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When Bullies Strike in Academia

May 30, 2017

For the last ten years, the actor Jim Parsons has made a career for himself portraying the main, endearing character of The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Sheldon Cooper. In fact,  Parsons has won an Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, a TCA Award, and two Critic's Choice Awards, by delighting television viewers with his quirky portrayal of a socially-awkward academic. While many have come to love Sheldon Cooper for his idiosyncrasies, Dr. Cooper also represents a dark side of academia: workplace bullying. He is dismissive of others' ideas. He regularly humiliates and degrades' others and their work. He de-emphasizes' others' contributions to maximize his own credit and get ahead. We all have known a Sheldon Cooper at some time or another. 


In my years in academia, I have seen my share of bullying. Bullying can happen to anyone in the academic setting. Faculty may bully students. Faculty may bully each other. Administrators may be a bully or a victim. It is a widespread problem that is written about often. However, it continues to be a problem. In fact, Leah P. Hollis, author of Bullying in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education, reports that almost two-thirds of academics surveyed reported that they have been bullied by a co-worker. 


There are real consequences to bullying. For those who are bullied, they may feel isolated and alone. They may not talk about the poor treatment they are receiving and suffer in silence. Over time, the stress from bullying can lead to actual physical and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, digestive disorders, etc. Unfortunately, I have seen wonderful colleague leave their departments or academia altogether, as a result from the bullying they experienced.


There are many reasons for bullying in the workplace. Some are environmental and some are personality-related. One reason for it to be such a problem in academia is the level of competition academics constantly endure. Grants and published papers are highly valued. However, many good journals have high rejection rates and grant funding is more competitive than ever. At a time when it is harder to succeed, narcissism and/or insecurity may lead to personality problems, such as bullying. Some academics may work in departments where competition is encouraged and rewarded, which may ultimately lead to further facilitate a workplace culture of bullying. However, that explanation takes some of the blame off of the bully - I also subscribe to the idea that many bullies have most likely always been bullies. In the past when doctoral students have lamented about bullying and snarkiness in academia, I often tell them that no one gets a PhD for their personality.

Recognizing bullying in academia.

Sometimes bullying can easy to spot. Many academics suffer from  impostor syndrome, which may cause the victim to consider that the poor treatment they are receiving is warranted. It is not. 


The first step to coping with academic bullying is to acknowledge that it is happening to you. Here are some examples - many of which I have witnesses - of bullying that may take place at work:

  • Verbal abuse or non-verbal behaviors that cause others to feel threatened, intimidated, or humiliated. 

  • Gaslighting.

  • Insulting, demoralizing, or making falsehoods about a colleague.

  • Gossiping about a colleague.

  • Isolating individuals by excluding them from opportunities, meetings, and/or events. 

  • Making unrealistic demands of someone, especially with threats of denying tenure or renewing contracts for employment if the demands are not met. 

  • Sabotaging colleagues to reduce their productivity.

Have any of these happened to you? If so, one of the first steps you should take is to start documenting the bullying behaviors - what they are and when they happen. This will help your case appear more objective if you later report it, rather than appear as petty complaints. Keep a journal of the incidents (as researchers, this should be easy for us!). Once you can identify a problem, practice describing it verbally so that your complaint comes across clear and understandable when you report it. 


Remember that it's them, and not you, that is the problem. 


Learn to disengage and walk away.

Academia is fully of arguments and rebuttals.  In our profession, we view criticism, arguments, and counterarguments as a means of generating and validating new knowledge. So, some academics may fall back on their training when confronted by a bully to counter their arguments. Academic bullies need victims and one way that they maintain victims is by drawing them into arguments or fights. Don't let this happen to you. 


Sometimes it is best to just respond to a bully with a simple, "Oh" or "Okay" and leave it at that. There is no need to continue with an unproductive and uncomfortable discussion, so be the person who ends it. Take the following example:

Many years ago, I was giving a conference presentation on a topic that was outside of my area of expertise. I had been contracted to complete a survey for a local government agency and became more knowledgeable about the topic as the project progressed. So, I took the opportunity to disseminate my findings. During the presentation, I explained that I was not an expert in the area and ended my presentation with the commonly asked, "Does anyone have any questions?" One senior academic raised his hand. He asked me a simple question about the topic and I responded, "I'm not an expert in this area, but one potential explanation could be XYZ." He made his voice much louded and started a diatribe of arguments that started with, "Well! I completely disagree with that statement! [Followed by a 5-7 minute lecture to the audience]!" The whole performance was over the top and unnecessary (I later consulted with a colleague who was an expert on the topic to find that my response wasn't ridiculous at all). It was a clear attempt to "out smart" a junior person who already expressed humility of their state of knowledge.


