Case 015 - University

We are two (female) scientists: a Research Associate and a Technician. We work in a lab in a well-known university in England. The head of the lab is a Lecturer (male). This is what has happened to us over recent years.

In Spring 1997, a new Post-Doc (somebody with a PhD) started work in the lab. The Research Assistant was senior to him because she had more experience. He seemed quiet and generally kept himself to himself to begin with. We offered to include him in social activities that were organised (punting on the river, going to the pub after work), but he chose not to join in which was fair enough. The point is that we tried to be friendly and to include him.

The first three months passed fairly uneventfully except that the Post-Doc made critical remarks of other people and their work. Anyone seemed a potential target from the cleaner to the Lecturer. The remarks were made to other people, not the person to whom the comments referred. The Post-Doc frequently made such comments to the Technician and she always defended the person being criticised because she knew it was not true.

The Post-Doc developed increasing friendships with some of the PhD Students working in this lab and a lab (in the same building) with which we collaborate. These students were Students P and K (female) and Student D (male). The Post-Doc would make comments about others to the Students and the Students would agree, adding further comments of their own. Together, this "clique" had no respect for the Lecturer.

As the Post-Doc's confidence grew, boosted by the admiration of his clique, his true character began to manifest itself. There were outbursts of temper directed at the Technician and the Research Associate. It was at this stage that the Technician and Research Associate began to confide in each other about their experiences with the Post-Doc. The outbursts were never in the presence of the Lecturer or the clique of Students, and were frequently just one-on-one, but sometimes they took place in front of Cleaning staff or other students. The outbursts were often about something trivial (the stereo being on, the window being open) and included swearing and personal comments. The Post-Doc spoke to the Lecturer about the stereo and conned him into taking his side by putting a very convincing "spin" on events. The Technician was told she could not have the stereo on when the Post-Doc was in the room. This could have been dealt with much more amicably by a simple request in the first place ("Please could you turn the music off because I need to concentrate"), but was used as a weapon to make the Lecturer turn against the Technician. On many occasions, the Post-Doc and assembled clique would choose to have the stereo on when they were in the lab. The Technician told the Lecturer that she would abide by his request, but that the Post-Doc was often extremely rude to her. The Lecturer said he would "have a word" with the Post-Doc.

Some of the outbursts were about more serious matters. He told the Research Associate that he hated the Technician and was going to get rid of her. He told the Technician that the Research Associate had "dunked some membrane in something unmentionable on her bench" and that he didn't trust it any more. In fact, he seemed suspicious that we might sabotage his experiments! We suspect this is why he hides everything and labels things with unintelligible codes.

There were several shared freezers in the lab. Some of the Post-Doc's boxes were stacked in an unstable way and when the Research Associate opened the freezer door, one of the Post-Doc's boxes fell out, spilling the sample tubes on the floor. The Post-Doc came into the room at this stage and yelled "I don't want HER in MY freezer!" The Research Associate left the room and the Post-Doc continued ranting about her to the Technician. It was not "his" freezer and he had left his boxes in such a way that they were bound to fall out, whoever opened the door.

It was at this stage that we realised this behaviour was bullying. We knew it was evil, but it hadn't occurred to us that adults would behave like this (and be allowed to get away with it) in them workplace. We were feeling absolutely miserable - losing sleep, not feeling like socialising, wondering if the Lecturer would ever believe us again. We realised it was bullying when another Post-Doc, whom the clique would often make cruel, critical remarks about, gave us a print-out from an internet site he had found.

The clique became stronger. If the Post-Doc was absent for a day and they needed a chemical that belonged to him, there would be a panic because he never labelled anything clearly. This meant that they had to rely on him to give them things and could never find it themselves. He also encouraged the Students in the clique to "loot" the lab. The consumables and chemicals in this lab were bought solely on the Research Associate's money obtained as a grant from a charity. Despite the fact that there were funds available in the collaborating lab and each of the Students had their own money, the Students would help themselves to things from this lab and then expect the Technician to order more as a replacement! This caused major friction because the Lecturer would complain that the Research Associate's money was running out (only a certain expenditure is allowed per year), but would then tell the Technician that she should buy anything the Students wanted and that she and the Research Associate should not lock things away.

