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My female friend works in a US government research lab.

Recently, a very senior scientist in her lab (white male, extremely decorated, serious person) was rude to her, telling her that her presentation did not make sense, etc. He is 80 and perhaps lacks a little empathy, but my friend is certain that he was not being malicious. She got caught up in the moment and started crying. Many people overheard their conversation and later told her that he had a history of being rude to women, etc. She decided to not file any complaint.

Shockingly, today she found out that the senior scientist was let go from his job. Understandably, my friend and I both feel terrible. Mostly because he's made many serious contributions to science, and does not deserve this undignified exit from the lab he gave his life to.

Is there anything we can do? She wants to go talk to her supervisors to perhaps reinstate him, but how will something like that be received?

Edit: Technically, he was emeritus, and was probably not drawing a salary. But he used to still come every day to pursue his research. He was just told that he is no longer welcome on campus. He still has his part-time job at a nearby university.

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    How do you know he even wants to come back? Oct 14, 2023 at 12:31
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Oct 14, 2023 at 20:38

5 Answers 5

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There is a lot missing from your question, but:

If a staff member is suspended, fired, or laid off, that is between them, their managers, and HR. You and your friend should only be involved if the staff member requests it. Even then, approach with caution.

You have no way to verify why the staff member has left. The organization may have had a very good reason to get rid of the staff member that you do not know about, and it is very likely the organization will keep it a secret.

In this situation, I would simply send the person who left a message "I was sorry to see you go. I really appreciated your contribution to ... Is there anything I can do to help?" if that was true. If I didn't appreciate them and didn't want to help, I would do nothing.

"Contributions to science" do not have much relevance to firing decisions.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Oct 14, 2023 at 20:39
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    Maybe a cultural thing, but in my opinion a message like that, even if sincere, sounds horrible. It would probably be better to say nothing. (PS. I think that for many of those who've been using SE for a while, "sorry to see you go" is a very unfortunate turn of phrase.)
    – Flounderer
    Nov 3, 2023 at 5:57
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Employment decisions of this nature are best made by people who are aware of the history of the employee. For all your friend and you know, HR or the relevant chair had this emeritus on probation and this was a last straw. Maybe the separation even had nothing to do with the situation your friend went through.

Your friend should take solace in the fact that by opting not to file a complaint, she was not a direct contributor to the situation (though there are some solid arguments to be made that filing a complaint was the thing to do).

Perhaps the separation actually spared the faculty member future embarrassment, allowing an exit in which his wonderful academic history will be the thing people remember him for, instead of a potentially worse next incident.

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    Or more likely he just decided that this particular environment was unpleasant and that he'd rather be elsewhere
    – Valorum
    Oct 14, 2023 at 10:35
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I pretty much agree with the "leave it alone, there's probably more to it than you are aware of" camp here.

I would advise your friend to not "make it about herself".

And I mean it literally - if she inserts herself into this, it may generate the false impression that she "got him fired booted" and stories like that can spread like wildfire both in space and time - they can follow you around forever, especially if no other public reason has been given.

Insert the appropriate version of "nature abhors a vacuum" for gossip.

In fact, consider the possibility of a probation + a last straw scenario and her situation is being used as cover. Don't feed into the narrative by inserting herself visibly and publicly.

I would also recommend against send(ing) the person who left a message unless there is a preexisting strong personal friendship - the motive could be totally misinterpreted, and emails can be forwarded forever...

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I don't think there's any harm in having a conversation with her supervisor(s) about it and making her own position known, though I would not go to such a meeting with a specific goal or request like reinstatement. It's not really your friend's decision to make, and that's okay: it also means she's not responsible and doesn't need to feel responsibility for the situation, especially because she did not even file a formal complaint to start any disciplinary process.

As she has heard from others, there is a pattern of behavior beyond this incident that contributed. It may be that the specific incident involving her had hardly any impact, and this was going to happen anyways (sometimes things move slowly). It may also be that a lot of things are "not making sense" to him: only the luckiest of us even reach 80 years old let alone have sufficient mental acuity to contribute to research; many others are losing a lot of their faculties, and at some point that will become more of a drain on others than a benefit, even with all the expertise and wisdom they've accumulated. Ideally, we all choose the best time for us to "retire", but in some cases that doesn't come as easy.

Additionally, the level of concern to nudge an emeritus professor out of a somewhat symbolic role is likely less than that which would apply to someone's full job. It may be that he did not even have any official position to be dismissed or reinstated from.

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Given that others indicated that this individual has a history of being rude to women in particular, I agree with what some of the other answerers have said: it sounds more like that particular incident was the last straw rather than someone being fired specifically due to that particular incident. While it may be tempting to write this incident off as "not that bad" and not worthy of being fired over, the termination may make a lot more sense if it's the result of a long-standing pattern (especially if the individual has been warned about this in the past).

As far as feeling guilty over the incident, just remember that you're both innocent bystanders here. He was rude to her. Their superiors (not you or your friend) subsequently decided to terminate him. All your friend did is be the recipient of his rudeness, and you did absolutely nothing at all.

Keep in mind the effect that his behavior has on others, too. While your friend was the target of his rudeness, apparently numerous other people witnessed it too and were made uncomfortable by his behavior. No matter how talented an individual is, permitting blatantly toxic behavior can be demoralizing and end up spreading toxicity to other team members. I personally recall an incident where one person getting away with being lazy and incompetent resulted in two other team members becoming so demoralized that they quit. While it may sound harsh, it would've been far better for management to have just fired the underperforming individual before things got to that point.

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