April 01, 2008

Workplace bullies and the academy - bullies weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier!

Check out this brief article in the New York Times about bullies in the workplace, their strategies and the toll they take on individuals and the productivity of the organizations they work for. In response to this article’s request to hear stories of workplace bullying, there are 466 comments, and they’re still being posted this morning as I write. (Don’t miss comment #53 from Liz, an attorney and Army Reservist who said she has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder not from her tour of duty in Iraq, but rather from her civililan job!) I read the first one hundred comments, and have noticed some interesting themes:
  1. While careers in medicine and the law are heavily represented in the incidents reported here, the academic workplace is specifically mentioned in ten out of the first 100 complaints: see comments 2, 17, 25, 30, 44, 55, 64, 70, 86, and 96. Yep, folks, read ‘em and weep: Chairs bullying junior faculty, Deans bullying tenured faculty, professors bullying students, and in one case, students bullying a professor, so there’s something for everyone.

  2. The article notes that “a large share of the problem involves women victimizing women. The Zogby survey showed that 40 percent of workplace bullies are women,” and the comments bear this out. Comment 55 from Dana, a graduate student, writes that the faculty member making her life miserable “was awarded her doctorate in the late 1960s, when women had a tougher go of it in higher education. I’m convinced through my experience with her and others that that generation of feminists approach their careers with a grand chip on their shoulders - and take it out on those of us who came in through the next feminist wave of a decade later.”

  3. Just looking at the syntax and writing style of the comments, you can see the toll that workplace bullying takes on people. So many of the comments are in all lower-case letters (people reporting bullying seem to refer to themselves as “i” instead of “I”), and they are full of run-on sentences. I couldn’t read more than 100–my guts were churning and bile was rising in my throat, and there’s only so much rank injustice that a girl can take on a sunny, spring morning!

  4. There are a few commenters who try to jolly the others out of their misery (”try making friends!”), and others who claim that bullying victims are just whiners who can’t take criticism. But, those reactions seem naive on the one hand, and cruel on the other. The clear lesson is that people who are being bullied need to leave those jobs in order to preserve whatever’s left of their health and sanity.

On the question of women bullying other women: I don’t think it’s fair at all to tar a whole generation with that brush–after all, some of the most supportive, nurturing people who have mentored me and many other junior women are from that generation. Until fairly recently, it was only that generation of women faculty who were senior enough to engage in bullying. Sadly, Historiann is familiar with women bullying women–it was considered not a bug, but rather a feature of her former department. The bullying women were “useful idiots” who could be relied on to police junior women; the senior men could then hide behind their skirts and deny that gender bias was an issue. I don’t think this kind of behavior can be pinned on the generation of women who earned their degrees in the 60s and 70s–I’ve seen it in people whose degrees are from the 1980s and 1990s, too. The critical issue is power, not generation, and most regular faculty with 1990s Ph.D.’s are tenured now and therefore have at least a small purchase on power and influence in their departments.

The one advantage that academics have over people in other lines of work is that bullies aren’t as able to affect our prospects for other employment the way that bullying bosses in private industry can. If we keep publishing and maintain connections with supportive scholars outside of our institutions, we can get out of a bad job. We don’t need letters of recommendation from our department chairs–if you’re an Assistant Professor, a letter from a supportive Associate Professor will do nicely to testify implicitly, if not explicitly, that you’re not a troublemaking malcontent but rather an excellent colleage with limitless potential. The only exception to this is if your bully happens to be someone of importance in your field–but this is probably unusual: by definition, people who are important in their field spend their time writing books, working with students, and hobnobbing at conferences with other people important in their field. In general, they don’t have the time, let alone the inclination, to try to mess with someone else’s career. In my experience, the bullies weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, to put it charitably. They weren’t terribly productive scholars or successful teachers, which is probably why they felt so intimidated by smart young things who were clearly going places. So, they chose to make their post-tenure careers as hall monitors rather than as scholars.

Et vous, mes amis
? Any thoughts as to why the groves of academe are such fertile fields for bullies? (Or, conversely, why academics are such thin-skinned, overly sensistive complainers?) Do you have your own stories to share? Discuss.
From: http://www.historiann.com


Anonymous said...

This article was in the New York Times - when are we going to have some articles in the British Press about workplace bullying in academia?

Why don't the public demand to know what is happening in our universities?

