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    Offensive body art & political discussions in the workplace

    The latest installment of The Dilemma from Marc Rosenberg, VMD, discusses how to handle taboo topics in the workplace

    Editor’s note: All names and businesses in this dilemma case are fictitious, but the scenario is based on real occurrences.

    Land Animal Hospital is a suburban small animal facility located in a large West Coast town.

    There are 5 veterinarians and 23 support staff, who are proud of their professionalism, compassion, and their team effort. Dr Land, the owner, felt that the single most important reason for his clinic’s medical excellence was the staffs’ workplace comfort. He respected staff input, was flexible when it came to scheduling, and required a level of professionalism that gained the respect of the clientele.

    Over the past 25 years, Land often encountered obstacles that challenged his workplace goals. Whether it was collegial disagreements or unprofessional behavior under stressful circumstances, Land patiently worked to resolve these challenges. Now in 2023, new issues required his composed approach and hopefully acceptable resolutions. In a nutshell, these current issues were tattoos and politics. They have always appeared in the veterinary workplace, but not as dramatically as in recent years.

    Approximately half the staff members at Land Animal Hospital had tattoos. Some were not visible, but many were clearly apparent on the arms, neck, and shoulders. Land saw the increase of the presence of this body art as a sign of the times, and often very tasteful. This body art was, in essence, a sign of artistic expression and messaging. However, recently some of the messages displayed by certain tattoos were offensive to some clientele and a few coworkers. Land brought the subject up with certain staff members, and their responses were defensive. Most commonly, they responded by saying they felt they had the right to freedom of expression and artistic latitude.

    In addition to what Land referred to as “editorial tattoos,” partisan political times were creating friction and animosity among coworkers. Political discussions at work were no longer an exchange of varying views; these discussions often resulted in anger and ill will. Land had to assess the impact on what he called “the big picture.” He always felt his practice should be a nonpartisan safe space. The role of Land Animal Hospital was to maintain the health and well-being of pet patients, with the only agenda being compassionate medical care.

    Before speaking to his staff, Land contemplated a fair and equitable staff directive. His intent was that this would lead to achieving his mission statement of providing a nonpartisan safe space for the treatment of pet patients. He called a staff meeting and shared that as the medical director and owner, his goal is to focus on the compassionate care of all pet patients. Anything that distracts from this goal is unacceptable. Recently, the display of certain body art and political discussions have proven to be such distractions. Body art is in no way a workplace distraction unless there are images or words that reasonably could be interpreted to make pet owners or coworkers uncomfortable. In addition, volatile political discussions have, in some cases, created friction and ill will within the workplace. Going forward, Land will determine whether certain staff body art should be covered while on duty. In addition, there will be no more political discussions at the workplace. He made these decisions so that staff efforts can be fully focused on pet care and avoid creating anger and discomfort among staff and clientele. Land concluded the meeting by saying he hoped these directives would be received in the spirit of allowing all staff and clientele a more positive, comfortable experience at Land Animal Hospital.

    Land knew the response of the staff would be mixed. He also knew that the buck stopped with him, and he was comfortable with his decision. Do you agree with Dr Land? We would like to know.

    Rosenberg’s response

    Dr Land, the owner of this veterinary facility, certainly had the right to deal with issues as he saw fit. In essence, as is true with many privately owned facilities, they are run as benign dictatorships. In this case, Land was truly exasperated. This was his solution, and he understood he had to accept the consequences of his dictates. Clearly, some of the most challenging areas of today’s veterinary medical practice have little to do with pet care. Ultimately, Land did the right thing by staying true to his mission statement.

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