June 29, 2023

Mind your Head: An introduction to Workplace Bullying in Academia

 ...Bullying and mobbing in academia are often particularly obscure – the situations develop in the so-called grey zone. This is related to the high level of intellect of the aggressors, the complex power structures, and the highly flexible and diverse working arrangements. Trying to identify what is or is not reasonable is thus blurred and the forms in which aggressions are executed are diverse. A key aspect, however, is that the question of what is (or is not) bullying does not evolve around whether the aggressor’s (bully) behaviour is (un)intentional, but rather whether it is unwanted on the side of the recipient (target). Some of the bully’s actions might occur as apparent (unintentional) overreactions, oversights, or matters of diverging opinions, when, in fact, the behaviour is systematic.

For instance, scheduling a work meeting during the target’s vacation falls into the category of seemingly innocent oversights, which may, however, be a deliberate action to hinder the target in receiving information vital to workplace performance, communicating their viewpoint, labeling the target as unprofessional (if they eventually fail to participate), or even to interrupt their recreation periods (which reduces the target’s resilience). 
We provide more examples in box 1 (below). Only putting all incidents into a larger context, demonstrating the repetitive nature and the harm to the targeted individual allows to shed light on the true dynamics in a workplace bullying or workplace mobbing situation. The obscure nature, unfortunately, frequently inhibits bystanders to support the target, and may also cause misinterpretations and consequently poor handling of the situation by management (human resources, line managers, directorate, etc.). Thus, a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics behind workplace bullying and workplace mobbing is critical when tackling the issue...

The bully. Workplace aggression is typically a result of the aggressor’s weakness, rather than that of the target. Frequently, bullies feel threatened in one way or another, for example, by the target’s competence, achievements, or high work ethic and integrity. Bullies tend to compensate for a lack of acknowledgment they perceive themselves and attempt to victimize others in order to improve their own personal or professional well-being. Often bullies perfectly understand how to keep the target stressed without being spotted. For instance, rather than one evident attack, bullies might engage in a high frequency and diversity of seemingly subtle actions. These are more difficult to spot from the outside and harm the target through continuously reviving distress from previous experiences. Bullies may be well aware of how to present themselves as caring, cooperative, or even naive when needed, and to display the target as a disruptive individual instead. Sometimes bullies suffer from personality disorders, such as narcissism, and thus (might) enjoy their skilled psychological manipulations.

The target. Targets themselves often feel confused by what they experience. They might have difficulties acknowledging the situation, and first undergo a phase of denial before realizing they are a target of workplace aggression. They may be deliberately isolated by the bully, feel ashamed and guilty, and do not know who to trust. This makes it challenging for them to speak to coworkers, friends, and family, and to seek professional help. The aggressions accumulate over time, and even seemingly small incidents can do tremendous harm, through reviving previous experiences. To outsiders (bystanders), this might sometimes give the impression that the target reacts unproportional, when a particular situation is taken out of its larger context. Unfortunately, some targets become actual victims, and sadly self-harm and even conduct suicide, or become aggressive towards others. Even without such tragedy, they might not be able to re-integrate themselves into the workforce for long, with severe and lasting consequences for physical and mental health, social relationships, and financial stability.

The bystanders.
 Bystanders might be viewed as “spectators” to the situation, in “stand by”. The aggressor, however, feels significantly less powerful, if bystanders do not tolerate the bullying. Thus, “active bystanders” are a crucial component to address in the goal to stop workplace aggression. Yet, some bystanders avoid supporting the target. Some people might in fact be forced to or wilfully take sides with the bully and form a mob, from which the term “mobbing” derives. Others might remain “passive bystanders”. This category of bystanders might be scared to become a target themselves, feel unprepared to help, and thus ignore the situation. Most of the bystanders, however, might simply be unaware of the underlying dynamics, as academic bullies are highly skilled in hiding the nature of their true intentions. Sometimes, the aggressor is perceived as a trustworthy role model, in particular when supported by management or in a position of power themselves. The aggressor’s behaviour towards the target then sets the scene for everyone else, and the target is turned into a common enemy and viewed as the (initial) cause of trouble. Only those trained to recognize abusive situations will be able to see through the smoke and can become active bystanders, who support the target, or even “upstanders”, who advocate for change in their work environment and/or the scientific community. 

The management. Problematic character traits and behaviour of singular people do not create an extended workplace bullying or even workplace mobbing situation – workplace aggression thrives when management is negligent or promotes a toxic culture in the first place. Bullies may hide their actions in the grey zone, which obscures the situation leading to a lack of awareness and misunderstanding by management. At the same time, independent support systems for the target to help them analyse and advocate their case are difficult to access and afford. Aside, truly independent and neutral evaluation bodies are often missing and guidelines are only available on paper, without the implementation of proper protocols and training on how to follow them. This combination of factors might lead from workplace bullying to a workplace mobbing situation, when management refrains from supporting the target appropriately in an attempt to protect their own interests, and (indirectly) takes sides with the more powerful bully. If upright integrity and expertise are missing, management’s involvement may thus cause additional harm to the target instead of protecting the employee's health and safety (although the latter is in fact employers’ legal responsibility in many countries of the world)...


