Tuesday, October 15, 2013

ADVICE: Workplace Bullying in Astronomy I

Photo: Louie Douvis

Unprofessional behavior is not limited to gender discrimination and sexual harassment. There are cases when “something is just not right” in the workplace, which may involve no sexual overtones whatsoever. One such example is Workplace Bullying, which can have some characteristics in common with childhood bullying. It is not limited to women. It can involve teasing or taunting. It can be overt or covert. It can be physically or psychologically threatening. It can come from a supervisor or a collaborator. It can involve spreading rumors about your qualifications or abilities as a scientist. The stress associated with a bullying situation can affect your work and your health. You may even feel that your future career is in jeopardy.

Here is a bullying variation on an astronomical theme that I have heard more than once. Someone (probably more senior than you, but probably not your advisor) inflicts him/herself into your science. He/she could be stealing your ideas, giving the impression to others that you could not succeed without mentorship from him/her, or undermining you with your advisor or collaborators. 

I have also heard too many people confuse bullying behavior with a competitive/aggressive pursuit of scientific excellence. There are, however, important distinctions between the two.

• Allows the winner and the loser to swap roles in different circumstances.
• Is innocent in motive.
• Is not intended to hurt the other person.
• Maintains the basic dignity of everyone involved.

• Is based on an imbalance of power.
• Is intended to harm.
• Is meant to diminish the targets sense of self-worth.
• Continues even when the target objects or becomes distressed.

Unfortunately, there are many ways for a bully to bully. As a result, every situation is different and advice varies depending on the details. Although there is no “silver bullet,” there are effective strategies to deal with bullies. Here are a few:

Admit that the bullying is real and that it can have real effects on you and your work – it is not all your fault!
Try to avoid being alone with the bully and try to get witnesses to incidents.
You are probably not the first target of this bully; find other victims. There is strength in numbers.
Try making a collective complaint with colleagues.
Write everything down: times, places, nature of the incident, and comments made. Save emails, notes, etc.
Talk to someone you trust: advisor, best friend, parent, sibling, etc.
Revenge can be sweet (and tempting), but be careful.

Some References

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't by Robert I. Sutton
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School--How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence by Barbara Coloroso
Never Work For a Jerk! by Patricia King
The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization by Gary & Ruth Namie

For information on this and other topics, please see CSWA's advice page.