The facility to lock things away became vital to the Research Associate and Technician because an even more serious aspect to the bullying manifested itself: Sabotage. Experiments can go wrong for all sorts of reasons and it is part of the research to back-track and find out what happened. However, sabotage by somebody who knows what experiment you are doing and a virtually untraceable way he can put a spanner in the works is horrendous to cope with. Sabotage costs money because of having to buy new chemicals all the time, either because yours have gone missing or because you cannot trust them to be what you think they are. We also had to buy a replacement piece of equipment (£300) because, 2 days before an important practical that we were running for a small group of students, the equipment vanished. Imagine how incompetent we'd have looked if we had to admit that we'd "lost" it! Surprise surprise, once the replacement arrived, the original piece was found in the middle of the Research Associate's bench where she could not possibly have missed it. This was the Post-Doc saying "I can do anything I like and you can't prove it". Sabotage costs time in repeating experiments, concealing what you are doing, or looking for that solution you were sure you had left on your bench. It also causes others to doubt you and to think that you are incompetent, especially when those opinions are deliberately cultivated in the brain-washed clique. If you have told the Lecturer that you will have the results by Friday, it is embarrassing to have to say that the experiment must be repeated next week because the results are strange. These are just a few examples of the sabotage.

Once the sabotage became blatant, we discussed the problems with the Lecturer. He believed us and we felt secure that we had his support. Once he had discussed things with the Post-Doc, however, he was not so convinced. He wanted lots of people in the lab and continued to welcome the clique of Students. We also discussed the events with the Departmental Secretary (Head of Personnel) and the Research Associate spoke to the head of the lab we collaborate with. He and the Departmental Secretary decided that the Post-Doc's time in the lab should be minimised. He was told to move to the other lab. He took three weeks to do this, and when he finally did move, found as many excuses as possible to return, such as to "assist" the clique if they were working in here. What had been a friendly pair of labs were now t-Doc. By this time, we had endured two years of bullying by the Post-Doc. Due to the policy of the University, if the Technician had complained, it would have been investigated separately, so it was advised that she back-up the Research Associate in her complaint. The Technician also went to see the Welfare Adviser who told her that the official guidance would be to complain, but that in reality she would be unlikely to be successful in a complaint against a member of "academic staff".

The Professor (in charge of the investigation) was shocked by the Research Associate's evidence. He said he did not want someone like that in the lab. However, by the time the Post-Doc had given his side of the story and the Lecturer did not seem to offer any backing for the Research Associate, the result of the Complaint was that the verbal abuse aspect was upheld, but there was no evidence for the sabotage. (The Post-Doc had the nerve to request a written apology from the Research Associate for the allegations of sabotage!) The Post-Doc was banned from the lab except with the permission of the Lecturer and contact with the Research Associate and Technician was to be minimised. The Lecturer did not always show the discretion that he should have done in timing this access - the Technician returned from lunch one day to find them happily discussing their work in the lab! Evidence was also given by another female Post-Doc and a lecturer, both of whom had been subjected to verbal abuse by the Post-Doc.

A lot of money was spent providing new equipment for the Post-Doc since he could no longer share the equipment in this lab. This almost seemed a reward for his behaviour, especially since he avoided letting Student D use it (although needed in the clique, the Post-Doc was well aware of Student D's careless attitude). This meant that there were potentially five people needing to negotiate with each other to use of our equipment while he had a set all to himself. He still sends a technician to ask to borrow our equipment sometimes. So far, we have found an excuse, but the Lecturer would probably say yes!

The Post-Doc's funds ran out in April 2000 (approximately 10 months after the Complaint), but were renewed by the head of the other lab. This would have been an ideal time to let him go without having to sack him. The lab where he is now based has relocated, but he still seems to spend a lot of time in this building. Students K and D have left which has made life much easier, but things will never be the same with the Lecturer. Last December, the Technician made a genuine mistake in a technique she was not overly-familiar with and the Lecturer accused her of sabotage!!!! The Lecturer would never have spoken to her like that before these events. Both the Research Associate and the Technician have had health problems, undoubtedly made worse, if not caused, by stress. The Lecturer has often trivialised the symptoms of these illnesses.

So much for the University's fantastic anti-bullying policy! People are in senior positions as a result of their academic status and have not necessarily acquired the personnel skills required to deal with intricate situations. The University's policy prevented anything being explained to the Students at the time, so the Research Associate and the Technician were still portrayed as the bad guys by the Post-Doc.

There were some distinctly vague areas in the Post-Doc's CV which made us wonder what had happened in his previous jobs. We strongly suspect that he had left his previous job in France under less than amicable circumstances from the way he referred to one of his former colleagues, "The sight of her made my blood boil." Between that and arriving here, there was almost a year of apparent unemployment. We cannot understand the hold he appears to have over influential people such that they are prepared to continue to employ someone who is disruptive and has divided what used to be a happy group of scientists.

Interestingly, this individual is short and unattractive. He has three brothers who are all successful and married or with girlfriends. It seems that they have been portrayed to him as an example of what he should be doing and he feels inadequate because he has not, or he is angry because that isn't what he wants to do. Well, that shouldn't be our problem!

The behaviour of the clique has two possible explanations: that they were aware of what happened and were scared to go against the Post-Doc, or that they were oblivious. Either of these is sad for supposedly intelligent young people. If Student P (the first clique member) had remained in contact, it would have been interesting to be able to ask her.

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