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Was it me? Resources for those who feel they may have acted inappropriately

For many people, the data presented by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery (WPSMS) in their independent report on sexual misconduct within the surgical workforce: 'Breaking the Silence: Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare', was truly eye-opening. For others, the report validated their own feelings and many identified themes which they recognised from their own experience of the workplace.

What is clear, is the extent of the problem described by the WPSMS report is such that there exists a culture of inappropriate sexual behaviour throughout healthcare, and not simply isolated incidents. Whilst making a very troubling read, the WPSMS report also presents an opportunity for each of us to consider the culture within our own departments, our own individual behaviour, to consider whether these may be contributing to a problem, or whether they can be considered appropriate in a professional environment.

The majority of us attend work because we care about our patients and we are keen to support our colleagues, but clearly a workforce cannot work effectively when members of the team feel either not safe, or not included in their workplace.

“I’m thinking about how my own behaviours might be contributing”

Firstly; that’s great! We can all use this as an opportunity to consider how we are behaving in the workplace. Sexual misconduct can happen anywhere, and any one of us can be guilty. It’s important to think about our behaviours regularly, as it is so easy for these to change without us noticing.

The majority of people are not perpetrators of sexual assault, and there are significant criminal justice implications for those who are. Notwithstanding any illegal activity, there are a broad range of sexualised behaviours which, whilst not carrying any legal implications, still carry the potential to leave their subjects feeling upset, embarrassed, ashamed, frightened or angry. Other actions may not directly result in this, but may contribute to a wider culture in which others feel empowered to behave inappropriately at work.

Have a read of the non-exhaustive list of behaviours contained here Resources for those who have experienced sexual misconduct in the workplace (scot.nhs.uk). Also, consider the checklist below and see if any applies to you:

  • Do sexual jokes make up a big part of the humour you use at work?
  • Do you send messages with sexualised content on the work WhatsApp group, or respond positively to others doing so?
  • Do you make sexual or suggestive comments to colleagues?
  • Do you make comments on your colleagues’ appearance or physical attributes?
  • Have you ever made unwelcome or unnecessary physical contact with colleagues?
  • Do you engage in sexualised discussions of other colleagues whilst out of earshot (commonly referred to as “locker room banter”)? Remember, culture is how people behave when nobody is watching

“I think there might be a culture of sexual inappropriateness in my department”

This can be difficult to recognise and can feel like a very daunting thing to challenge. It is common for people to feel a need to conform to certain behaviours or cultures rather than calling them out, even for those who recognise that there are problems. Furthermore, the pressures of hierarchy which exists in healthcare and for trainees, the feeling of not wanting to be seen as “a troublemaker” to departments in which they may hold aspirations to be employed by in the future, can make the prospect of attempting to affect change in this space particularly daunting. Having discussions with colleagues and peers around their thoughts on the department can help to frame your own thoughts, and spend some time considering the Active Ally page of the web resources for tips on how to address your concerns and potentially challenge these behaviours,

“I think for me what resonated most was thinking about the nights out. Those were a regular occurrence during foundation training and the emphasis would always be on, you know, lots of drinks, and the standard of behaviour and everyone’s expectations were totally different. I think because it was happening outside of the workplace it felt like that was ok, but on reflection I can really see how unwelcoming that environment would be for some team members who just wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with that kind of stuff. It makes me think about social events now, not in the sense of avoiding alcohol altogether but more just aiming for variety, and activities that everyone can feel able to take part in”

Trainee in Surgical Speciality, South East Scotland region

“I’m worried about receiving complaints or criticism”

Receiving criticism, particularly from colleagues or peers, can be one of the most challenging aspects of practicing medicine. It can threaten confidence, lead to feelings of shame or regret and can harm our interpersonal relationships at work. In many cases, however, the criticism may be well intentioned and designed to improve the experience of the working environment for all. When delivered by effective communicators, negative feedback can be a very useful opportunity for personal development, and all of us as doctors should be able to manage personal criticism effectively. If you have found your own behaviours in the workplace have been called into question or criticised, take some time and consider some of the following points:

  • Avoid knee-jerk responses
  • Invite honesty and ask for details
  • Turn the discussion into a learning opportunity
  • Take the opportunity to reflect

You might feel you have been, or have the potential to be, subject to malicious or false accusations. Currently available data would suggest that these malicious allegations in this context are rare. If you feel the complaints or criticisms directed towards you are unfair or ill-intentioned then consider a discussion with a trusted senior colleague, for instance a line manager, educational or clinical supervisor.

“What if I get it wrong?”

All of us are human and none of us are perfect. If you make a comment, submit a post etc which you realise was wrong, the best thing to do is to acknowledge it and to apologise. Most people are understanding and will generally appreciate your honesty and attempt to put it right. It is important you reflect on the incident and think what you will do differently.



For those who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace

NHS Scotland: Bullying and Harassment Policy

Your Trade Union or Medical Protection Society will be able to offer support and advice.

National Wellbeing Hub offers support for all NHS staff in Scotland

Practitioner Health self-referral for mental health support (NHS staff UK-wide)

Trainee Development and Wellbeing Service Support for NES Doctors in Training

GMC Ethical hub: Identifying and Tackling Sexual Misconduct

For those who want to work on their behaviour

The Reflective Practitioner GMC guide to support reflective practice

Reflective Practice Toolkit from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and COPMeD

Your specialty college may have useful resources such as this one from Royal College of Surgeons of England: Managing disruptive behaviours in surgery — Royal College of Surgeons (rcseng.ac.uk)

“What can I do?”

  • Read the WPSMS report Breaking The Silence, and visit the WPSMS website, which contains a very helpful section on definitions of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, in addition to some FAQs and other helpful information
  • Watch the video, below, from Police Scotland’s That Guy project, and don’t be “That Guy”
  • Check out Surviving in Scrubs for more information about their campaign, including testimony from 191 (and counting) doctors who have been subject to sexual misconduct at work
  • White Ribbon Scotland - Men tackling violence against women

That Guy

THAT GUY is a campaign from Police Scotland that aims to reduce rape, serious sexual assault and harassment by having frank conversations with men about male sexual entitlement. Be a mate and help stop sexual offending before it starts.



A note on the language we have used

This work raises issues which are sensitive and personal. We acknowledge the language we choose to use can have an impact on those reading. We have been guided by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery (WPSMS) report in our choice of language; their work was informed by direct experience of discussing with a wide variety of professionals including those impacted by sexual misconduct.

We do not use the terms ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’. While victim is used as a legal term, the common usage of the words ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ can confer an assumption as to how a person who has been targeted by a perpetrator feels. Many reported to WPSMS they feel neither of the above but are simply angry at what happened to them, furious that justice has not been served and morally injured by the fact the person who assaulted them, remains in post.

We acknowledge those engaging with this website page may feel differently about our language choice, and that is valid. Please get in touch, if you feel we could use language in a different way that feels more supportive.

Thank you for accessing these resources. We acknowledge that this is only a starting point and would welcome feedback. If you feel something is missing or would like to help shape our next steps please email tdws@nes.scot.nhs.uk


This page was last updated on: 11.04.2024 at 10.13