March 13, 2007

Bosses Who Bully

If you think bullies only lurk in playgrounds, think again. Adult bullies are ubiquitous, cropping up as supervisors in organizations around the globe. In laboratories and other scientific settings, the inherent imbalance of power between trainees and their supervisors can set the stage for workplace bullying. "Bullying thrives in situations where the perpetrators are both powerful and frightening, and those around them too scared to challenge," writes physician and career counselor Anita Houghton, M.D., in BMJ Careers.

There are other reasons why science is a fertile breeding ground for bullies. "People in certain fields rise up the managerial chain by being experts," says sociologist Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., author of A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-Stabbers, and other Managers from Hell (American Management Association, 2006). "Science is one of those fields. You can have supervisors who are brilliant in their work as scientists but who don't necessarily have people skills. They may not have management training or an understanding of how to work with employees. Also, in scientific laboratories, there isn't always a human resources person to go to, and there may be few opportunities for oversight. If someone complains, there are likely to be repercussions, and the person can be blacklisted."

If you're a science trainee whose boss is a bully, the challenges and risks, to both your professional and your personal life, are formidable, and your options are usually limited. But if you recognize this phenomenon, there are ways to minimize its adverse effects.

Barbara's experience

Barbara,* currently a postdoc, acquired what she now calls "emotional scars" while earning her doctoral degree. Even though the experiences occurred several years ago, she still can't put them out of her mind. She was a Ph.D. student in biology working in a laboratory at a European university when she was bullied by her bosses.

"It felt like the slave trade," she says. Her advisor, one of two co-directors in the lab, was enraged when he learned that Barbara had moved in with her boyfriend. "If you are planning to have children," he said, "I should know it so you can leave the lab now." Barbara had no such plans--but when one of her labmates became pregnant, the advisor started assigning the woman less and less work, isolating her from her peers. "You became pregnant, and that's the last thing you do in my lab," her advisor told her. The woman resigned.

While Barbara was writing her dissertation, the other co-director told her he needed help running some experiments for a project that would be published in a top-tier journal. When she told him that she was already stretched thin finishing her doctoral work and applying for postdocs, he got angry. He demanded that she think about it overnight and return to his office the next day. Barbara returned and told him that she simply didn't have the time. "You don't understand, Barbara," he said. "I'm not making you an offer; I'm telling you that you are going to do these experiments." Because she was close to finishing her degree and didn't want it derailed, she felt as though she had no choice. She took on the additional work.

Her advisor also asked her to share authorship of her papers with people who had nothing to do with the work. When she questioned the dubious ethics, he made it clear that she wasn't in a position to negotiate. "This is my lab, Barbara; if you don't like my rules, you can go straight to the door," her advisor told her, not for the first time. Other students suffered similar indignities. "Both of them were controlling, possessive, and had no problems threatening students to get what they wanted," Barbara says.

People like Barbara--on the first rung of their career ladders--often have no choice other than to "grin and bear it" when faced with a bully in the workplace, says Scott, who often consults on workplace relationships…

A study in the British Medical Journal estimates that workplace bullying affects up to 50% of the workforce in the United Kingdom at some time in their working lives, with annual prevalence rates of 38%. Statistics from a workplace bullying advice line suggest that 90% of cases in the U.K. involve a manager bullying a subordinate; 8% involve peer-to-peer bullying; and in 2% of cases, subordinate(s) bully managers. Perpetrators are equally likely to be male or female, but targets are more likely to be female.

A study published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal focused on doctors who work in a research environment. The investigators surveyed 259 doctors who had registered on largest Web site for doctors in Europe--and found that more than half reported having been bullied in the form of threats to their professional status and personal standing.

Namie estimates that nearly three out of four bullied individuals ultimately lose their position, which suggests that perpetrators aren't often held accountable for their actions. In many cases, victims are blamed; other times, the situation is written off as a personality conflict between two or more people

Bullies exist because the workplace culture supports them. "The incentives to challenge bullying behavior are far outweighed by the incentives to keep your head down," writes Houghton. "This creates an aggressive culture that continues because it selects people who can survive in it--people who are likely to be thick-skinned and aggressive themselves. These people in turn provide role models for the up-and-coming generation.

From: - 22 September 2006

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.


Anonymous said...

This site and others like it continue to make an enormous contribution to those of us who are battling... fighting... with workplace bullying.

It is the loneliest road I have ever walked along.

The Times Higher continues to report cases linked to bullying.

Universities from around the world are accessing this site.

These actions are a lifeline.

They remind us that we are not alone.

Thank you.

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Let the RESEARCH ASSESSMENT EXCERCISE account for scientific misconduct. Top UK universities are getting away with data manipulation and with double counting.