief Executive Officer Justin Holland. “We’re trying to be air-traffic control.”

The company has focused more on cost-cutting moves like telemedicine and prescription drug savings than medical billing, at least for now, said Holland. That, paired with a recent move to work with employers, is reflected in the low utilization rates for its medical bill service, or about 8% of its employer membership, he said.

“You’re not going to use an app like ours like Candy Crush,” Holland said. But “80% of people just pay [a medical bill] and they remember after, ‘Oh, I have this service I could use.’”