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My girlfriend is a doctor and she's just started her residency training in Italy. There are 2 other male doctors who started with her as 1st year residents.

Usually their working day is 10-12 hours per day and their contacts with the attending physicians are limited.

There's an attending physician (70 year old, male) who's been known for a long time to be authoritative, misanthropic, unfriendly and cold. Older residents told my gf he lost his wife recently (2 months ago, befor my gf started residency). Since then he completely changed his way of interacting with 1 year residents, being friendly and helpful (leaving speechless older residents which are still getting the old treatment: all but one). This behaviour has been particularly directed towards my gf.

After this introduction three things happened:

  • He was talking to one 2yr resident (who's vegan like him) and my gf was in the room; he then invided them both to go out for dinner with him the following week in a vegetarian restaurant. The invitation was then extended to all the 2yr and 1yr resindents (apparently because he felt them to be a little bit uncomfortable with the idea). He paid for everyone.

  • One afternoon he asked my gf for her cellphone number. She was working as usual, he walked to her and explained some work stuff that happened in the morning. Then he told her if she ever needs anything they could give each other their number.

  • That night my gf received this message from him: "Hello. How was your working day? Are you tired? If you ever need my help while working or in any other circumstance don't hesitate to call me. Good dinner. His name". At which she responded: "Thanks for your courtesy. It was a calm afternoon. See you tomorrow".

    • The next morning they meet at work and worked together as usual. At the end of the day he asked her which were her plans for that night. She told him that she was going out with me (her bf).
    • Next day he sent another message: "Hi, how was the weekend. I hope you enjoyed it and didn't miss home. See you."

My gf is unconfortable with this situation, also because he showed this behaviour with her only. He has not asked for anyone else's cellphone number until now. Having said that, she didn't notice any flirting intention at this time. But at the same time she is uncomfortable with the idea that she's the only one receiving messages from him. Which to her is totally unnecessary and awkward.

She asks how can she manage all this?

  • Is this attending doctor your girlfriend's supervisor, and/or does he have influence over her work situation such as giving assignments or evaluations? – mcknz Feb 4 '18 at 21:27
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    @mcknz Yes at both. – KingBOB Feb 4 '18 at 22:58
  • Comments have been removed. Before commenting, ask yourself if you would be using the comment feature for its intended purpose and keep our Be Nice policy in mind. Please don't comment to chastise, vent, share your own opinion, or to answer the question. – Lilienthal Feb 5 '18 at 13:40
30

It sounds like she's handling this perfectly already by answering politely, briefly, truthfully, and only during work hours. As long as his behaviour stays on this level, that seems like a very good way to continue handling things:

  • Don't answer during off hours; treat it as work chit-chat, not as building a friendship. As Markino says in the comments: If reading those messages during off hours makes you uncomfortable, adjust your habits and/or phone settings so that you only get to see them during the day.
  • Keep it brief, polite, and professional. Don't give it too much attention, don't reinforce his behaviour by rewarding it. As Bebs suggests in the comments: if he messages too frequently, only answer every one in X messages he sends.
  • If you can, act like you don't assume any ulterior motives, like he's just a friendly boss - in hopes of having him conform to this expectation. (That isn't to say that he may not have any or that you shouldn't escalate if he makes things too uncomfortable.)
  • Try hard not to accept any favours that he doesn't also pay your colleagues (going to dinner with him but only with your colleagues also invited was a good strategy). Don't make yourself any more dependent on his help than you have to - so that you don't have to worry about him withdrawing his help if you don't comply with his wishes.
  • Put some money away for your Eff Off Fund. This fund is for situations when you want to / have to leave your job immediately, e.g. because he escalates to an unbearable degree. Maybe you don't need it for this boss but then it never hurts to have some money for emergencies. Having some financial independence frees your mind :-)

You (the boyfriend) should reassure her that you're not suspicious of her, that she's handling this well, that you can understand why this makes things uneasy for her, and that you'll have her back and support her now and also if he ever escalates his behaviour.

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    "Don't answer during off hours" is a good idea. I would add to only answer ~ 50% of the text messages, and also when possible answer by voice (to not keep too much written trail of what the senior doctor could wrongly interpret as interest). – Bebs Feb 5 '18 at 10:22
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    Upvoted especially for the "Don't answer during off hours;" part. Definitely. She might want to not even read it, and that's possible with Whatsapp: swipe the notification away and do not open that conversation during off hours. Should he ask why she's not answering, she could always say "I intend to keep my professional life and my personal life thoroughly separate.", which is something noone can argue with. – Markino Feb 5 '18 at 11:05
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    +1 for not assuming any ulterior motives. This is the number one cause of workplace friction - people misinterpreting the motives of others. That doesn't mean OP shouldn't be wary or cautious, just don't let assumptions drive actions, let facts drive actions - assumptions go into the risk matrix. – Stian Yttervik Feb 6 '18 at 8:56
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I think AllTheKingsHorses's answer does a great job explaining how to respond to the boss. I want to emphasize the third point, to give the supervisor the benefit of the doubt. The rest of this answer is all speculation, but I think it's important to think about this from the supervisor's point of view.

This man is in his 70s and his wife has recently passed away. His colleagues have always known him as unfriendly and cold, so there's a good chance that his wife was the only person he really ever confided in and was close to. Now that she is gone, he's likely feeling very lonely and simply looking for someone he can talk to.

It may be a little inappropriate to seek that out from a young subordinate, but I doubt he has dishonorable intentions. So far he hasn't said or done anything that is clearly inappropriate. If he's in need of someone to confide in, it makes sense to unconsciously gravitate towards one person to try to build that relationship and trust. He may have already spoiled relationships with his older colleagues, which is why he hasn't been as friendly with them.

So, please take time and care to consider what the supervisor may be going through right now and why he has had a sudden change of character. Yes, it is important to set personal boundaries, particularly when work is involved, and even more so when someone's actions are making you uncomfortable. But in this case, please try to be polite and considerate when you do so, as I suspect this man is going through a very difficult time and is not aware of how his actions may be perceived.

If you are looking for a way to gently stop any more advances, I also recommend asking at Interpersonal Skills SE.

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    +1 for the compassionate answer. It's a little tragic/sad that the one he reaches out to isn't in a position to give him the emotional support he needs. I hope he ultimately reaches out to others (who are not his subordinates) and receives some support there. – AllTheKingsHorses Feb 5 '18 at 17:38

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