An ideal working environment involves a culture that expects and demonstrates civility and courtesy to all members of a professional community, regardless of identity and status. A culture of mutual respect will be free of abuse, and from retaliation against those who speak out against it. However, from Hollywood to Antarctica1, and from federal agencies2,3 to prestigious academic institutions4–6, the pervasiveness of abuse and harassment in the workplace is only beginning to become clear – and clearly, this is a social and cultural issue of unchecked power imbalance that transcends professional disciplines.
However, harassing and abusive behavior in professional environments is far from limited to sexual misconduct: bullying and other forms of workplace harassment can also result in long-lasting professional and personal harm to the targets of abuse, and to their allies. Efforts to seek assistance often lead to retribution via further and/or increased attack from abusers, who are enabled by fearful and/or complicit witnesses7,8. The effort to identify allies and institutional/organizational resources is time-consuming and exhausting, with severe negative impacts on a target’s ability to focus on and succeed in their work (which the abuser will use as basis for further attack)8. Unfortunately, there are few laws that protect targets of bullying, and workplace harassment may be a legally actionable offense only for members of protected groups.
The purpose of this post is to increase awareness of the prevalence of bullying and harassment in the workplace, and to provide compiled resources on this topic. My goal is to help support individuals who experience (or witness) bullying and harassment in their efforts to obtain assistance, so that they are able to return their energy and attention more quickly to their work, and to their full participation in their professional communities. No part of this post should be interpreted as advice for any specific situations. Although this post does not provide an exhaustive list of resources, my hope is that the information outlined below helps equip professional communities to confront unacceptable behavior in the workplace more effectively.
- Terminology: call it what it is.
Bullying and harassment (regardless of whether or not you are a member of a legally protected group) are forms of abuse. Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is (a) threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; (b) interference with work (sabotage) that prevents work from getting done; or (c) verbal abuse8,9. Bullying is malicious behavior, intended to cause physical or psychological harm to the target by exploiting or creating a power disparity (real or perceived) in which the target feels vulnerable and unable to successfully defend him/herself10. Bullying is psychological violence against another person8. Bullies may use a variety of tactics11: although some bullies are verbally aggressive, others take a more passive-aggressive approach to destabilize their targets7, including gaslighting12 and weaving “webs of lies8” that result in damage to the target’s reputation and relationships, which further contribute to real or perceived isolation.
Harassment is unwelcome behavior that is “objectively severe and pervasive enough to create a work environment [or educational experience] that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive13.” Targets who are members of protected groups may have legal standing for confronting behaviors that create a work environment considered “intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people14.” Regarding systems of abuse rooted in misogyny in science, Dr. Sarah Myhre states that “Such systems are comprehensive, with physical and sexual violence at one side of the spectrum to mockery and derision at the other15.” However, the experience of bullying and harassment in the workplace is certainly not limited to women, and a workplace bully may be male or female8. All forms of abuse should be addressed as unacceptable, regardless of whether or not the target is a member of a legally protected group. Ultimately, any form of abuse is rooted in a fundamental disrespect for, and inability to empathize with, another person’s humanity.
- How bullying and harassment affect the target and work environment
Leaders set the tone for workplace dynamics; however, supervisors are the most common perpetrators of abuse (followed by peers)8! K.A. Amienne recently wrote that “Abuse thrives because co-workers enable it7.” Targets of workplace bullying are at risk for serious and long-lasting health problems, and should seek support from a mental health practitioner experienced with treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because bullying causes psychological trauma8. Bullying and harassment have a financial cost to the organization via decreased productivity, personnel turnover, and legal claims. Other costs are more difficult to quantify, such as loss of unit cohesion and morale, loss of employee respect, trust, and support for an abusive unit leader, and loss of trust in an administration that fails to hold perpetrators responsible. Coworkers also suffer negative consequences from witnessing discrimination or harassment of others. For example, negative impacts on the perception of workplace climate have been reported by both male and female employees, even for situations in which mistreatment has been directed only to women16.
- Resources for confronting bullying and harassment (this is a non-exhaustive list, and will likely differ among professions and/or institution/agency):
Note: Asterisks (*) indicate resources to pursue with caution, as described at the end of this section.
Recommended resources for information and institutional support
- The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)
- The WBI also sponsors the Workplace Bullying University: professional training for institutional representatives to help understand the origins of, and develop solutions to, workplace bullying
- Books by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie:
- For targets: The Bully at Work8
- For employers: The Bully-Free Workplace17
- APA Center for Organizational Excellence
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Council14
- The National Science Foundation’s portal for resources on reporting harassment
- Offices/Officers in your agency or institution:
- If you are at an academic institution, a university Ombudsperson can help you identify your institutional rights, and can serve as a neutral mediator. Keep in mind that a mediator may balance a power differential in a conversation, but will likely not have the authority to hold the abuser accountable for wrongful actions outside of those settings, nor to protect you against retribution.
