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I work as a postdoc in a lab that is extremely mismanaged. The head of the lab micromanages all the staff, often claims successful work as his own, and rejects new ideas that are not from him. All the employees (both scientists and technicians) are miserable, and some of the team has become destructive, creating regular conflicts between team members that the lab head refuses to resolve.

The head of the lab is hiring a new postdoc, and I, as the only other postdoc, will meet with the candidate as part of the final interview step. I am already planning to leave, but haven't told anybody yet.

My question is:

  • If asked by the candidate, should I be honest about the working environment?
  • If not asked by the candidate, should I tell the candidate anyway?

I feel it is dishonest to let someone enter a destructive work environment without them being prepared.


UPDATE: I had no chance to speak to the candidate alone; the lab manager stuck by the candidate's side the whole time. Interestingly, the candidate later declined the offer, so perhaps they were astute enough to recognise the environment for what it was. Thanks to everyone for the help and advice!

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    Not a complete answer... so: comment ;) Back then, my prospective colleagues were taking me off-site for some drinks to "tell me the truth". They were perfectly honest, sticking to the facts (which I couldn't verify at that time)... and I chose not to believe them - it clearly had to be exaggeration! Possibly one of the dumbest things I ever did. But anyway, I'm very happy they at least tried to tell. – jvb Aug 12 '20 at 6:41
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    What would be your answer if you were the one who is being hired? – onurcanbkts Aug 12 '20 at 7:26
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    Might your meeting be within earshot of arguing employees? – Andrew Morton Aug 12 '20 at 8:09
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    Very similar, might even be duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/126720/… – Allure Aug 12 '20 at 12:24
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    I wish someone would tell me, even the guy that was planning their move out at the time didn't tell me and they even portrayed a positive image. If your plan to leave is open, tell him that and he will most likely ask. – dusa Aug 12 '20 at 14:34

12 Answers 12

85

The general rule in these situations is that being honest is okay (though consider that it can be risky if word of your honesty makes it back to the boss), but it's important to stick to facts and to your opinions about your own situation/experience.

"The team is destructive" is not something you should say, nor is "the lab is mismanaged". Those are your opinions about other people: stay away. What you can say is "I feel like I've had trouble getting credit for my work", "I wish I had more freedom to choose the direction of my work", etc. Even better is to use specific factual information (note: opinions are not facts), like "I've only been able to get one first-author publication in the past three years."

That said, take care of yourself, too. If you need a recommendation for a future job, it might be necessary to bite your tongue a bit. It's good to want to warn a candidate off gently, but consider that once you are gone someone is going to get that position, and it's even possible that the person who does will have a different experience than you did.

Also related: https://workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/137037/can-i-tell-a-prospective-employee-that-everyone-in-the-team-is-leaving (not an identical situation but I think the advice there still applies).

24

Yes, you should be honest, but you may be able to do it without jeopardizing yourself or assigning blame to individuals. You can also answer "no comment" to questions that you think would leave you vulnerable, and the candidate is likely to get the proper implication. In fact, stating that "Off the record, I'd prefer to be elsewhere" is the poison pill that the candidate will probably find sufficient.

If not asked, it is a little harder to make a recommendation. Don't leave yourself open to retaliation.

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    +1 I would not mention that you are planning to leave if you haven’t officially told anyone yet, as this could leave you vulnerable. – Kevin Miller Aug 11 '20 at 14:51
  • @KevinMiller: People can prefer to be elsewhere without planning to leave. In fact, one could argue that most employees in the world are in that state for most of their careers. – einpoklum Sep 9 '20 at 20:09
12

In this situation, I believe in being a tactful truth-teller but not a complainer.


You are entitled to describe your opinions and feelings (truth) but not those of others (gossip).

Example

Q: What's it like working here?

A: I have to admit the approach here feels a little too combative for me - I'm sure everyone has their own opinion.


If you are worried about your words getting back to the wrong people, remember that they can't quote what isn't explicitly said. I believe that a lot can be conveyed with a pause, a sigh, a wry expression or a non-committal answer.

Examples

Q: What's your supervisor like to work for?

