Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Workplace Bullying in the Professional World of Space Sciences

Bullying is commonplace, almost expected sometime in childhood. Numerous anti-bullying awareness initiatives exist in schools and communities. But what about bullying in adulthood? Do we ever expect to experience a bully in the workplace, in our professional lives?

The most common stereotype is the bullying boss. Unfortunately, this was my first experience with a workplace bully. It began with good intentions. She saw me as an apprentice. I was grateful for her interest in me and the opportunities she gave me. We had a good first couple of years.

The trouble began when my professional interests began to diverge from hers. She began to get more controlling about what I did with my time. I remember her getting upset with me when I attended a guest lecture because it wasn't about our specific subfield of physics. She wanted me to quit all of my extracurriculars and hobbies. She wanted to see me at work in the evenings and on weekends. Who was she to tell me what I could do with my spare time? Grad students are only paid for 20 hours per week, so technically speaking, I was already working tons of unpaid overtime.

She had my future planned out for me. She wanted me to start working on a new project that wasn't part of my doctoral research plan and wasn't directly applicable to my dissertation. I had my own funding at that point, a NASA GSRP fellowship, with a set research plan. Had I been interested in the new project, I would have jumped on the opportunity, but I simply wasn't interested. Only later did I realize that she was trying to get me to work on her new pet project at no cost to her.

She decided that after I graduated, she was going to send me to her colleague's university in Europe to work as a post-doc. Some graduate students would be thrilled to know that they already had a post-doc opportunity lined up for them. I was not. I had no interest in doing a post-doc in that field of study and moving to Europe. I felt that she was trying to dictate my life even after I was no longer her employee.

Once she realized that I had a mind of my own, she gave me the “it's my way or the highway” ultimatum. I was an emotional mess. I felt that she had her thumb pressed down on me and was pressing harder and harder. I felt trapped. When I finally decided to take “the highway,” I felt free! I later learned that she slandered me to my fellowship program, but that did little damage.

The next workplace bully I encountered was a colleague, a peer. She and I were at the same level and worked together in the same lab, but we had different roles and different students who we were supervising. She was hired to take some responsibilities off my plate so I could focus on other things.

She hated that she wasn't my supervisor. She wanted to be in charge of the whole lab. It drove her nuts that we were equal. It bothered her even more that I wasn't intimidated by her. She tried many methods of intimidation to try to “win” what she saw was a battle against me. What bothered her the most was that she never won. I always held firm and refused to compromise my integrity.

She yelled at me and insulted me to the point where, instead of responding, I had to drop whatever I was doing and leave the room (mostly so she didn't see me cry). She spread lies about me to the other students and told me lies about what the other students allegedly said about me. She turned one of my students against me, but he got egg on his face when he realized that he made a mistake with our experiment, not me. She made the workplace a toxic environment.

My supervisor at the time is a wonderful, supportive man, but he's not a fan of confrontation. He sat us down for a meeting together and tried to get us to reconcile, but by that point, extensive damage had already been done. I was at the point of creating documentation to report my work bully to the university's human resources department when I learned the happy news that she was leaving. Something switched in her mind at that point, because she was actually a decent human being to me at the very end. Go figure.

My third workplace bully was an administrative assistant, an older lady. She was the admin assistant to the big boss of the company. Because she held this role, she thought herself superior to all, as if she was the actual assistant big boss.

We rarely worked together. Once I needed her assistance to get some signatures from the big boss for a project. Another admin assistant and I approached her on a Friday early afternoon for her help. All she had to do was give the papers to her boss to have him sign them, then hand them back to us, a five minute job. She decided that she didn't like how we had printed the papers, so she reprinted them to her liking, which took her approximately half an hour.

Little did I know until months later that this bully held a grudge against me because I asked her to (gasp!) do her job on a Friday. She waited until I was on travel attending a conference to ask me a question via email on an afternoon, a non-urgent question that I did not know the answer to because it wasn't my job to know. When I didn't answer her first thing the next morning, she wrote back to me CCing my boss and the big boss demanding to know why I hadn't answered her.

Unfortunately, my boss at the time operated out of fear and thought that any negative confrontation with his employees reflected poorly on him. Before I had even gotten a chance to form a response to the email, my boss contacted me demanding that I apologize to the bully and do whatever she wanted, immediately. He took it a step further by concluding that because I hadn't answered her email immediately, I wasn't responsible with my time during conferences. I hadn't taken any action at this point, all of this mess was being done to me, and I felt like a hit-and-run car victim. Just as the bully had planned.

The bully continued to escalate the issue when I returned from travel. Things were said about me behind closed doors. I learned that she claimed that I dropped a project on her on a Friday afternoon and made her work late doing it, and I never apologized for it. My boss didn't care about the actual issue, he only cared about the conflict, so he insisted that I apologize to her. But I don't appease bullies. I knew that she wanted to, “put me in my place,” and demonstrate that she had power. I was not going to give her that satisfaction.

Finally, to appease my boss, I approached her and asked, “Do we have anything to talk about?” “No,” she responded. When my boss asked if I had talked to her, I could honestly answer yes. Thankfully, I never had to work with her again.

What do all of these bullies have in common? One: they're alpha females. I've noticed a tendency for strong females to become adversarial with other strong females who they see as competition. Two: they aren't used to people standing up to them. Three: they all rose to positions of authority in professional environments.

Bullies don't just exist on schoolyards or blue collar jobs. My biggest misconception was that all professionals act professionally in professional environments. This is not always the case. I've had to learn that, with this and everything else, I can only control my own actions. Others can act as they please, but my goal is to remain professional even in the face of the harshest workplace bully.

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