June 26, 2023

University of Groningen faces growing calls to reinstate sacked gender-equality researcher...


A tenured professor who was sacked after speaking out against what she saw as her university’s failure to implement its own equality policy is planning to appeal against her dismissal.

In March, a court ruled that the University of Groningen in the Netherlands could sack Susanne Täuber, a social-psychology and employment policy researcher after it found that there was a “permanently disturbed employment relationship” between the two parties.

The ruling on 8 March, International Women’s Day, sparked a demonstration at the university and an outcry among academics around the world, with more than 3,600 signing an open letter calling for Täuber to be reinstated, saying that she was being “punished for exerting her academic freedom”.

“Firing a scholar who published work that is critical of powerful institutions, including the university itself, sets a disturbing precedent for us all,” they wrote.

On 23 March, University of Groningen students staged a sit-in protesting against Täuber’s firing, and highlighting the lack of “social safety” at the university.

Täuber told Nature that she would appeal against her dismissal, which is due to take effect on 1 May.

“I have until June to say that I am not OK with my sacking,” she says. “But then I will have to figure out who will pay for the appeal as I will be unemployed.”

Täuber, who is German, has worked at Groningen since 2009. In 2013, she was awarded a five-year Rosalind Franklin fellowship, a university scheme aimed at female academics, mostly those who are non-Dutch.

In 2018, she made an official complaint that she had been passed over for promotion, arguing that she had as many published papers and research grants as colleagues who had been promoted above her...

She says that hers is not an isolated case: a survey she undertook at the university found that of 26 employees who had made official complaints of harassment, 16 had reported being further bullied.

Natalie Scholz, a historian at the University of Amsterdam, said the reason Täuber’s dismissal has sparked such anger is that it has made many academics fear similar treatment if they criticize their own institutions. The case has even sparked its own social media hashtag: #AmINext.

Susanne had a tenured position. If a university fires somebody who is well known in that specific field, then it looks like no one is safe … Nobody can expect to be able to speak out,” she said.

“This case shows you cannot rely on university management to help you. We need a body that is completely independent of universities, where you can go to report complaints,” she added.

...Täuber is a member of the Academic Parity Movement, a global campaign to end bullying and discrimination in academia. Morteza Mahmoudi, a precision-health specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the co-founder and director of the movement, says:

“Bullying slows down the evolution of science. Many smart people leave academia and public money gets wasted. And the sad thing is that the outcomes of cases like Susanne’s send a very clear signal to other perpetrators that they will be protected, and a negative signal to targets that they should use the code of silence.”


June 07, 2023

Update to The Envy of Excellence, two decades later, 2020

...The closest I have come to listing causes of mobbing was in a 2006 article in Academic Matters, where I identified ten factors that increase the likelihood of a professor being mobbed. Three were characteristics of the workplace:

1. A discipline with ambiguous standards and objectives, especially those (like music or literature) most affected by postmodern scholarship;
2. A supervisor – president, dean, department chair – in whom, as Nietzsche put it, “the impulse to punish is powerful”; and
3. An actual or contrived financial crunch in the academic unit (according to an African proverb, when the watering hole gets smaller, the animals get meaner).

The remaining seven factors on my list of vulnerabilities were characteristics of the target: 

4. Foreign birth and upbringing, especially as signaled by a foreign accent;
5. Being different from most colleagues in an elemental way (by sex, for instance, sexual orientation, skin color, ethnicity, class origin, or credentials);
6. Having opposed the candidate who ends up winning appointment as one’s dean or chair (thereby looking stupid, wicked, or crazy in the latter’s eyes);
7. Being a ratebuster, achieving so much success in teaching or research that colleagues’ envy is aroused; 8. Publicly dissenting from politically correct ideas (meaning those held sacred by campus elites);
9. Defending a pariah in campus politics or the larger cultural arena;
10. Blowing the whistle on, or even having knowledge of, serious wrongdoing by locally powerful workmates.

“The upshot of available research,” I concluded, “is that no professor needs to worry much about being mobbed, even in a generally vulnerable condition, so long as he or she does not rock the local academic boat. The secret is to show deference to colleagues and administrators, to be the kind of scholar they want to keep around as a way of making themselves look good.

Jung said that ‘a man’s hatred is always concentrated on that which makes him conscious of his bad qualities.’”