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I know this is a topic that some people have strong opinions about, but a toxic culture is developing in my department whereby several postdocs have convinced themselves that they are being mistreated because of extremely small -- often imaginary -- confrontations.

For example, a postdoc encountered a senior staff member in a doorway. The staff member apparently gave her a "funny look", which confirmed the postdoc's view that this staff member is abusing their position of privilege. Anyone who points out that this is a total non sequitur is accused of allowing bullying to flourish.

This situation has been building steadily over the last few years and now five or six postdocs keep a running tally of "microaggressions" so microscopic that it is very difficult to see how they can exist. For example, one postdoc sits with their back to a door, and a professor came in to talk to another colleague, and didn't acknowledge them. This incident was talked about for weeks as evidence of the professor's "rudeness". In other cases, some people are labelled "creeps".

To be clear: I absolutely do not condone abuse. I know power dynamics are real, and that many minorities (of which I belong to several) experience daily microaggressions and othering. I have been on the receiving end of workplace bullying myself, and would never wish to silence real problems. I too am a postdoc, so have no additional power and gain nothing from allowing abuse to flourish.

What worries me is that none of these incidents are being raised with any of the staff members in question. Therefore, many junior researchers have accepted as fact that their professors are horrible and selfish people. I'm concerned about this mindset, because in at least three cases, these "selfish" professors have some form of autism (I know this as I'm a wellness officer). Perfectly ordinary behaviour is framed as malicious.

Personally I've found it very upsetting. Many of the people on the receiving end of this gossip are very kind, if not socially awkward, people. It scares me that so many people uncritically accept that everyone with a permanent job is some kind of bogeyman; of course, I cannot betray confidentiality by informing my colleagues that many of these incidents didn't occur and indeed it's kind of ableist to assume you can read minds all the time. Abuse and power struggles certainly can, and often do, occur... but if any of these complaints were substantial they should be raised with HR.

The sad truth is that I think my colleagues just get their power from trash talking others, and aren't actually interested in the truth. Dissenting voices get shunned (and accused of being privileged / not being woke). Anyone who isn't in 100% agreement gets immediately shut down. But, also, my colleagues are just upsetting themselves for no reason. They're scared of encountering these "terrifying" professors, most of who have done nothing worse than dressing slightly shabbily and being uncomfortable with eye contact.

Anyone have any advice on dealing with this kind of situation?

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    What exactly is the situation that needs to be addressed? Some people don't like other people?
    – user108403
    Mar 7, 2020 at 21:30
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    Well, some people are accusing people of things they haven't done, and some of those accusations could have serious impacts on people's lives and careers, quite possibly unfairly.
    – Faruna
    Mar 7, 2020 at 21:48
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    Ignoring it sounds like a plan..
    – Buffy
    Mar 7, 2020 at 21:52
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    Perhaps I was being evasive in my post. Basically some postdocs are accusing staff members of actively discriminating against them, and storing up lists of "incidents" because they want those professors removed from their jobs. One person has already quit academia, and at least three other senior staff members are looking for jobs elsewhere. I've tried to ignore it for a couple of years but it's very upsetting to see anyone being mistreated, especially when many of the people being gossiped about have disabilities. It creates a toxic environment.
    – Faruna
    Mar 7, 2020 at 22:02
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    Total war with professors isn't a plan for success.
    – Buffy
    Mar 7, 2020 at 22:29

3 Answers 3

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I don't know whether it would work in your situation, but I have often found that disagreeing in a questioning manner helps defuse more than disagreeing directly when dealing with this sort of 'build up' because explicitly disagreeing makes a person defensive and more rigid in their position. For example, instead of saying "Prof X wasn't being rude", you could try something like "yes, Prof X did seem unusually focussed this morning, must have had something on his/her mind".

But it sounds like nobody knows each other very well. Such problems tend to disappear when there is more interaction because people are more likely to attribute a bad interaction to 'must be having a bad day' rather than 'must be a bad person' when they know the person. Would it be possible to encourage more interaction within your department? For example, you could suggest a work-in-progress monthly session where PhD students and postdocs once a year or so talk about their work. If you have 4 people from different groups presenting, then more senior people will turn up as one of 'their' students/researchers will be presenting.

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Ah. Yes. I am acquainted with things similar to this...

Yes, being "on the spectrum", is a sort of disability, manifestly. That is, one has trouble understanding the subtexts. And, specifically, one would not understand how other lower-status/lower-privilege people would receive one's comments/assertions/proclamations.

I myself have come to think that people "on the spectrum" can/should be considered "disabled" (in a particular technical sense) since they do have problems dealing with the general population.

The obviously actionable problem is the incomprehension ...

Aaaaaaaaah. I do not have a good answer.

-p

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  • Interesting that you have (at this time) two downvotes and one upvote. I'm guessing this is due to your use of "disability" and "disabled", despite your additional qualifying words. Maybe it would have been better to say that the OP's situation could be a case of certain people (the postdocs) not being sufficiently aware of, or trained in certain diversity issues, despite the likely fact that said people would probably consider themselves very accepting, aware, and knowledgeable of diversity issues. Mar 8, 2020 at 6:59
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    Disability is a linguistic minefield. I myself have three different ones (ranging from physical / mobility issues to being neuro-atypical myself, albeit in a different way). Whilst it's true that the junior staff consider themselves to be very accepting of diversity, this isn't always reflected in their actions. E.g., the guy labelled a "creep" by a female postdoc is actually a closeted gay professor. She doesn't know he's gay, so thinks he's cracking on to her and makes sure everyone knows about it (whilst wearing a rainbow lanyard to show she's an LGBT+ 'ally'). Difficult situations.
    – Faruna
    Mar 8, 2020 at 9:22
  • In my institute, autism and other neurodiverse conditions ARE automatically treated as disabilities, in the sense that people are allowed extra time or a private room for exams and so on. It's just there's a huge disconnect between the assumption that all professors are "rich privileged cis straight white guys," and thus immediately some kind of dreadful arch-enemy, and the reality that they're mostly human beings living complex lives, and doing the best they can.
    – Faruna
    Mar 8, 2020 at 9:31
  • It's important to let people choose their own labels and not to do a psychologist's job of guessing at what mental diagnoses a person might have. That's why I down-voted.
    – user108403
    Mar 8, 2020 at 14:26
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    WRT the downvoting, there is a simpler reason: there is no answer here.
    – Eric
    Mar 8, 2020 at 15:52
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For dealing with this kind of issue, I recommend looking at the rules for bullying and harassment from both ends. It is settled law that rules on workplace bullying protect both junior employees from senior employees, but also protect senior employees from junior employees. Moreover, to sustain a complaint of workplace bullying and harassment, this requires some ongoing or serious acts; it is not established by trivial isolated incidents of the kind you are describing (i.e., so-called "microaggressions").

If your description is correct then a formal complaint of harassment for these "micro-agressions" would almost certainly not meet the requirements to be sustained. In view of that, the people making the complaints must be careful that their own characterisations of senior staff, and their own rumour-mongering, does not itself amount to bullying and harassment. In particular, referring to other staff members as "creeps", if done repeatedly and without any legitimate basis, could certainly amount to bullying.

In terms of advice, that is where it gets tricky. If someone is subject to name-calling and rumour-spreading they have the option to document this and put in their own complaint of bullying, even if they are a senior person and the bullying is coming from a junior colleague. Ultimately you will need to think about what level of confrontation with this issue is desirable, and whether the staff in your department would be more amenable to an informal discussion to reduce tensions, or a formal complaint process where bad behaviour is dealt with through formal channels.

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