A: Next question! (blunt non-committal - preferably not in the hearing of the head!)


Q: What's your supervisor like to work for?

A: Mmmm ... We have our moments. (non-committal but more gentle)


Q: What's your supervisor like to work for?

A: What sort supervisor are you hoping for? (evasive - letting the other person specify)

Q: Oh someone who is easy-going, relaxed and generous.

A: Smiles and says "Might not be your type then"


I could give hundreds of examples but what's really important is your mind-set. Vow not to lie. Be calm and act as though you are describing what happens in a movie, i.e depersonalise but answer truthfully (or possibly decline to answer).

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    Why underplay what seem to be very serious problems? – einpoklum Aug 13 '20 at 9:32
  • @einpoklum - I'll add an edit to my answer to address this when I have time - it is a useful question. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 13 '20 at 11:39
5

If asked by the candidate, should I be honest about the working environment?

Yes, be honest and describe details regarding different aspects of lab life.

However:

  • You should make it clear you're describing your own experience, and it's possible that others don't see it that way (if others really don't all see it the same way as you do).
  • Try avoiding phrases like "Professor X always does [Something]", in favor of "Professor X has done [Something] on several occasions when I was involved, and I understand this has happened in more cases."
  • Prefer describing events rather than than the supposed character of people or groups. Let the candidate draw their conclusions.

So honesty and an attempt at fairness.

If not asked by the candidate, should I tell the candidate anyway?

Yes, but not like in the above. Tell the candidate that, if they're interested in the experience of someone working at the lab, you're offering to have a chat with him/her and sharing yours. If they take you up on it, it's back to the previous scenario; if not, well, you offered.

I feel it is dishonest to let someone enter a destructive work environment without them being prepared.

It might not be dishonest, but it's immoral, in my opinion, and against your collective interest and public benefit.

But - if things are really that bad, then telling potential candidates is not enough. You (= all people working under him) should do something about it together. Possibly with union support, if you're unionized; possibly some kind of in-lab intervention; possibly sending a delegation to the dean or whoever is at the head of your department.

3

I have successfully left a similar work environment in Europe. When asked by a prospective postdoc candidate I choose to give direct, factual and honest answers. I would have appreciated a similar warning myself. If you feel that you can not safely say anything too negative without endangering yourself, then I think some of the other answers give excellent tips about how to give more circumspect answers. The level of honesty and directness you can use in your answers will depend on the local work culture and your personal circumstances. You could always find an excuse not to meet with the new postdoc (meeting, vacation, illness), in my opinion that is still better than misrepresenting the work environment. If you are worried about not getting a good reference because of a of conflict with your supervisor, maybe you could ask your supervisor's supervisor or someone else at the University to be your reference. Alternatively, the University might have a system in place where you can report or discuss your work environment confidentially.

2

Pretend you are going to have a discussion with this person ten years in the future. At that point, you will be free to discuss everything without repercussions.

What will you be comfortable telling the candidate at that point? Here are some possible examples:

"My own experience was bad, I understood others to feel the same way, and I was planning to leave. However, due to the employee-employer power imbalance I feared for my career if I was completely honest about my perception of the lab."

"I did my best to hint to you that I felt the lab was poorly run, but I didn't feel that it was my place to make that decision for you."

What you probably don't want to say is something like "I was scared and I didn't do what I would have liked someone else to do for me in that situation."

If you were really in a highly vulnerable situation, I would not hold you accountable for what you felt you had to conceal/not reveal. So if that is really the case, I think you can be comfortable protecting yourself. That's the point of the first couple of responses I typed.

In a situation like this, the ethics are not straightforward. Am I ethically obligated to sacrifice my safety for the benefit of someone else? One can come up with any number of situations where it would be very, very difficult to make a blanket declaration that X is the right decision.

My personal approach has been to accept some risk to myself in order to help other people. Sometimes that has had negative repercussions for me, but I felt good about the decision and pushed forward through those situations.

I agree with other suggestions that you might want to give hints in such a way that you do not expose yourself to legal action but which you can reasonably expect that the candidate will understand.

