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Dealing with bullies and jerks in science

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could do science surrounded only by kind and caring colleagues? Unfortunately, science involves humans, and let’s face it—some of them are jerks. Some are bullies. Some are harassers. Some are disgusting zombie creatures who exist only to suck the life out of our souls. These creatures spew their garbage into the world and don’t relent. Their purpose is to propagate filth in irrational service of their own survival.

Undoubtedly, you have encountered some of these monsters. I certainly have. I have been writing and speaking about how to identify, cope with, and flee from creeps for years. It is disturbing and exhausting that we still have to deal with what sometimes feels like a pandemic of pigs.

This is a systemic cultural issue that needs to be addressed at many levels, including through policies and actions from institutions, funding agencies, employers, human resources departments, and administrators. The burden of dealing with it should not fall entirely on the targets. But the reality is that, sometimes, it does. We can absolutely affect systemic change—but we may not be able to wait for that when we are facing toxic creatures who are endangering our careers and our mental health.

The good news is there are things you can do to emerge from this terrible scenario with your soul and career intact. How exactly do you traverse this barrage of bullies and beasts? You use your superpower: science. You hypothesize, take data, experiment, take more data, and draw conclusions. And you remember you have the training to say no. It takes strategy, fortitude, and knowing that you can survive, thrive, and bid them goodbye.

Step one: Identify the creature

One of the sharpest tools you have in your zombie-detecting toolbox is your own feelings. To determine whether a human-seeming organism is actually a subhuman horror, notice how the creature interacts with you or others—and how that makes you feel. Do they devalue what you have to say? Do they use offensive language? When you speak with them, do you feel energized, excited, and understood? Or do you feel disrespected, minimized, sad, frustrated, or angry? Pay close attention to how you react and trust your instincts.

One particularly vile aspect of a beast’s venom is its ability to make you question reality and wonder whether you misinterpreted the situation. Scumbags take pride in gaslighting their targets because it deflects responsibility from their atrocious behavior. One favor you can offer yourself is to look at the situation as a third party. If you saw that beast roar, snarl, or growl in the same manner they just did to you to another person, what would you think?

Step two: Understand the ecosystem

If this creature is your adviser or supervisor, this is a precarious situation. It is not easy or simple to leave a postdoc appointment or a graduate program. But you cannot negotiate with a zombie. They don’t think logically. Their entire motivation is to exploit you and destroy your spirit. Generally, there is only one ending with bosses who are harassers and bullies: You must leave.

This may seem extreme and potentially discouraging. I know not everyone has the privilege to vacate a job or training program. For those relatively close to graduating or moving on to their next career step anyway, leaving might mean carrying on for the remaining months in your program or position until the planned transition. No matter the timing, you can certainly do your best to continue to move forward and extract as much value out of the experience as possible, leaning on your friends and your personal board of directors.

And yet. What we are describing is an abusive relationship, one that will never allow you to truly be your best or healthiest. As you take data on your supervisor’s toxicity, consider your options—for example, migrating to another lab in the same department, or in a different unit across campus.

If the creature is a colleague, there may be some possibility to shift the relationship, depending on the boss and the ecosystem. Are the university and department nurturing and supportive? Does the supervisor cultivate a culture based on respect, with actions that align with their proclaimed values? If so, it may be possible to address your concerns.

I have gone to my boss in the past and said something like, “Can you help me? I am not sure I understand what is motivating this behavior. They did X and Y. This feels disrespectful; or, this is inappropriate. What can be done to fix this?” My supervisor addressed the issue with the person, and the colleague adjusted their behavior. If they hadn’t, they could have been formally reprimanded, fired, or reassigned.

Of course, this is not the only possible outcome. It could be that the person continues to be abusive and your organization fails to take further action. Or a boss might not be open to accepting your concerns or addressing the issue head-on in the first place. In these cases, you may find yourself resorting to the option above: leaving.

Step three: Shore up your defenses

Whether the varmint is a supervisor or a team member, no one has the right to treat you disrespectfully. Your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health are paramount.

A perpetrator will try to penetrate your defenses and smash your self-confidence. You can protect yourself by reminding yourself they do not get to dictate how you feel. Bullies can talk, but you don’t have to allow what they say to influence you. They do not get to suck you into a discussion that is emotionally damaging. Consider their filth spewing in the same way as neutrinos pass through Earth, silently but not affecting you. Say it to yourself: I will not let you breach my personal borders. And then say it to them: “Take your hand off my shoulder.” “Do not speak to me that way.” You have the authority to declare no. Jerks do not get to claim your space.

Step four: Record everything

It can be helpful to record your encounters, either in a paper notebook (nonspiral is best because it’s obvious if pages have been removed) or on your phone, whichever is safer. Note the date, time, location, witnesses, and what happened. This will be essential should you choose to escalate to a formal complaint. It can also aid your mental health to see the hard data and a chronology of the appalling behavior.

Step five: Make your move

A few years ago, I was sitting on an airplane and the loser next to me put his hand on my knee. Time froze as I realized I had the power in that situation—because it was happening to me. I could yell, I could shift my body, I could remain quiet and ask for the flight attendant to move me, or any number of other options. My job in that moment was to choose how to respond. With that realization, my confidence increased immensely. That’s not to say I wasn’t still nervous, but I felt empowered to address the situation. Whether you encounter jerks in the workplace or elsewhere, you have the right to manage it any way you want.

For any action you consider, take the time to make a cost-benefit list. There are risks with any path you take, ranging from losing time on projects, facing the added emotional burden of reporting, and, in extreme cases, being deprived of resources you need or even your role in the lab. The benefits could include the sanctity of your sanity and the opportunity to be successful in a place where you are treated like a human being. The more insight you have into how your chosen course will affect you, the better. You may want to share your list with someone you trust, such as an informal mentor.

If you choose to speak up directly to the perpetrator, some of my favorite phrases include: “That is not appropriate language.” “I would prefer you do not use that type of language.” “Do not speak to me that way.” “Do not touch me.” “How about we do this without using insulting language?”

Another key step is to activate your networks. I heard someone refer to networking as “career insurance”—and in the case of a bully, your networks can be indispensable. During periods of conflict, you can go to your network of supporters to ask their opinion and advice and to get their assistance with fleeing to a new organization. Pick five to 10 people in your network who have shown you they have your back and ask for a conversation. Do not put specifics in writing; instead, you might email them something like, “There is a serious situation I would like to get your opinion on. Can we meet confidentially to discuss?” When you talk to them, share the issue and supporting data, explain how this is impacting you, and ask for their thoughts and advice.

Migrating your life and career beyond the zombie’s influence doesn’t necessarily involve a grand goodbye. It doesn’t have to be a spectacle. You certainly do not have to share why you are leaving or left. Consider different options, discuss them confidentially with your trusted contacts, and recognize that your career does not have to be tethered to a miscreant.

You deserve a workplace and educational space that is safe. The price of doing science should not be your soul.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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