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I supervise an employee who insists on being called Dr. in emails and on social media, but is ABD (all but dissertation) from about a decade ago. How have people handled such situations?

I was promoted from within my government organization into a supervisor role of a separate directorate in December 2020. Recently, one of my employees has increased use of the title "Dr." in email correspondence. Looking over archived emails, the person had a signature block of "XXX XXX, PhD(ABD)" since at least 2018 when I worked in different directorate and was not a supervisor. They seem to have taken that off their email signature block when I became their boss and started using PhD in my signature (defended dissertation and earned my PhD in May 2020), but they keep sneaking in the title "Dr. XXX" in their emails.

Now I'm not one to ever demand to be called Dr., especially since this is not a medical or academic office. However, today I received an email from our HR department addressed to "Dr. XXX and Mr. Supervisor-Me" and it set me off. Previously I chalked it up to arrogance and considered it unimportant. But today's email from HR using their "Dr." and my "Mr." seemingly set them as senior to me, the supervisor (we work in DoD, it's very hierarchical). I thought this might be now crossing the line between just arrogance into affecting other people's perceptions or potentially influencing personnel actions and such.

Employee XXX is currently out of the office for an extended period on an unrelated matter, so my ability to directly confront them is limited to email. My only plan so far was to ask via email "Hey XXX, I noticed you are using 'Dr.' Did you complete your dissertation? Can I add your diploma/degree to our system?" I wasn't planning on making a formal complaint to HR as I can't document any consequences, but it is an option. Has anyone dealt with such an issue before, and if so, what are your recommendations?

Note: As I was not the original hiring authority, I have no idea whether the ABD was misrepresented as a degree during the hiring process or if it even entered into the original hiring decision. It is not a requirement for continued employment either. In our internal HR system, they only list a master's degree. That's why I haven't treated it as fraud and only chalked it up to arrogance.

However, I do note that "PhD" (no mention of ABD) and "Dr. XXX" are all over the person's LinkedIn profile. As that's not an official resume, that may be a gray area since I suspect it wouldn't be obvious fraud unless and until they actively submitted a resume or claimed the title on official hiring or HR documents. This is a weird one as a personal social media page is outside my purview as supervisor, but it is ongoing misrepresentation to say the least.

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    Since the site has an international audience, is DoD = U.S. Department of Defense?
    – Anyon
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 15:34
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    What is your goal? I'm not sure this belongs on Academia.SE because although it involves an academic degree it seems like it's about dealing with academic credentials outside of academia.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 15:44
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    I think this question is a better fit for the workplace stack exchange and you would get more accurate advice there on how to handle the situation. For what it’s worth, from my perspective as an academic your employee is committing fraud and it is totally appropriate for you to take much more serious action than you seem to be contemplating, including in connection with the social media stuff that’s ostensibly outside your purview. Claiming a nonexistent degree is very serious professional misconduct and invites very harsh consequences.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 16:26
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    I’d also suggest posting a version of this question on law.se. Your employee’s conduct may be a crime under federal law due to his lies being made in the context of work for the federal government, see here and here.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 17:15
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    Maybe I missed something but: how does the OP know that their supervisee does not have a PhD? That they didn't have one at some point in the past certainly seems inconclusive absent further information. I would advise checking up on this with the institution before pursuing any kind of formal corrective action. Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 19:09

2 Answers 2

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As a supervisor, this is an inter-personal conflict for you. If you want to stop this, you need to use the tools at your disposal to stop them. Here are the steps I would take (each one has an off-ramp and solves the problem for you.):

  1. Talk your supervisor to see if they care. They might tell you this is not worth the fight and this is an off ramp for you.
  2. Verbally and informally, ask your subordinate to stop using a title they do not have. If they listen, this is your off-ramp. Also, listen to what they tell you. Perhaps they honestly think they can be called "Doctor". Be firm, but diplomatic.
  3. If step 2 does not work, follow your HR procedure (and work with HR) to formally request they stop using a title they did not earn. HR might tell you they do not support you. This would be your off ramp.
  4. Work with HR to take appropriate steps for insubordination (i.e., your subordinate does not follow directions). This would ultimately be termination if they refuse to follow your order and stop mis-using a title they did not earn.

You need to decide if this the proverbial hill worth dying on and spending your political capital on at work. But, that's a different question.

Edit, based upon a comment: I would also send a polite email to the HR person clarifying your title and ask that they be consistent in using title.

Edit 2, based upon multiple comments: The OP's original question implies the person did not complete their PhD. Step 0 could be verifying this assumption through a polite email, such as I see you're using "Dr." congrats on finishing your PhD! When did you finish?

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    Besides these possible paths, it seems worthwhile to write a polite email to the HR person clarifying that OP's title is Dr., not Mr. Although OP isn't usually the type to demand being called Dr. they probably should take this step just to avoid potentially being undermined.
    – Anyon
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 16:19
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    What if the OP's assessment of the situation is wrong, and the subordinate is using the Dr. legitimately? Shouldn't OP verify this at the earliest point possible (or at least before step 2)?
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 17:31
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    It would appear that step zero is the OP's plan 'to ask via email "Hey XXX, I noticed you are using 'Dr.' Did you complete your dissertation? Can I add your diploma/degree to our system?"' If the answer comes back "Yes, here's the diploma" then that's an off-ramp straight away. "Yes" but without proof might warrant further investigation, probably using steps 1-4. Step 2 should produce the diploma, anyway. Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 14:21
  • @AndrewLeach thanks for the suggested wording Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 14:24
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I don't know the laws in your country, in mine it is definitely a crime to sustain you have a title or pertain to a profession you actually don't. If someone else claims you do it's your duty to clarify you don't as failing to do so might be sanctioned as well. It could be that this person honestly thinks they are a doctor, in my country you officially become a doctor when you obtain a bachelor degree for example.

Now, coming to the real issue which appears to be the fact that this guy appears to be arrogant and condescending towards you. This issue doesn't really seem to be regarding the official title, which as you said in the end really counts nothing. If he's working there and he's working well the title is quite irrelevant. The main problem here seems the relation among you too and the fact that you see this as an arrogant attack towards you (which might actually be true, but it may also not be so). If this is the problem, taking this to HR would probably escalate and worsen what's happening, leading you two to an open conflict. I don't know what kind of relation you have with this person, but since you're his boss I guess you work together in a way or another. If possible, I would suggest talking over it informally at first and if you actually believe this is an inappropriate conduct to inform them to cease claiming such title. Since you are the boss you have all the authority you need to do such request, even violently if you prefer; however being polite while interacting with other people generally leads to better and long lasting results.

Regarding the social media, that shouldn't really concern you unless you're ready to take this small incident to court.

Indeed as advised by someone else, letting HR know they should address you as Dr. would also solve the problem with the undermining.

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