- Grievance Officer: resource for taking formal action for policy violations, or for supporting informal resolution. Become familiar with the policies in your unit and agency/institution.
- Employee unions
- Human Resources*: for policies governing personal conduct. For example, your organization or university may specify bullying, sabotage, and other forms of hostile and intimidating behavior as prohibited behavior. Policy violations are grievable offenses.
- Your direct supervisor* (if bullying/harassment is from peers)
- Administrators* (if bullying/harassment is from your supervisor)
- Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Office of Institutional Equity, or similar*
- Title IX office* (for assistance with harassment, gender-based discrimination, and hostile workplace)
- Legal counsel can assist with evaluating your options (and their consequences to you), ranging from a “cease and desist” letter to requesting the abuser’s emails via the Freedom of Information Act (if a public employee), to legal action. Unfortunately, few states have active anti-bullying laws.
- Personal assistance for dealing with the consequences of prolonged severe stress caused by bullying and harassment, and the retribution you will experience when you seek assistance:
- Therapists specializing in treating trauma and PTSD
- Medical evaluation for tracking stress indicators and health impacts
- Connect with professional networks of individuals with shared backgrounds/life experiences. A few examples for underrepresented groups include:
- Earth Science Women’s Network
- American Association of University Women
- Association of Women in Science
- Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science
- National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals
- National Association of Black Geoscientists
- American Indian Science and Engineering Society
- …and more
- Find ways to engage with people outside your department (e.g., social scientists in gender or race studies who may be more familiar with the academic literature on power disparities, social injustice, etc.; these individuals may be able to help you articulate an academic argument against tolerating abuse in the workplace)
- Become involved with efforts that increase diversity within your profession or place of employment
- Personal practices and strategies past targets have recommended to help alleviate the distress caused by being bullied:
- Vigorous exercise
- Meditation, yoga, etc.
- Participation in community groups with shared values
- Strategic actions to empower yourself:
- Maintaining your professional productivity (and therefore, ability to retain your position or obtain a new placement). For example, resources available through the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity are designed to help maximize success in academic positions.
- Developing your own skills and experience to enable you to obtain a leadership position where you will have greater authority to contribute to institutional change, or to make a career change
* Resources that past targets have frequently identified as unhelpful, or that should be pursued with caution:
- Title IX office: some contacts advised not to go to Title IX until you have a lawyer to go with you.
- Human Resources (HR) office: HR “is management and protects management8” – their job is to protect the institution, so do not expect them to be your ally.
- Your direct supervisor (if bullying/harassment is from colleagues): remember that your bully colleague(s) likely communicate very different persona(s) to your supervisor than to you. Expect to be labeled as the trouble-maker.
- Administrators (if bullying/harassment is from your supervisor): remember that your supervisor likely communicates a very different persona to their superiors than to you. Expect retribution.
- General recommendations from these resources
- Do not delay or ignore potential problems: Address bullying by confronting, deflecting, documenting (everything: situations, dates, witnesses), and seeking help10.
- Expose the bully19: bullies are typically self-centered, controlling, cowardly, inconsiderate, and may even be psychologically disordered; they thrive on secrecy and power and likely have poor social skill8,10. Expect retribution!
- Name the costs of bullying to the organization/institution: lost productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and costs associated with legal claims of harassment and/or wrongful termination8,10.
- Abusers will not stop their harmful actions until they are held accountable by their superiors (or peers): employers set the stage for institutional culture. Administrators must adopt a zero-tolerance policy, and refuse to retain known abusers in positions of leadership. Press for institutional change.8,10
- If your institution refuses to address harmful behavior, decide whether it’s a place you really want to work. A target’s ability to recover and succeed is higher for those that get out earlier rather than later, and have taken actions to call attention to the unacceptable behavior8.
The appalling extent of bullying and harassment still being revealed in professional environments also provides unique opportunities to contribute to positive cultural and institutional change, but the change must occur at all levels: individual, team, professional societies, and institutions20. Co-workers can commit to working together to confront bullies, and to develop anti-bullying policies for their institution8. If you are a witness to bullying and harassment of another person, refuse to tolerate any form of disrespect and abuse of power or status: silence communicates approval6. Recent examples of community action that has advanced awareness of – and accountability for – abusive behavior in professional environments include the American Geophysical Union’s updated ethics policy (which includes harassment as a violation of professional ethics)21,22, the NSF’s commitment to harassment-free research workplaces (which would potentially prevent funding known harassers)23,24, and the University of Turku’s recent refusal to hire a researcher who had been suspended from a previous institution for harassing female students25.