"Just as personal advice, I highly recommend that before you join any lab you do your best to read between the lines to get an idea of what the culture might be like there. People don't always feel comfortable saying exactly what they think in formal situations like interviews."

That is, technically, just true advice (in fact, very good advice). If you are challenged on it, you can play dumb. "What? I was just giving him personal advice, do you disagree with anything I said?"

Conversationally asking about other opportunities they might be considering and asking how they assessed the culture there (if they've already interviewed at any of them) might give you cover to comment about the fact that it can be hard to tell what the culture is in a lab because people don't feel completely free to talk about it if they think it's bad. Then you have cover by saying that you were talking about the other opportunity.

"I don't want to say anything bad about the culture here without the person being in the room to defend themself." True statement, they should be able to pick up on it.

To protect yourself it might be worth rehearsing a few lines like this and keeping the phrasing in such a way that you can accurately say "I never said anything negative about the lab here." Phrase all your comments in such a way that that is true so that you can confidently state this should the candidate (intentionally or not) blow your cover.

Here are some other true statements:

"It's not my responsibility if the candidate misinterpreted what I said [this is true--even if you actually intended them to interpret it badly and the candidate accurately interpreted everything, it's still true that it's not your responsibility if they misinterpreted it]."

Is your lab on Glassdoor? If so, put what you really think on Glassdoor (it's anonymous--but make sure that you don't say anything that makes it obvious that it's you. Note, however, that if the lab is small it may compromise your anonymity. Only take this option if you can be reasonably sure that it won't be traced back to you, which is probably only true if there are hundreds of people that could have written the review you wrote. [this caveat is a reaction to a comment on this question by Bob]). Then you can casually mention (in the context of that conversation about what other opportunities the candidate might be applying to, for example), that Glassdoor was originally mostly about corporate environments but now some academic labs are on there and that you always check Glassdoor before you accept an offer.

Another example of a true statements that is not directly about your lab:

"People are often under a lot of pressure to keep a lid on a bad situation. If there is bad leadership, it's even worse, because they probably can't trust that bad leader not to retaliate."

Your defense, if cover is blown by candidate: "We were just talking about the academic interview process in general. I was trying to build rapport [true statement!]. I didn't say anything negative about the situation here."

In the end, no one can tell you what the appropriate amount of risk to take is. You want to make sure that you feel good about how you handled yourself. You should look for a way that you feel is the right balance between courage and caution for your particular situation at this time. You are a person with particular vulnerabilities at this particular time. The candidate is a person with particular vulnerabilities at this particular time. You would have to be omniscient to know what the exactly correct balance is. You are not omniscient, so you are going to have to make a guess. Do your best, with the emphasis on how you think you will feel about your decisions in ten years, and recognizing that you are fallible and your approach will not be perfect, and that's ok.

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    The trick with the Glassdoor suggestion is that if the lab is small, the boss might be able to guess who did it, or could go one by one and apply pressure until someone tattles or the leaker spills the beans. So it could become pretty uncomfortable. In general I never treat anonymous review channels as anonymous unless I'm part of a very large pool of respondents from the same group so that I truly blend in. Otherwise it can be very easy to discover your identity. But otherwise a good answer overall. – bob Aug 13 '20 at 16:49
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I think this is the right thing to do, so I would recommend talking to him about it in a pleasant way and to suggest ways for improvement.

0

Morality and self respect have their price.

Ask yourself if you are O.K. with anything you say getting back to your authority chain as opposed to seeing yourself as dishonest.

Every person must answer this for themselves.

0

Use "faint praise"

For better or for worse this isn't a situation where you can openly speak your mind about the shortcomings of your employer without putting your career at risk. Appearing to be trying to run off potential hires would look doubly bad. There is however a way that you can honestly communicate your misgivings to the candidate while (if done right) minimizing the risk to your career. It's called giving "faint praise". From the Wikipedia article on the topic (note: the word "damning" used here is not a curse word, but means "condemning"):

Damning with faint praise is an English idiom, expressing oxymoronically that half-hearted or insincere praise may act as oblique criticism or condemnation.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Damning_with_faint_praise

Basically most candidates in this situation will realize that employees won't be able to say anything bad about the employer, and so will be listening carefully for red flags in the form of less than fully enthusiastic praise for the employer. So if you communicate your misgivings in the form of faint praise, they are likely to be understood. But critically, they are ambiguous, and so are difficult for your boss to weaponize against you in case your words do make it back to your boss.

