Asked about a Colleague's Competence? Be Careful What You Say

Off-the-cuff and ill-considered remarks about work colleagues can have serious consequences for their careers. In one case which strikingly made the point that you should be careful what you say, a hospital consultant's brief telephone conversation became the focus of a 13-day court hearing (Abdel-Khalek v Ali).

Mr Qazi Ali worked with Mr Mohammed Abdel-Khalek for about four months and there was obvious animosity between them. Mr Abdel-Khalek was subsequently offered a locum post at another hospital. However, that offer was withdrawn after his prospective boss spoke to Mr Ali on the phone. The latter made various statements which gave the impression that there were concerns regarding Mr Abdel-Khalek's clinical competence.

Mr Abdel-Khalek launched proceedings against Mr Ali and, following a marathon trial, a judge found that the latter had negligently misstated the number of patients who had complained of complications following surgery by Mr Abdel-Khalek. Mr Ali had also been negligent in stating that two of those cases had or were expected to culminate in litigation although the correct number was only one.

The judge nevertheless dismissed Mr Abdel-Khalek's damages claim on the basis that the impression given during the phone call – that his complications rate was higher than would normally be expected – had not been proved inaccurate. In dismissing his challenge to that decision, the Court of Appeal found that it was that impression which had led to the withdrawal of the job offer and that the judge's assessment of the evidence was impeccable.