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In a group, postdoc A believes postdoc B sabotaged her experiments. A shares her frustration with the PI (without proof) in a "half-jokingly, half-serious" sense. Since then, strange things appear to be happening in the lab -- specifically, B's experiments are behaving strangely. There has been a serious decline in trust between A and B.

How should the two postdocs proceed? Should they meet? Should the PI mediate between the two? Should the PI talk to them separately? Or together?

Ultimately, how should the PI address the problem, knowing that an investigation is in practice impossible and with the goal of reestablishing a minimum level of mutual trust?

EDIT: Pushed by the PI, the 3 actors openly talked about these issues, agreeing that sabotage is extremely serious, but without pointing the finger to anyone. That seems to have released quite a lot of pressure and helped to normalized the situation. Hopefully it will last.

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    This seems to be a strange use of "boycotting" - do you mean something like sabotage, or intentionally interfering with experiments? – BrianH Jan 23 '17 at 23:19
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    To be honest, if I am the PI in this situation, I would strongly consider letting either, or both, A and B go. Sabotaging a co-worker's experiments sounds like a cardinal sin to me, and retaliating in kind is not exactly a sign of personal strength either. – xLeitix Jan 24 '17 at 6:51
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    @xLeitix Well, before doing that, I'd hope you'd consider that A sabotaging B's experiments means that A is untrustworthy, so their accusations that B sabotaged now carry much less weight. And that it could be C sabotaging both sets of experiments. Or that there's no sabotage at all and both experiments were upset by conditions in the lab (aka the cleaner). – David Richerby Jan 24 '17 at 10:54
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    Proof? Evidence? Really, be careful to accuse anyone without any of that. And countersabotage is a total no-no. Whoever sabotages, there are no excuses, and frankly, that deserves not only a firing from the group, but the termination of the academic career. I am sure there are job directions which can make good use of such imaginative destructive energy, but academia it is not. – Captain Emacs Jan 24 '17 at 20:23
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    I've edited the question to try to clear it up. If I misinterpreted or changed anything more substantially than I intended to, please edit appropriately! – tonysdg Jan 25 '17 at 2:59
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That would be the time for the PI to call a meeting with A and B and have a conversation among adults. Topics to be discussed are: If A has a grief with B, she needs to be specific and put it on the table. If B suspects A, he needs to do the same. PI needs to say that this is unacceptable and that everyone needs to behave like adults or else.

If the PI does not call this meeting, then either A or B need to be the grown-up in the room and do so.

Ultimately, half-truths, allegations, conspiracy theories, "experiments not working well", etc, is a situation that is to nobody's benefit. The only way to address it is to talk about it.

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    The only problem is that "B sabotaged my experiment" is such a strong accusation that I have trouble imagining that this can be solved even with an outside mediator and a full-fledged investigation. Such an accusation demonstrates a lack of trust that probably can't be fixed. – Roland Jan 24 '17 at 8:13
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    Quite possibly. One of the outcomes of being confronted by your accuser may be that you are found guilty and thrown out of the research group. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 24 '17 at 13:44
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Because there is no evidence, then everything radical is out of the question. PI cannot fire them. Sabotaging is really bad thing, and something must be done. Revenge sabotage is almost as bad as the first sabotage.

A has first accused B, but there is no proof, it could be that she just used B to went up frustration over her own failures. "half-jokingly, half-serious" sense sometimes is sign of conspiracy thinking and that there might not be any too good of a reason to believe in sabotage, but she has made the connection within her mind, so the perspective becomes biased and she sees more signs and so on... I do not know if you can see from the results of the experiment something, like if A had small failures, but B clearly has odd stuff happening. A's "revenge" could be B sabotaging own experiments to make A look bad. I do not know about prior relation between A and B, which might be the cause to the mess.

Building up a trust is almost impossible, especially if it is clear that someone has done something. Odd stuff happening around B might count as that something. They are already adults, so I do not think that an adult telling "kids" not to be such fools would work. Nice chat about promising future research in a different department that matches better the research interest of A or B might be in a place.

  • So what's your suggestion on how to proceed? – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 30 '17 at 0:16
  • @WolfgangBangerth Having a chat with A or B or both about future possibilities elsewhere (implying that they had better take the change). Without evidence it is not feasible to destroy their careers. It can even backfire as a law suit. I do not know enough details or about the atmosphere to tell whether it is better to get rid off both or only one and which one. Rest of the department may have their own opinions. – user3644640 Jan 30 '17 at 7:55

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