Why don't the public demand to know how their money is being spent?

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

Most people don't care about bullying until it affects them directly and personally. But in the British press, which is a smaller universe relatively speaking, there is way too much collusion with bullying employers, especially in higher education, the NHS and other public services, since these organizations are connected with government institutions and political operatives. Whereas in the U.S. the press is controlled by a variety of corporations (well, at a small variety), which are, to more varying degrees, beholden to the bullying employers.

BulliesBeGoneBlog.com said...


Thanks for the post and comments.

My experience in this area has been extensive. Some recommendations:
Wise Up!
1. There have always been bullies and always will be. They come in all sizes, shapes and levels of the academic totem pole. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept it. Some bullies are very bright. Many are what I call “stealth bullies.” They’re covert, sneaky, manipulative, critical, controlling, verbally abuses, emotionally intimidating and backstabbing with a smile.
2. Use legal protection if you can, but don’t count on it. Most of the bullying passes under the legal radar. And laws still have to be applied by people. Many people won’t. Be grateful when you get help, but don’t count on it and don’t be stopped if you’re on your own.
3. Change the discussion from “why bullies do it and the nuances of how,” into a discussion of how to stop bullies in their tracks.
4. Learn to fight; teach your friends and children to deal with the real world. You won’t win every fight, but when you fight back you’ll stop a higher percentage of bullies. You will need to be brave, courageous, determined, persevering and resilient.
5. Recognize and label bullies as bullies. If you have any doubt, learn the early warning signs. Recognizing and labeling them will reinforce your identification of who’s the problem – they are.
6. Recognizing and labeling can take you out of “helpless, victim mentality.” Stop asking, “What did I do wrong” or “What did I do to deserve it.” A bully is a bully is a bully.
7. Ignore the idea of, “Don’t stoop to their level.” Do stoop to using language they understand. Raise the stakes on them if you can.
8. Administrators are just like principals of elementary, junior high, middle and high schools. Some act, but many look the other way; they tolerate, condone, protect or encourage bullies. You will have to force those administrators to act.

Stand up!
1. Stop analyzing all the different forms of bullying, stop examining statistics, stop analyzing why they do it. You know more than enough already. Just look at the comments here and in the original New York Times article. Don’t let predators get you.
2. Act to protect and defend yourself and your friends and colleagues in your specific situation. Act as rapidly as you can; don’t wait until you have absolute proof. Bullies don’t take passivity (begging, pleading, minimizing, ignoring) as kindness, caring or you taking the high moral ground. Bullies take passivity as an invitation to hit you harder.
3. Shine a light on it. Get allies; gang up on bullies. Isolate them if you can. Undermine their position and power.
4. Don’t react with emotional outbursts; stay professional. Get evidence and document. Look for loss of productivity (decreasing publications, grants and awards, or increasing turnover). Look for “smoking guns.” If the bully has power, look to increase your leverage. Administrators hate publicity and scandal. Use their fear as leverage.
5. Don’t get sucked into a rehabilitation model. Stop bullies first. Kick them off your island or isolate them in a very tiny room with other bullies. Then you can become their therapist (if that’s what you get paid for).
6. Don’t stay in a hostile workplace you can’t change. Be prepared to leave and make your exit interview public.

I see more bullies in academia, government offices, non-profits and public service organizations.

Disclosure: Since I left academia (after about 23 years), I’ve become a coach and consultant, and have written articles and books, and produced CDs about stopping bullies at work and in personal life. My web site and blog are at: www.BulliesBeGone.com.

Good luck,

sister of physics brothers said...

Thanks for having this site. In the US, it is almost impossible to do anything legally or otherwise about bullying. We have no contracts or any recourse.

I have my lawsuit going against a physics association headed by a female academic -- only because they reacted differently to bullying based on gender: when men bully, violence is feared, so action is taken.

When women bully, people seem to point to personality flaws in the victim like my employer did with me. Also in my case, where I was a manager of two bullies who mobbed together because they applied for my job but did not get it (I did), the employer said "support staff" (ie women) are naturally emotional and you as their boss have to listen to their venting, but in your office behind the door where it does not bother us!

I agree that some of the women who advanced prior to us have become Queen Bees towards the next generation of women, such as the female who is in charge of the physics society. I wish I understood their or her hostility. It ruined my career.