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Liability and the Office Staff

L.P.Y. Associates serves a primarily Latino population in an urban setting. Ten social workers belong to the group practice, as well as two clerical support staff. Recently, a client complained that the new receptionist had treated her rudely when she called to change an appointment. When this matter was discussed at a staff meeting, some of the social workers had concerns about the group’s liability exposure for their clerical staff.

An employer is generally responsible for the actions of employees. Based on the legal principal of "respondeat superior”, the premise is that the professional (the "Master”) is responsible for the damages caused by the employee (the "Servant”). If the omission or commission occurred within the employee’s scope of duty, the employer is likely to be liable for damages. Even in a case where the employee hid his or her actions from the employer, the employer may be liable if due care was not taken in establishing and implementing administrative safe-guards for client care.

Barbara E. Chalfee, J.D., L.S.W. suggests that protecting confidentiality may be the area of greatest risk for clerical employees. Clerical staff typically answer the phone, handle scheduling, update files and process client bills. They know the names of clients and may be privy to their case histories. Often the clerical staff member is the first person a client speaks to on the phone or sees when coming to the office. Your clerical staff represents your practice to the outside world.

Usually, professional liability insurance is available to cover the acts of clerical employees. The NASW Insurance Trust’s policy automatically covers all clerical employees at no additional cost. However, the presence of professional liability insurance coverage does not absolve employers from taking certain steps to manage the risk associated with their clerical staff.

1. Select your clerical staff carefully. The nature of your business calls for maturity and discretion. In the case of L.P.Y. Associates, special qualifications, such as being bilingual, may be important.

2. Be prepared to thoroughly train your clerical staff and document training activities. Any person answering your phones must know how to handle routine business as well as emergency situations. Have written procedures available for all clerical functions in your office. Be sure your staff practices emergency procedures.

3. Train continuously. Regular training on office operations maintains the quality of your services. Periodic training also sends a message to the clerical staff that their work is important to the overall success of the practice.

4. Develop an office policy statement for employees that includes a confidentiality pledge regarding client records and information in the office. Consider providing employees with the NASW Code of Ethics, highlighting the sections dealing with dual relationships. Review this issue annually in the employee’s performance review so that this gives you leverage in enforcing these standards. As the professional, you may need to show that you take reasonable precautions and care in training the staff.

5. Be prepared to address a client’s complaint about the clerical staff quickly. Angry or unhappy clients are more likely to file malpractice suits than happy clients are. In the case of the L.P.Y., the client may have misinterpreted something the receptionist said or the receptionist may have been insensitive to the client’s needs on the phone. Addressing the complaint promptly gives you a chance to avoid the same problem in the future.


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