When he finished his soliloquy, there was silence. My response? "So, it seems that you had a comment and not a question after all." We moved on. There were a few laughs from the audience, who also appeared irritated by this behavior. 


Reach out for help. 

If you are experiencing bullying, you may feel alone. In fact, sometimes members of a department will "take sides" and you may feel even more isolated as the bully seeks out greater support from others. 


However, there are resources out there for you. First, find a trusted mentor to talk with about the bullying. He or she may have great advice on how to handle the situation. If the bully is not your direct supervisor, you may want to approach him or her about the situation. Many universities also have units within their Human Resources departments to address issues of workplace bullying. If the bully is your supervisor, this is a more difficult situation. You may have to go to that person's supervisor or go directly to Human Resources. Unfortunately, in many cases where I have seen department chairs and deans be the bullies, the victim either suffers until the bully leaves the department or the victim ultimately leaves the department. 


There are also external sources of support. For instance, The Workplace Bullying Institute can provide you with information about workplace bullying, such as definitions of bullying, statistics about bullying (so you know you are not alone) and strategies for addressing bullying. There is also academic literature on bullying, which may help you put the bullying situation in perspective and help you devise a plan for addressing the situation, given existing evidence. 


If you see something, say something. 

Being a silent bystander also contributes to academic bullying. Maybe we see a colleague being bullied and avoid the situation to avoid becoming a victim. Maybe we are a supervisor who does not know how to address the situation and therefore turns a blind eye. By continuing to allow others to be bullied, we end up being a part of the problem. 


First consider that a bullying victim may be reluctant to reach out for help. One thing we can do in academic is recognize when our colleagues are exhibiting signs of emotional distress and reach out to them. Increased absenteeism, depressed mood, increased anxiety, can all be signs that there is a problem. We may also witness the bullying directly. Talking to the victim can let him or her know that there is support for them. We don't have to fix our colleagues' problems. However, we can acknowledge their situation and support them in doing something about it. We can also talk to our supervisors when we see that the workplace environment is becoming toxic, even when we are not the victim. 


Also consider that the bully may not be aware of the consequences of his or her behavior or that others' find their behavior unacceptable. When disengaging is not enough to address the problem, you may find it helpful to Confront the bully with a clear message about what the problematic behaviors are and how you would like to address the problem may be helpful. 


Academic administrators should be particularly involved with identifying bullying and addressing the needs of victims and behaviors of bullies. In addition to addressing bullying on a case-by-case basis, many universities have taken steps to prevent bullying. This may be through zero-tolerance bullying policies and extensive bullying action plans that take a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to bullying. Academic leadership should also assess whether there is a culture in their department that encourages bullying and find ways of changing the workplace environment. The alternative is maintaining a toxic environment where you have high turnover and lose great, productive faculty members. 


Prevent bullying during the hiring process. 

For academic candidates, remember that the interview process is a two-way street. Your potential employer is interviewing you, but you are also evaluating the potential employer to determine in the department is a good fit. During conference and campus interviews, play close attention to behaviors and interactions among faculty and administration to identify if bullying may be a problem in that department or university. No one will tell you that bullying is a problem, so you will have to be observant and assess the situation for yourself. 


Also, search committees can try to identify bullies during the interview process. How do candidates describe their relationship with other colleagues? How do they describe the role of mentoring and/or collaboration?  For a candidate that appears particularly assertive and/or competitive, is there any indication that these traits may be disruptive to the current organizational climate within the department?

I firmly believe that one of the best ways that we can reduce or eliminate bullying among junior and/or future academics is to model professional and collegial behavior for them. As we socialize them as independent researchers, we can provide them with the skills and knowledge to:

  • Work effectively in collaborative groups;

  • Succeed while sharing credit;

  • Valuing others' opinions and research;

  • Critiquing others' work professionally;

  • Treating academic staff members with the same level of respect as fellow faculty; and

  • Interact with colleagues appropriately, even those who have difficult personalities. 

Need advice on your academic career? Contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to move your career ahead!




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