82

Like the title says, I have a friend who is a post-doc and her professor is asking her and another post-doc to baby-sit for him. He does not pay them, he simply expects them to baby-sit for free because they work for him. It is not clear whether this happens during the day or in the evening, though by my understanding it makes little difference in academia. It is also not clear just how common it is for him to ask, but apparently it is at least semi-regular. To me this seems like an abuse of power and there should be rules against it. Is this kind of thing normal?

  • 34
    That's doesn't seem normal unless they're close friends. I would recommend that friend say no anytime this came up. – Compass Dec 12 '14 at 17:22
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    Occupation and gender don't really matter. I would only consider babysitting family friends for free, and normally the expectation is that they'll repay you down the road when you need a favor. – Compass Dec 12 '14 at 17:38
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    Utterly inappropriate, unless they are friends. (And given the power imbalance involved, I'd say it's still unprofessional even then.) Does the professor expect other students of his to wash his car? To trim his lawn? For free? Should I expect my manager to ask me to help his kids with their homework? I'd say the relevant question here is how can my friend extricate herself from this situation? There's a bit of a difference between declining the first such request and breaking a habit on the professor's side that appears to have been going unchallenged for a while. – Stephan Kolassa Dec 12 '14 at 18:11
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    @Compass [...] gender don't really matter it most likely does. I suspect said professor is not asking male postdocs to babysit his kids. – Cape Code Dec 12 '14 at 18:30
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    Is this really a question? Is the answer not common sense? I feel like I've started seeing way too many rant-questions on this site lately. – Mehrdad Dec 12 '14 at 21:25
115

Your friend's advisor has made a very unethical request because, as a supervisor, it makes it harder for the postdocs to feel like they can say no. And they should feel free to say no, since the request is not normally part of any university employment contract I've seen.

Now, if the request were at the workplace, incidental and of brief duration (something like "Could you watch her while I take this call from the doctor's office?", for instance), then it wouldn't be so problematic (although still less than ideal). But anything more than that—anything that involved a regular arrangement, or was of extended duration—should be handled as a separate business transaction, so as to avoid exactly the coercion problem that you've raised.

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    Further, with a request made at a workplace (by, for example, the company owner in a small company) it's usually clear that the time spent babysitting is paid, via one's salary. (Even then, it's still suspect if this task wasn't specified as part of the job duties.) The OP has stated the professor does not pay for the friend's babysitting services. Quite a sense of entitlement on the part of the professor. – Scraping Infinity Dec 12 '14 at 20:12
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    "And they should feel free to say no". I agree that it's totally unethical to ask, but adhering to this advice may be complicated. – Sparhawk Dec 13 '14 at 0:08
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    @Sparhawk: I wasn't clear enough overall. I agree that the postdocs are put in a position where they feel they may have to say yes. That's what makes the situation so unethical. – aeismail Dec 13 '14 at 4:57
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    +1 for including practical emergencies at the workplace which will happen once in a while and which are the one situation where I can think of this request as neither weird nor unethical. – cbeleites Dec 13 '14 at 19:51
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    @Mark: there's a couple of ways that might become irrelevant. (a) the clause might not be upheld to mean literally anything regardless of JD; (b) even if the clause is upheld it doesn't follow that the prof, who is not the postdocs' employer just their manager, can use their time for personal gain. The organisation that employs them both might have something to say about that. – Steve Jessop Dec 16 '14 at 10:41
74

It's completely inappropriate.

  • If a postdoc is an employee, there most certainly is a contract with a job description that, for sure, does not include babysitting.
  • If a postdoc is funded with a personal grant (sometimes called 'soft money'), the grant proposal describes the work for which the money is to be used, and that, for sure, does not include babysitting.

Even though postdocs are often in an administrative gray area, expecting them to do non-research work for the convenience of their professor is wrong, regardless of the type of employment they have.

55

I have a friend who is a post-doc and her professor is asking her and another post-doc to baby-sit for him. He does not pay them, he simply expects them to baby-sit for free because they work for him.

Oh hell no.

This is neither normal nor remotely appropriate. Postdocs are first and foremost professional colleagues. Just asking postdocs to babysit is insulting, even if the PI offered to pay them.

24

"professor asks post-doc to baby-sit" can mean a huge range of things, from totally inappropriate (as outlined by other answers, no need to reiterate that) to totally appropriate. I find it very difficult to judge the situation from scarce second-hand information.

I'll try to delineate in which situations I consider it appropriate.


Professor asks post-doc to baby-sit can range from baby-sit as in go to their home and look after the kid (inappropriate unless under very, very special circumstances - no question there) or as in "emergencies" happen so that the kid has to be at the workplace, and then the postdoc is asked to look after the kid while the parent is e.g. in a meeting or has to talk to someone in a lab where the kid should not go for safety reasons.

Let me give examples of situations where I think it appropriate:

  • When I was a kid, it would happen that I had to be at my parents' workplace. I think I spent a fair amount of my first months sleeping in my mother's office. I'm sure she asked someone to look (or rather listen) after me when she had to do something outside the office (parental leave was not yet invented). Later on, it has happened that neither babysitter nor grandma were available and both parents had to be at work/meetings at the same time (including late afternoon/evening). Even later, school closing early lead to a few occasions when I was told to come to the work place.

  • I seem to remember that the kid of one of our elementary school teachers joining the class because the kindergarden was closed for whatever reason.

