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Background: I am a PhD student in my final year, and I'm writing my thesis now. My PI (not a professor) is in his late 40's and is generally kind in public. However, he is often moody, and I feel he stresses his students out by repeatedly making judgemental statements about them in the lab. We usually try to keep our cool and let him take his bad mood out on us. One colleague is a major target of his bad mood. This is probably because she is not always in a good health and asks for sick leave occasionally. My PI only allows us to take in total 4 weeks of leave every year (despite our university grants 8 weeks of leave in total). However, in my opinion see she works hard on her experiments day and night.

Situation: Last year, at a lab meeting, this colleague said that two of her cousins had COVID. My PI smiled and said 'Oh now I see the problem in your family gene.' There were 4 PhD students (including me) and a technician present. I was shocked and the others also seemed to be at least surprised. After the lab meeting, I asked the colleague if she was OK, and she smiled embarrassedly.

I would like to report this to the department. However, I wonder if this may be more of my colleague's choice. In my opinion, my PI has created a toxic environment for all of us, and I don't want to let this go. He makes micro-bullying or threatening statements occasionally, but this public humiliation seemed very serious and crossed a red line. We've been treated similarly but not as bad as this, so people seemed to accept my PI for who he is. However, recently my colleague is treated especially badly by my PI and she looks very frustrated. I feel bad for her and feel I need to do something.

Question: As this public humiliation happened about one year ago, how can I report this if I don't have recorded proof? Are there other choices to make our research environment healthier? What can I do? Thanks ahead for any help and suggestions.

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    You have five witnesses (six, if you count the PI). Apr 13 at 9:37
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    "My PI only allows us to take in total 4 weeks of leave every year (while our university grants 8 weeks of leave in total)." <- this already sounds like abuse to me. Apr 13 at 9:43
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    @Wetenschaap Usually only 2 weeks of 'leave' was granted by my PI. '4 weeks' usually include the Christmas and New Year holidays. Sorry for being unclear.
    – Metis533
    Apr 13 at 9:55
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    @Metis533 I think this should be reframed. Your PI is not 'granting' you anything. Your PI is stealing four of the eight weeks to which you are entitled. Apr 13 at 9:58
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    Have you spoken to any of your colleagues about your PI's behavior, in this situation and in general? Is there a general sense of solidarity in your team or has the toxicity spilled over to the relation between lab members at the same level?
    – henning
    Apr 13 at 11:32
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We do not know your local laws and culture, so beware that advice here may be inaccurate.

He makes micro-bullying or threatening statements occasionally, but this public humiliation seemed very serious and crossed a red line.

  • It is the pattern of behavior, not the specific example you gave, that is what you need to report.
  • A recording is not necessary to make a complaint.
  • Reports are usually made to a union, ombudsperson, office of civil rights, or diversity office. It depends on local customs. Check your university's policies, or possibly local laws.
  • Usually being rude, offensive, inappropriate, wrong, or stupid is not against the rules, but threats, bullying, and harassment are. Do not expect all bad behavior to result in punishment.
  • Do expect to get the same amount of leave that the university policy says you should get.

making judgemental statements

Keep in mind that judging people is part of the PIs job. But it should be done in an appropriate manner.

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  • Thank you for your answer and I will check the university's policies before reporting my PI. In terms of 'judging people', my PI seems to do this in a way of bullying. For example, when he is unsatisfied with our work, he says 'you don't read' 'you don't do experiments' 'you're wasting money and time'. I believe he and us all know how much we read and did, but he still finds words (no matter fair or not) to hurt us. I talked with another PI in our department who I have a good relationship with, he said it's very unprofessional to say these words and release his mood on us.
    – Metis533
    Apr 14 at 8:47
  • I need to check the definition of being rude, offensive, inappropriate and how threats, bullying, and harassment differ from them (if this is pointed out in my university/department's policy). If his behaviour doesn't result in punishment, at least he should be exposed and warned.
    – Metis533
    Apr 14 at 8:59
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This should definitely be reported and, as it seems nobody has done it yet, the ethical choice for you would be to do so.

Of course, it would have been much easier to gather evidence if the incident was reported at the time when it happens instead of a year later. However, as Joel pointed out in a comment, there are several witnesses and (by a simple binomial distribution), it is quite probable that at least some of them recall it, albeit in a patchy manner.

Your university should have a platform which enables you to submit such things anonymously so that you aren't scared of any backfire from your PI. It is only if the case is judged by the university's disciplinary panel that you (and your colleagues/technician) may be asked to testify publically. Since you seem to be in your fifth (final?) year, by the time this were to happen you should be (essentially) done with your thesis, which practically eliminates any chance of retaliation from your PI which you may be concerned about, at least directly relating to your graduation as a PhD.

If, however, you are applying for postdocs or other roles which require recommendation letters in their application, you should consider avoiding testifying in public against your PI until you have secured this next role, as the lack of a good LoR from your PI could be a hurdle into securing such a role.

Overall, I do think this should be reported (better late than never). Just think that if you just let it through, your PI would continue to abuse (verbally and otherwise, as already done to you) to future students. You don't want this to happen, do you?

Edit: Even if the PI is not sanctioned due to lack of evidence, knowing they have been reported will be a warning that he cannot go on with this kind of behaviour without any repercussions.

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    I don't know. I think the PI acts badly and something needs to be done about it. You are absolutely right in that respect. But I'm not sure if, at this point, the anonymous report is a good strategy, at least without any prior coordination. Given the small number of witnesses, there is no real anonymity, which means the PI might retaliate against whomever they suspect to have reported the incident or even just against the whole team. This depends of course on how difficult the PI really is and on their anticipation of the team standing firmly together or not.
    – henning
    Apr 13 at 11:29
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    That's why I said it may be wise to wait until having secured a role elsewhere
    – Run27.35
    Apr 13 at 11:35
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    Thank you for your answer. Today I talked to the colleague who was humiliated and she seems still remember the words my PI said. She told me 'this was fine and PI had said many things worse than this in person.' I think when I decide to report, she may agree to recall those bad words. I totally agree with 'be wise to wait until having secured a role elsewhere'. Your answer is helpful and I appreciate your support :)
    – Metis533
    Apr 13 at 13:20

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