0

The candidate has no way of knowing whether your "honesty" is in good faith

Look at it from the candidate's perspective: he/she has no idea whether he/she can trust the OP's "honest" negative commentary on the job. Given that the OP is on the interview panel, any attempt on the OP's part to discourage the candidate may be perceived as an attempt at sabotage to allow nepotism to take place.

If I attended a job interview and one of the panellists were trying to discourage me from accepting the job, I would assume the following:

  • interview panel hoped to appoint a pre-selected candidate;
  • however, the pre-selected candidate is manifestly weaker than me;
  • the panel is thus obliged to offer me the job, but hopes I refuse it so that they can get away with offering it to their pre-selected candidate instead;
  • therefore, the panel engages in a subterfuge designed to discourage me from accepting the job (this subterfuge takes the form of a junior panellist, the OP, claiming to be "honest" with me about a "toxic working environment").

Given this distinct possibility, it is deemed severely unprofessional for someone on an interview panel to actively discourage a candidate from accepting a job offer.

My advice to the OP

If you feel you must disclose negative information, do it in a way that does not come across as an attempt to discourage the candidate from accepting the job. Express the information in a neutral, fact-based way that makes no assumptions about how the candidate is supposed to react (e.g.: instead of saying the PI "micromanages" subordinates, the OP could say that the PI "is heavily involved in directing the day-to-day work of subordinates" -- then the candidate can decide whether he/she feels that is a problem, and, if so, ask for clarification such as "does that mean that there is not much scope for working independently?" or "could you describe the PI's management style in a bit more detail?").

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"Should you have any more questions, feel free to ask." while handing him a business card with your private phone number on its back. Don't write the phone number down then. It happens to be already there.

If there are questions by him in the interview that would be a bad idea to answer honestly, be evasive, like "that is not a black and white thing" or "it depends on who you ask", "that's a bit of an expansive topic for discussing in a focused context like this".

Chances are that he'll take a hint even if you don't get to speak to him alone.

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    Be very careful with this. If you slate the head verbally it could get back to him. Worse, if you commit anything unpleasant to text, you are providing ammunition for disciplinary action against you - this is even worse with email which, if it comes from your educational account, can be read by the computing staff. – chasly - supports Monica Aug 12 '20 at 10:03
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I applaud your concern for honesty, and I understand. That said, I would strongly discourage you from being overly honest about the bad working environment.

First, this is your opinion on the environment; it may be unlikely, but it's possible others would find the situation better than you do, and you coloring the situation at the start wont help them or be appreciated.

But even if you do your best to stick to facts, as other responses have suggested, you stand basically nothing to gain, and in fact have a ton to loose. You don't know this person, and they have no reason to be loyal to you. What if you imply something negative to them and they promptly tell others what you said? What if they decline the position because of you and tell the lab director the honest reason why?

Unfortunately this extends to "no comment" answers intended to be obvious catcalls regarding the bad environment.

Personally, I would avoid lying outright, but also do my best to evade any sort of opinion question with excuses like "oh, I mostly keep to myself" or "I've managed one publication this year, so I was happy about that."

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    "it may be unlikely, but it's possible others would find the situation better than you do" That was my first thought, but if indeed all lab members are miserable (as stated by OP), there must be something going on that is not merely a subjective opinion. – lighthouse keeper Aug 11 '20 at 17:33
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    I think this answer is offensive to the asker. When people say they are being mistreated, don't just tell them out of hand that they are wrong. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 12 '20 at 5:02
  • @AnonymousPhysicist This question does not do that. – Jeff Aug 12 '20 at 12:59
  • I think people might be interpreting the wording as "your opinion... may be unlikely". – Sneftel Aug 12 '20 at 14:54
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    I find that whole paragraph inappropriate, no matter how I parse it. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 12 '20 at 23:46

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