  • I have a colleague with a 6-months-old kid (working part time). But she is a group leader so she has to attend meetings. Usually the dad (also working at our institute) takes the kid, or graddad comes. However, it happens that someone is needed to look after the kid for a while.

All these situations have in common that unless you seriously ask that one parent should quit their job as soon as there is a kid, these are "emergencies" that will just happen, and they need to be dealt with in a practical fashion. A solution is needed and that's IMHO all - no need to make a fuss.

Depending on the actual circumstances like meetings are often sheduled at short notice, school closing early whenever holidays start, no relations/close enough friends in the city to guard against babysitter being sick (the professor may have moved with their family to a distant city in order to become professor) this may happen "semi-regularly".

There are obviously also here situations thinkable that are inappropriate (professor is saving the hassle and money of getting a baby-sitter). I think the line is between the professor openly and mainly trying to benefit and the professor being awkward because they are in a situation where they need to rely on help from the postdoc. ("It is not what you say, it is the way you say it.")


Offering payment would be really weird. A more normal way in my experience to "pay" for unusual favors in general would be to bring, say, a cake. However, in the "nice" scenario the parents are probably under so much stress (e.g. by the baby-sitter they really rely on being sick) that they are at the limit of barely managing to catch up with absolute necessities (and may not even think of buying cake even if they'd usually do something the like).


I'd also like to add that there is a huge difference between baby-sitting as in the postdoc's time being completey taken up playing with the kid and baby-sitting as in having a sleeping baby in the office, or as in making sure that a kindergarden/elementary school kid is drawing mainly on the supplied paper while going on with office-type work. Or with having the kid running alongside while the postdoc does all the burocratic errands that anyways need to be done.

There's also a huge range in what the asking of the professor actually means: it may be as harmless as the postdocs offered to look after the kid and the professor taking this offer by asking one of the postdocs to babysit.


Last but not least, I think a postdoc should be grown up enough to know when to point out limits to their supervisor.

14

Time to get in touch with the campus ombudsman. They can help your friend protect their status by acting as an advocate. It really helps that there are two students being so negatively affected as it will improve their case and protect them.

5

On a not-quite-serious sidenote, the hippocratic oath contains this passage:

I will reverence my master who taught me the art. Equally with my parents, will I allow him things necessary for his support, and will consider his sons as brothers. I will teach them my art without reward or agreement; and I will impart all my acquirement, instructions, and whatever I know, to my master's children, as to my own.

This could cover babysitting (as long as the children are male). But mostly it shows how what is considered appropriate changes over the centuries.

  • 1
    Thank you, and welcome to Academia.SE. You may find, however, that the community on this tends often tends to look for more serious answers to questions. – jakebeal Dec 15 '14 at 14:19
4

The professor is acting incredibly inappropriate by asking that. Really, what makes it that way is because of the reasoning, which sounds much like that of the manager of a retail store asking an employee to stay late off the clock and help do inventory - "because you work for me".

If the professor is just 'offering', or perhaps they have a close relationship and the professor is simply being sarcastic, that's another story, but I'll not assume.

Simple solution - two one-syllable words, "no thanks".

If this is a recurring situation, and especially if the 'because you work for me' reasoning gets pulled out of the holster on more than this occasion - your friend may be dealing with an ethical situation, in which I'd recommend first of all for your friend to simply try to sit down with the professor and attempt to clear things up (such as reminding the professor of the nature of their relationship and the duties of her work under him - do they include babysitting?). If that doesn't work, there's always a board you can talk to (another user mentioned an ombudsman).

Of course, your friend could always just tell her professor she'd love to watch the kids - for a fee, of course.

4

The simple answer is "no, it is not acceptable if the relationship between the two are strictly work related".

For example, my advisor and our old postdoc were family friends, their wives were in same social circle etc. So they were doing favors for each other, professor to postdoc, postdoc to professor.

On the other hand, I and my advisor are strictly work related. He once asked me whether I can drive his daughter to a nearby school on Sunday morning for an event where she presents a high school poster; and he or his wife could not take her due to family emergency and being out of state. I did it, and made no big deal out of it. Yet he apologized me for inconvenience and offered me to pay for gas, food and all that I spent.

Another example, I live in a townhouse owned by a professor at the university. Whenever something is wrong with the house, let me give simple examples I've encountered here:

  1. Kitchen incinerator is broken.
  2. Lawn should be mowed.
  3. The outer door should be painted because homeowner's association said so.
  4. There is a wasp nest to be removed in the backyard.
  5. Showers upstairs drip water to the one downstairs.

These are a few problems we had, and the professor never called a professional to solve the problem. Whenever we email to the landlord/professor, he ccs me and my roommate, sends it to his students to go and fix. Most times the necessary tools to fix are also bought by the students. Funny thing is that those PhD students and one postdoc are our friends.

We asked them whether they get paid, they said no. And we were like why do you do that? Simply tell him you won't do. All answered that they would like to keep a good relationship because the professor implied that there may be consequences regarding their stipends, funding resources, and graduation status. This is clearly an integrity and ethics problem, and should be dealt with accordingly.

1

It could be normal because some people abuse other people because they think they are more superior than them. However, it is not fair. At least he could have properly asked in where he shows that a 'no' could also be an answer. Moreover, if this is to be more than once, then he is to offer some kind of compensation.

protected by eykanal Dec 16 '14 at 15:19

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