The difficulty of difficult colleagues.

Geoff Marcy, a world-renown astronomer, has also been revealed to be a career serial harasser of women.  People are calling for his professional scalp.  Nicole at Skepchick has issued a manifesto that we all should be proactive – call out such behavior for what it is, regardless of whatever esteemed status the perpetrator has achieved.  Similarly, we should not tolerate bigots, racists, general sexists, homophobes, and list could on.  Professional achievement is not carte blanche for excusing inappropriate behavior.  Or is it?

What about our colleagues who are best described as a “piece of work”?  People who are perceptive or oblivious enough to avoid specifically targeting any particular defined group?  Instead, the targets of their abuse only share the characteristics of being human and in a position of relative powerlessness to them?

At UCLA, we all must go through sensitivity training, and it is expected that not only do we individually behave, but that we take action whenever we see or hear of sexual harassment or racism.  However, at one such training session I asked the presenter.  Is there any official recourse for a student if their professor repeatedly publically belittles and harangues them, as long there is no reference to their sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion?  The short answer is “No”.   If a professor is just a difficult person, it is on you to figure out a work-around.  Misogyny and racism are actionable.  General misanthrophy is just too damn bad.  Deal with it.

Back in my grad school days there was a word of mouth network among the women as to particular faculty that were never to be trusted in private or even social settings.  But far more extensive was the word of mouth network amongst all us as to which faculty were likely to ruin your career prospects if you joined their labs or had them on your thesis committee.  We also exchanged notes on which teachers seemed to give courses only as an excuse to torture students.  And I have continued to see this pattern throughout my career.  Sexual predators like Marcy exist, but self-promoting narcissists with no empathy or consideration for others are far more common.  They do their psychological damage with no fear of challenge or consequence.

Assholes exist, and in no way do I mean to imply that because they do institutions (and especially we who make up those institutions) should give up on policing and preventing sexual and racist harassment.  Just remember this, however.  Geoff Marcy faces at least some negative consequences for his actions.  I hope they are substantive.  But if instead he had spent several decades humiliating his students, deriding his colleagues, trying to ruin competitors’ careers, and/or terrifying his university support staff there would be no punishment or cost as long as he was inclusive about his victims.  Being a genius is “difficult” and it is we mere mortals that have to adjust.

I end this bleak observation with the obvious admonition that we really ought to treat each other nicely and in ways we want and expect to be treated.  Problem solved, right?

Question for all of you then.  How do you respond or handle those difficult people in your profession and life who are non-discriminatory in bestowing misery unto others?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

1 Comment

  1. October 13, 2015 at 5:52 pm —

    I’ve only had to deal with a small number of these people, and really all I could do is avoid them – even going so far as to choose my advisor’s lab specifically to avoid a particular post-doc. The lab this post-doc was in worked on Signal Transduction, which was especially hot at the time, so I wonder if competitive high-stress, high-payoff fields attract psychopaths, or create them.

    I suppose avoidance isn’t a very constructive way of dealing with these people; in the two cases I’ve seen of co-workers who weren’t quite at the psychopath level, I simply kept our interactions formal & distant in order to maintain my own sanity. In the one single case where a boss interviewed nice & then turned out to be psychotically abusive, I quit in less than four months – by just ceasing to come to work, which I knew was OK because I had heard what her ‘references’ were like & had no intention of using her as one.


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