Looking out the window of a lab

It’s time for all institutions to have an anti-bullying policy.Credit: Getty

Science can be difficult enough even if you work in a great laboratory with supportive colleagues. So the added pressure of a boss or co-worker who regularly abuses, trivializes, hassles, belittles and unfairly criticizes is not just a problem for the individual concerned. It’s bad for research.

Such workplace bullying thrives on silence. But, as occurred with sexual harassment, there is growing noise about bullying in science. Already this year, allegations of bullying have rocked the world of astrophysics, closely followed by those of cancer genetics, neuroscience and vertebrate palaeontology.

Much of this additional scrutiny is down to the willingness of scientists to speak out. Now is the time for more institutions to follow their lead and step up to take decisive action. Does your institution have an anti-bullying policy? If you work in Britain, the answer is probably yes; but if you work in countries such as the United States, the answer might be no. As a News Feature on bullying in science highlights this week, few US institutions have policies that explicitly prohibit their staff from bullying others. Such behaviour might be covered by anti-harassment policies, but in those cases, targeted staff members can seek redress from their employer only if they fall into a group protected by employment law and can show that they have been targeted because of their sex, race, religion or age. The motivation of a bully should not be the issue here. Bullying is unacceptable, and more employers must make that clear.

What to do? If you feel that you are being singled out for unfair treatment by your boss or colleague, you have several options, and one of them is to talk to others. You will need support from your friends and family, and no one can help you if they don’t know it’s happening. By sharing your story with trusted peers, you might discover that other people you work with are going through the same thing.

Seek advice about what you can do to address the problem. Speak to someone in your institution’s human-resources department or a manager about how to solve the problem informally. If you belong to a union, you can ask it for advice. It can be helpful to keep a diary of the problematic behaviour. If you feel confident enough and it is safe to do so, think about speaking to the bully. Calmly try to tell them that you find their behaviour unacceptable and ask them to stop.

Many who have been through the process can testify to the professional upheaval and emotional turmoil that comes with reporting a bully. It is easy for those who are not in sitting in the eye of the storm to extol the virtues of flagging up bullying for the greater good of science and society. There are no easy answers, and some cases might boil down to one person’s word against another’s.

This is why institutions need to step up to the mark. Reports of bullying should be fairly and thoroughly investigated, with attention to due process. Anti-bullying policies or codes of conduct for staff should be easily accessible, give clear guidance on what behaviours are and are not appropriate in the workplace, and outline the measures that would be taken if allegations are reported.

Crucially, institutions need to follow these policies to the letter, regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator is the director of the institute or a first-year PhD student, to protect all those involved — including the accused, who might be the victim of malicious allegations. Incomplete or unfair investigations can undermine the credibility of an organization, harm careers and signal to bullies that their behaviour will be tolerated — in 2018 that is unacceptable.