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I work in a medical clinic that has specialized focus and sees patients from across the province. I work with one other person. We each have our own patients.

My co-worker got into a heated (and, in my opinion, unprofessional) altercation with one of my patients and I had to step in and smooth things out. When my patient left the premises, the altercation flared up. The patient wished to make a complaint to the clinic owner and asked me the name of my co-worker so that she could do so formally. I gave her my co-worker's first name.

My co-worker was furious and said I had no right to give out personal information. I believe our patients have a right to file a complaint, valid or otherwise. I did not feel that giving out my co-worker's first name was a violation of her privacy since the incident occurred while we were both "on the clock."

What is the correct way to handle a situation like this?


Greg Chung-Yan

Associate professor, industrial/organizational psychology, University of Windsor

I think you handled things appropriately. Your co-worker sounds unprofessional. In addition to avoiding heated public altercations with patients, she should not get angry with you for simply providing her name. You didn't solicit the complaint; you didn't give out her personal contact information; and you did her a favour by interceding and preventing the exchange from escalating further.

Many organizations have policies when it comes to formal grievances. In general, when you have to take actions that are unpleasant but necessary, familiarize yourself with the relevant policies, and follow the procedures. When explaining your actions to others, simply invoke the policies and procedures being followed. If others react badly, that's their problem.

Reasonable people understand when you are taking principled action governed by policies or ethical guidelines. Even if they are initially upset, they usually come around and you can still have a collegial working relationship.

The people you'll have problems with – even when you are within your rights – are those who have difficulty accepting responsibility for their mistakes, no matter how obvious those mistake are or what pains you take to explain. If they think their conduct is being questioned, they'll have a bad reaction no matter what you do or say. If you can't avoid them, keep things professional: Don't respond in kind to their anger and stick to citing organizational policies and professional ethical guidelines.

The owner of the clinic can manage your co-worker's conduct.


Heather Faire

Human resources executive, Atlanta

Many businesses are built on relationships and customer loyalty. How situations like this are handled can either strengthen or destroy the customer loyalty and potentially damage the growth and sustainability of the business.

One way to handle this situation could be to apologize on behalf of the office, take the patient's name and number, and commit to relaying the information directly to the manager. You could tell the patient to call you back within 48 hours if he or she does not receive a follow-up call. Immediately give to the manager the patient's name, phone number and request to complain, and inform him of the 48-hour time frame. There would be no need to relay the content of the complaint because the manager can get the facts directly from the patient.

This approach means you do not release any personal information about co-workers, and puts the burden of dealing with the matter in the hands of the manager. It also allows you to do what you believe is right, while maintaining a positive and professional relationship with both the patient and colleague.

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