Employed doctors: Know your rights

August 3, 2007

Group practices may unwittingly violate their employees' civil rights. Here's what you need to know to be treated fairly at work.

Key Points

It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but there it was, right in her hands: a pink slip.

When shock yielded to anger, the African-American surgeon vowed to sue her partners. Never mind their complaints about her "difficult personality." Those, she argued, were just a smokescreen for her inability to meld with the practice's culture of white men. Not true, countered the partners, who pointed out that they were uncomfortable with her high rates of surgical infection, not to mention her unwillingness to join her colleagues in working late.

The last thing the group wanted was to be sued for discrimination, nor did the surgeon want her less-than-stellar performance to be a matter of public record. The parties settled their grievance with a lump sum payout and a carefully worded reference that allowed the surgeon to find another job.

That's not to say you should grit your teeth and quietly pack your bags when you've been wronged, however. Various laws protect the rights of employees who have been unfairly discriminated against or treated badly in the workplace, and small medical groups may unwittingly run afoul of them. "While hospitals have compliance officers and human resources departments that make sure basic employment laws are enforced, groups typically do not," says Terry McGraw, an employment attorney in private practice with McGraw & Associates, in Skippack, PA, and Sandra's husband. Therefore, for all parties involved, a settlement usually makes more sense than a high-stakes court battle.

Employers have the upper hand

The truth is that an employer can generally fire or discipline you for no reason at all. "The employment-at-will doctrine is pro-employer and represents the inclination of the courts and legal system to avoid getting involved in micromanaging businesses and in nitty-gritty human relations issues," says Terry McGraw. But over the years, the federal government and states have extended protection to various groups of people who have been historically disadvantaged in the workplace, making it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of their gender, race, color, religion, and national origin. These come under the umbrella of the law commonly known as Title VII, which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yet despite Title VII's protections, "your employer can still be the biggest jerk in the world who makes your life miserable without breaking the law," says Terry. Everyone has at one time worked for a tough boss. Consider the boss who uses cruelty to get employees to quit rather than fire them. "It is definitely a hostile workplace, but calling someone a moron isn't illegal."

And even an employer's patently illegal discrimination will go unpunished if the size of the medical group is too small. Each federal statute governing employee rights specifies an employer size threshold, as does co-existing state legislation. (The exception is the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which protects employees from gender-based wage discrimination and covers virtually all employers.) Federal laws offer the minimum protection, whereas states can have more-liberal laws that employers are obliged to follow. For example, Title VII covers employees in companies with at least 15 employees, but Pennsylvania law protects those who work in companies with as few as four.

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