Friday, November 19, 2010

Ivory walls

The police have their blue wall as we see evidenced countless times of late. But other workplaces do to. In one place I've worked, the union protected a bully who desperately needed to be fired.

Now I've observed it in colleagues the past few years that I've been poking around serious academia. I've seen  it with tenured full professors, extensive publication records, attract lots of dollars, yet who, at the end of the day, remain out and out bullies prancing around like princes in their little fiefs. I've watched them do it other professors for whom English is not a first language, and I've seen them do it to their gradstudents even after they finish: Shout, insult, curse, and diminish.

It's a problem for the student because they rely on them for reference letters, and complaining to anyone would jeopardise that. In a small department where the bullies hold the key positions of redress, this becomes especially difficult. Furthermore, I've seen it where they also form the core 'boys club' which consists only of established faculty like themselves, and aspiring long-term male faculty who look up to that sort of loud braying as a mark of high manhood or some such shit. It's disturbing to watch the high school locker room dynamic playout with over-educated middle-aged adults.
You really want your ducks in a row to go against them and be prepared to either not finish your degree or lose the vital relationship that gradstudents have with former supervisors that's often required for continuing in academia. Having no reference letter from your supervisor looks really bad when applying for academic jobs or higher schooling.

So they stay, able to bully each generation because turnover rates mean there is little institutional memory. Morever, someone who brings millions to dollars in grants has a value to the institution that might trump the concerns of a mere student. Which of course the students know too well.


MgS said...

The workplace bully is one of the biggest problems that organizations face - whether they are commercial or academic.

In both cases, it requires a strong HR group willing to tackle these thugs and force them to either adjust their behaviours or leave. (and know that nobody is impossible to replace - even those who are seen to 'bring in millions' in grants or business)

Alison said...

The best way to deal with bullies is to document every incident. They are very good at lying and being able to produce detailed notes regarding their behaviour can be invaluable. Keep all your communications with them.

I used to stand up to bullies (including a VP)at work by saying "I will be happy to continue this conversation when you are ready to treat me with respect". In extreme situations, I would walk out of the room when bullying started. They learned very quickly not to mess with me. It helped that I was good at my job and was liked by my colleagues.

Another way of dealing with the letter of reference problem is to record the bullying. Actually hearing the bully should be enough to give a prospective employer a valid reason for the lack of a letter.

Boris said...

A strong HR group WITH an active campaign to make people aware of the mechanisms of redress. Many gradstudents I don't think are aware of their options.

Still, pace Alison, it takes a certain moxy to stand up. It's amazing when you watch a bully allowed to get away with things in front of even those people (such as dept heads) with authority to stop them. Most people just avert their eyes and say nothing. Confrontation is unnerving to many.