Sexual harassment – updated GMC guidance

26th October 2023

The General Medical Council (GMC) has updated its Good Medical Practice guidance to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

What changes have been made?

On 22 August 2023, the GMC published an update to its Good Medical Practice guidance. This guidance sets out the principles, values, standards of care and professional behaviour expected of all medical professionals registered with the GMC.

The updated guidance addresses, for the first time, the sexual harassment of colleagues, in the following terms:

You must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress.

Previously, the guidance was limited to sexual conduct in relation to patients, specifying that medical professionals “must not act in a sexual way towards patients or use your professional position to pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship with a patient or someone close to them“.

What constitutes acting ‘in a sexual way’?

The guidance sets out that acting ‘in a sexual way’ includes, but is not limited to:

  • Verbal or written comments;
  • Displaying or sharing images; and
  • Unwelcome physical contact.

Witnessing sexual harassment

The updated guidance also imposes duties on medical professionals who witness any such behaviour to act in response.  Paragraph 58 of the updated guidance sets out that this may include:

  • Offering support to the victim of the behaviour and/or letting them know that the witnessed behaviour is unacceptable;
  • Challenging the behaviour by speaking to the person responsible; and/or
  • Speaking to a colleague and/or reporting the behaviour.

The guidance makes it clear that everyone has a responsibility to take steps to prevent such behaviours continuing and contributing to negative and unsafe work place environments.

Paragraph 59 goes on to provide specific requirements on those in formal leadership or management roles, requiring such individuals who witness or who are made aware of such behaviours to make sure:

  • Such behaviours are adequately addressed;
  • People are supported where necessary; and
  • Concerns are dealt with promptly and escalated where necessary.

GMC commentary

The Chair of the GMC, Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen, has stated that:

Sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are entirely unacceptable. Where workplace cultures of this kind of behaviour go unchecked, they are detrimental to wellbeing, performance and patient safety. Doctors are increasingly, and bravely, speaking out about it, and as a regulator, it is important we leave no doubt that such behaviour has no place in our health services.

Those who experience harassment or discrimination must feel supported to speak out, by employers, peers, managers and leaders. … We hope that by addressing this issue so clearly in the standards, this will spark discussion on making meaningful cultural change throughout medicine.

The updated Good Medical Practice guidance will come into effect on Tuesday 30 January 2024, following a five-month familiarisation period, and will apply to all doctors on the UK medical register. The GMC is also preparing to regulate Physicians Associates and Anaesthesia Associates, at which point this guidance will also apply to them.

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