A foundation doctor in their first post after graduation contacted the MDU advice line because a situation at work was causing them a lot of stress.
They explained that a consultant colleague who they worked with a lot was making suggestive remarks about their appearance and asking inappropriate questions about what they got up to when they weren’t at work. This was making the doctor feel very uncomfortable and the consultant was clearly aware of this and made light of it.
The doctor wasn't sure whether anyone else had noticed, but felt the behaviour was obvious enough for others to notice. They hadn’t felt they could talk to anyone else about it, with it being a senior doctor. The consultant had also sent them a friend request on Facebook, which the doctor had ignored.
The doctor hadn’t taken any action so far as they were nervous about the impact this might have on their career, and felt that raising concerns might result in them getting a bad reputation. But the suggestive remarks had escalated and there had been some unwanted physical contact, which the doctor had made very clear they were uncomfortable with, so they’d decided to seek advice.
The MDU adviser sympathised with the doctor’s position and reassured them that they were doing the right thing in seeking advice. The adviser checked what support the doctor had both at work and at home, and signposted them to organisations that could offer additional support.
They also suggested visiting their GP and/or occupational health department if they felt their wellbeing was being negatively affected. The adviser explained that it was important to look after their own health, first and foremost, and get advice on whether they were currently fit to attend work.
The adviser explained that sexual harassment can take many forms and includes unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that has intentionally or unintentionally violated someone’s dignity. This creates an environment that can be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive – again, whether intentional or not. It also includes making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance or asking questions about someone’s sex life, all of which the doctor had described, in addition to touching someone against their will.
Employers have a responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to protect their employees against sexual harassment, and the MDU adviser suggested the doctor may find it helpful to find a copy of the hospital’s own policy, which should be available to all staff. The adviser suggested they talk to someone they trusted who may be able to advocate for them, such as their clinical or educational supervisor or another senior doctor. Alternatively, they could ask another colleague for support and to accompany them when raising concerns. The hospital policy may refer to a process or point of contact for employees to raise concerns. If not, the doctor could approach the human resources department for advice and support.
The MDU adviser also pointed out that the GMC took inter-colleague relationships seriously with the current Good medical practice (2013) referring to treating colleagues fairly and with respect, and that medical practitioners must be aware of how their behaviour may influence others within and outside the team.
In addition, the GMC’s updated guidance – due to come into effect on 30 January 2024 – makes particular reference to treating colleagues with kindness, courtesy and respect. Paragraph 57 specifically states that registered medical practitioners “must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress.” This can include verbal comments as well as unwelcome physical contact.
The MDU adviser was able to reassure the doctor that raising their concerns was entirely appropriate, particularly given the legal position and the GMC’s professional and ethical guidance. Good medical practice (2024) also expects doctors to help create a culture that is respectful and compassionate by acting as an appropriate role model, to act if they witness any type of inappropriate behaviour, and for those in formal leadership or management roles to make sure concerns are addressed and those affected supported (paragraphs 58-59).
Keep records and reach out
The adviser suggested the doctor keep a factual record of any unwelcome comments or actions, including dates, times, where the incidents occurred and who else was present at the time. This may help to establish witnesses for any future investigation. The more detail the doctor could include, the better, as this would provide them with evidence to support the allegations. It’s better to do this as soon as possible before recollections fade and on a personal, rather than work, device.
In the meantime, the MDU adviser suggested the doctor ask their supervisor whether it would be possible to work on shifts that did not involve any contact with the consultant. If this wasn’t possible, they should try to make sure there was someone else present with them. If another incident occurred, it was important for the doctor to do their best to extract themselves from the situation and maintain their professional integrity.
The doctor was advised that they also had the right to report their concerns to the police, just like anyone else did, if they felt this was something they wanted to do. Again, taking a trusted friend or colleague with them for support might be helpful.
After seeking advice from the MDU, the doctor reported the incidents to their clinical supervisor, who escalated it on the doctor’s behalf to human resources.
An investigation followed and it transpired that other employees had raised similar concerns about the consultant, and disciplinary action was taken. The doctor was well supported throughout the process and several witnesses gave evidence at the disciplinary hearing. The consultant was referred to the GMC following the outcome of the disciplinary investigation.
The doctor was praised for raising the concerns, which meant that they, and others affected, received the support they needed. It also served as an important reminder to staff generally about the professional and legal obligations they have towards one another.
This is a fictionalised case compiled from actual MDU case files.
Resources and support
BMA counselling and peer support
Doctors’ Support Network
Rape Crisis (England and Wales)
Rape Crisis Scotland
The Survivors Trust
This page was correct at publication on 20/11/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.