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.


berkeleyjess said...

A senior professor at my old institution would blackball students he didn't think were "up to snuff" by making his opinion about them clear to other faculty/postdocs in the department. The result was that no one else would feel comfortable working with them. There were students that had to transfer schools because they couldn't get a faculty advisor in the department due to this professor's behavior.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately we suffer from a lot of bullying at Anonymous Observatory. The director of astronomy has bullied many staff to tears; some have had to take time off work as a result.

Even more unfortunately, the organization that manages astronomy at the Observatory has failed to respond adequately. They have even blamed staff for working from home without the permission of the director - the bully! As a result, staff morale in the already critically small astronomy group has suffered and scientists are looking to leave.

Anonymous said...

It is a senior professor's job to comment on students' abilities to other professors. If this particular professor's assessments were mostly unfounded, then the other faculty in the department, unless everyone is new, would be aware of that and not weigh the senior professor's opinion heavily. This is not bullying. This is reality.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason this is often confused for competition is that the perpetrators honestly think of themselves as competing, not bullying. (I'm not speaking hypothetically--- I've seen quite a lot of this, sometimes as the target, sometimes not.) The problem is that they think of the workplace as a kind of professional Serengeti: that the *appropriate* way to get ahead is to suppress potential rivals and attribute other people's work to themselves. They often refer to their actions in evolutionary terms.

In that sense, it is a sort of philosophical disagreement about the right way to work. The so-called bullies are a minority, but they don't think so: they believe that everyone secretly acts this way. (I've heard this referred to as "indestructible ignorance" because they don't believe you really believe what you're trying to tell them.)

In reality, most people just want to get the job done and work around the bullies if they can. Predatory competitiveness is just not productive.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous October 18, 2013 at 12:10 PM: I've known a number of cases (off the top of my head, four cases over the past few years) where this has happened and the student, after much searching, finally did manage to find a new advisor who would ignore the blackballing professor's opinion and went on to be extremely successful (often the new advisor was someone at the government institution affiliated with the department who hadn't heard the gossip). Some professors seem to confuse a new grad student's lack of progress on a particular project with overall incompetence.

Anonymous said...

We had a bully leave our university recently to go to another one, and the climate in our department is noticeably better for everyone!

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I have been a victim of this and was not able to resolve the situation. The "bully" here was not only my professor but my adviser, who also happened to be the department chair. It being a small department, I could not change advisers. Going to the university ombudsman and assistant dean did not help. It might have made things worse. In fact, this professor's blackballing and negative attitude towards me ended up causing those people and others (associate provost, and dean of the school) to not take my claims seriously. This professor withheld my grades, causing me to be kicked out of the program and the university, left with a bad transcript and no good references. I am stuck when it comes to transferring or applying to another school.

I have no idea what I can do at this point to salvage my reputation as a student and as a scientist.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that they think of the workplace as a kind of professional Serengeti: that the *appropriate* way to get ahead is to suppress potential rivals and attribute other people's work to themselves. They often refer to their actions in evolutionary terms.

Ha! This is exactly the type of justification I've seen bandied about for this kind of mentality: vague allusions to "survival of the fittest" and mixed metaphors from evolutionary psychology. I've never seen it anywhere but academia, with the exception of high finance. Gordon Gecko does Science.

It's an especially common attitude among post-docs I've met, probably (at least in part) because their professional opportunities tend to narrow with time, and most desirable post-doc positions *are* extremely difficult to obtain, in this oversaturated academic marketplace.

I'll see their evolutionary psychology and raise them some game theory. The reason why people outside of academia don't run roughshod over anyone they deem threatening or "competition" is in fact *self-interest*. While the local maximum may be "get rid of this threat to my position", people who serially engage in this behavior harm their reputations and set themselves up for retaliation and often eventual revenge. You never know who that underling may know, and how they may be able to return the favor when you least expect it and ruin your professional reputation.

The global maximum in work situations is to cooperate as peacefully as possible, with as many people as possible. This builds professional networks and makes people *want* to work with you. It makes the day-to-day run more smoothly and reduces your stress, making you better able to handle challenges.

The "workplace as Serengeti" model is, in economic terms, a "race to the bottom" in which valuable human resources are wasted.