The much-needed change in professional culture is long past due. If you have been a target of bullying and harassment, keep in mind that “your humanity makes you vulnerable; it is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength8.” Let us together contribute the much-needed strengths of a shared humanity to actively cultivate professional cultures that are healthy and safe for every person, and in which every member is treated with equity, civility, and respect.
Thanks to Dr. Christel Kern (Blog Editor) for inviting this blog post, and to members of the Earth Science Women’s Network for helping to identify many of the resources and recommendations listed.
- Wadman, M. Disturbing allegations of sexual harassment in Antarctica leveled at noted scientist. Science (2017). doi:10.1126/science.aaq1428
- Gilpin, L. The National Park Service has a big sexual harassment problem. The Atlantic (2016). Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/park-service-harassment/510680/. (Accessed: 4th February 2018)
- Baumgartner, E. U.S. Forest Service Chief Resigns Amid Sexual Harassment Accusations. The New York Times (2018). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/us/politics/tony-tooke-us-forest-service-chief-resigns.html. (Accessed: 8th March 2018)
- Witze, A. Astronomy roiled again by sexual-harassment allegations. Nature (2016). doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19153
- Witze, A. Nine researchers sue University of Rochester over sexual-harassment allegations. Nature 552, 155–156 (2017).
- Zepeda, L. The harassment tax. Science (80-. ). 359, 126 (2018).
- Amienne, K. A. Abusers and enablers in faculty culture. The Chronical of Higher Education (2017). Available at: https://www.chronicle.com/article/AbusersEnablers-in/241648. (Accessed: 3rd February 2018)
- Namie, G. & Namie, R. The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job. (Sourcebooks, 2009).
- WBI. The WBI definition of workplace bullying. Workplace Bullying Institute (2017). Available at: http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/. (Accessed: 3rd February 2018)
- PLS. Creating a bully-free workplace: Employee edition. Fred Pryor Career Track online course. Pryor Learning Solutions (2017).
- Namie, G. Top 25 workplace bullying tactics. Workplace Bullying Institute (2013). Available at: http://www.workplacebullying.org/top-25/. (Accessed: 4th February 2018)
- Hendriksen, E. How to recognize 5 tactics of gaslighting. Psychology Today (2018). Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-be-yourself/201801/how-recognize-5-tactics-gaslighting. (Accessed: 9th February 2018)
- USDL. What do I need to know about…Workplace Harassment. United States Department of Labor (2017). Available at: https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/crc/2011-workplace-harassment.htm. (Accessed: 3rd February 2018)
- EEOC. Harassment. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2018). Available at: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm. (Accessed: 4th February 2018)
- Myhre, S. A. When will science get its #MeToo moment? Newsweek (2018). Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/science-metoo-moment-788347. (Accessed: 22nd February 2018)
- Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Buchanan, N. T. & Miner, K. N. Derogation, discrimination, and (dis)satisfaction with jobs in science. Psychol. Women Q. 37, 179–191 (2013).
- Namie, G. & Namie, R. The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from Killing Your Organization. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011).
- EEOC. What you should know: What to do if you believe you have been harassed at work. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2018). Available at: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/harassed_at_work.cfm. (Accessed: 9th February 2018)
- WBI. The WBI 3-Step target action plan. Workplace Bullying Institute (2017). Available at: http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/solutions/wbi-action-plan/. (Accessed: 2nd September 2018)
- Bell, R. E. & Koenig, L. S. Harassment in science is real. Science (80-. ). 358, 1223 (2017).
- AGU. Ethics Policy. American Geophysical Union (2018). Available at: https://ethics.agu.org/. (Accessed: 4th March 2018)
- AGU. Harassment. American Geophysical Union (2018).
- Witze, A. US science agency will require universities to report sexual harassment. Nature 554, 287–288 (2018).
- Córdova, F. A. Important Notice No. 144: Harassment. National Science Foundation (2018). Available at: https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/issuances/in144.jsp. (Accessed: 9th February 2018)
- Ghorayshi, A. Astrophysicist Christian Ott was just fired from his new job in Finland after harassment scandal. Buzzfeed News (2018). Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/azeenghorayshi/christian-ott-fired-turku-harassment?utm_term=.hrVpA2lKV#.drmYOyA8w. (Accessed: 3rd February 2018)
Jessica Miesel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University, where her research focuses on understanding forest ecosystem response to fire and altered disturbance regimes.