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Assertiveness at work: advice for trainees on dealing with undermining

Information from the RCOG Trainees' Committee on how to deal with undermining and bullying in the workplace.

Undermining: the RCOG’s position

Undermining and bullying behaviour has long been recognised as a problem for trainees in O&G. In repeated GMC trainee surveys, O&G trainees report more undermining behaviour than any other specialty. Although the vast majority of undermining is carried out by consultants, midwives represent the second biggest group. Both the RCOG and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) condemn undermining and bullying behaviours, and in September 2013 issued a joint statement with a commitment to develop an action plan to address this serious issue.

RCOG Workplace Advisor

In 2013 the RCOG established the role of RCOG Workplace Advisor to lead on the College’s strategy to address undermining behaviour in the specialty. The RCOG is the first medical royal college to make such an appointment.

RCOG Workplace Behaviour Champions

There is an RCOG Workplace Behaviour Champion in each school/deanery, who can give you independent advice about any unacceptable behaviour you’re experiencing. Find out more about the RCOG Workplace Behaviour Champions.

Workplace Behaviour Toolkit

This toolkit contains a wealth of resource within 8 modules, which are designed to be user-centred.

It includes tools to:

  • support the development of positive workplace culture
  • support you when you encounter poor workplace behaviours
  • strengthen your skills and confidence in 'speaking up'
  • promote an understanding of what poor workplace behaviour looks like and its impact on individuals, teams, organisations and importantly our patients.

Frequently asked questions

What is undermining?

Undermining or bullying behaviour is behaviour that makes you feel harassed, offended or socially excluded, and that affects your work. However, the definition of undermining is wide and relies on individual perception. Examples of undermining behaviour include:

  • Belittling someone in public, humilating them or accusing them of lack of effort
  • Spreading gossip or rumours about someone, teasing or name calling
  • Ignoring someone’s presence, withholding information or preventing access to opportunites such as leave or training
  • Applying undue pressure on someone to produce work, setting impossible deadlines or creating unnecessary disruptions
  • Failing to give credit when due, allocating meaningless tasks, removing someone’s responsibility, moving the goalposts or repeatedly reminding someone of an error

Am I being undermined?

It's widely accepted that if someone feels they’re being undermined, then undermining has occurred. So, if your experience fits the definition above, it’s likely that you’re being undermined.

However, difficulties arise as this is a grey area. It’s important to remember that conflict isn’t undermining if it’s an isolated event. Also, a trainee may interpret behaviour as undermining, but the supervisor may see it as meticulous training.

What can I do about it?

Follow the guidance below to try to deal with undermining behaviour.

Be assertive

Try to separate the just from the unjust. We all need to learn from our mistakes, even if the rebuke was unreasonable. If harsh words are spoken, accept them and move on. Replying with a ‘thank you’ can make the underminer see the error of their ways.

If your supervisor isn’t being supportive, spell out what you want them to do and why.

Talk it over

First of all, it’s best to talk it over with someone you can trust. Sometimes, what seems like undermining might not be.

Take no further action

If the undermining is an isolated event, you may not want to take any action. This should be on the understanding that it doesn’t happen again. The underminer must realise their actions, explain their point of view and offer an apology.

Speak to the perpetrator

If the behaviour does happen again, speaking to the perpetrator can be very effective. Some undermining isn’t deliberate. Arrange a meeting in private and take along a trusted companion. Plan what you’re going to say beforehand to explain how their actions made you feel. Stay calm and polite. Afterwards, make a written record of the date, time, venue, persons present and what was discussed at the meeting.

Write it down

Make a note of each episode of undermining and any associated meetings. Collect any documents that may back this up, especially emails. This will be valuable evidence if the undermining persists, and will also allow you to reflect on the events.

Speak to a senior colleague

Before pursuing a formal complaint, try talking to a senior colleague. This can be any of the following, depending on where the undermining occurs:

  • Educational Supervisor
  • Clinical Supervisor
  • College Tutor
  • Clinical Director
  • Medical HR
  • Training Programme Director
  • Postgraduate Dean

You may also wish to involve occupational health, the BMA or a Trainees’ representative. Extra support can be found through counselling.

What if the undermining persists?

Make a formal complaint in writing, backed up with written evidence. This ‘nuclear option’ is very destructive and, like resigning, can be done only once. It effectively ends the relationship. The underminer will know this too and will be just as anxious to avoid it.

Can the RCOG help?

If you don’t want to go down the route outlined above, or if it’s ineffective, the RCOG Workplace Behaviour Champions may be able to help and provide support and resolution to the undermining