Monday, October 25, 2010

Throw Them Out?

A recent post about a colleague's postdoc who is disrespectful (in more than a casual way) to female postdocs, but not to female professors or students, attracted many comments, including some from those who felt that the postdoc should be immediately fired.

I am curious about the demographics of those in the 'fire him immediately' camp vs. those in the 'give him a chance to change' camp.

My hypothesis, which we may or may not be able to test, is that the different responses relate more to academic position than to gender. That is, I think that those who have experience advising postdocs and graduate students might be the ones who are more interested in finding a way to change his behavior and attitude, while at the same time protecting his female peers.

In contrast, those with less advising experience might focus more on the fact that, in some fields, there is an oversupply of talented postdocs, so why waste time on one who has behaved reprehensibly? That is, if this postdoc cannot behave in a professional way towards all colleagues, he should be fired without being given a chance to change, and immediately replaced with someone without these problems.

This hypothesis may well be wrong, of course, but if amount of advising experience relates to the various responses to the 'peer sexism' anecdote, this is interesting because it conflicts with the view of many of my early-career readers who feel that professors aren't as humane as they could be in their dealings with postdocs and students. That is, professors should be more aware that graduate students and postdocs don't arrive fully trained and perfect, and should be less inclined to fire and fail those who don't meet our high standards (yet). We professors should work harder on the training and mentoring aspects of our jobs.

Holding that belief and the "fire him immediately" point of view requires making a distinction between the "how to do research" aspects of training and "how to get along with others" aspects. It requires being more patient with those who struggle with the first aspect, and less (or not at all) with the second. I see them both as elements of my job as an adviser, although I think many of us are very challenged by the second aspect of the advising job.

It is important to note that the specific case described in my earlier post does not involve violence, intimidation, physical contact, or any other serious situations in which immediate firing would obviously be well justified. The unprofessional behavior of this postdoc is unacceptable and should not continue, but, in my opinion, does not rise to the level of immediate firing without first giving the postdoc a change to change his behavior.

Although my influence on the employment status of a postdoc supervised by another professor at another university in another country on research in which I have no involvement is quite low, I have talked about the situation with the postdoc's supervisor, and know that he is taking it seriously. It would be unacceptable if no action were taken and if there were no negative consequences for the postdoc if he does not change. I do not believe that will be the case. The postdoc has recently been alerted to the fact that his behavior is unacceptable, not only to the female postdocs, but to his supervisor, and he has been given the opportunity to change; on what time scale and by what means of evaluation of progress, I do not know.

The question I asked earlier was whether readers believed the postdoc could change. Today the question is: Why do some people think the postdoc should be fired without any effort to find a way to change his attitude and behavior? If there is much evidence that this postdoc is a thoughtful, sincere, and nice person in other aspects of his professional life, why not try to build on that? Wouldn't we all benefit if this postdoc can change? Isn't it the responsibility of his supervisor to try to effect such a change? The supervisor is also responsible for some of the female postdocs involved in this situation, but if he believes he can protect them and mentor the problem postdoc, shouldn't he try?

Although I feel optimistic about this particular case, overall the situation is depressing. I am very weary of the apparently limitless supply of sexists of all ages, although I know from long experience advising that few of us are perfect in our interpersonal relations, and some people can change (for the better).

If, after efforts to fix the problem, this postdoc continued to show no signs of being able to work with female peers, his contract should be terminated, no matter how talented he is at research and no matter how respectful he is to women who are not his peers. Such termination is the right thing to do for many reasons, including the very practical reason that his inability to work with everyone on his research team (and creation of a hostile work environment for some) harms the research.

I hope it doesn't come to that, but the situation nevertheless make me wonder: Is a desire for the elimination of sexism (and similar problems) in academia incompatible with a wish to educate and reform the perpetrators? I don't think it is.


Unknown said...

I was wondering how those different stances on the way this post-doc should be handled would be any different if instead of being sexist, he was being racist, or homophobic. I may be mistaken, but I'm thinking that many more would be on the "fire him" side of the debate. Which I have no issues about. I just wonder why we might think that a sexist should be getting a second chance. All in all, I find all these attitudes to be equally offensive and they should be treated in the same way.

Anonymous said...

The female students and postdocs this guy interacts with deserve a safe environment in which to learn and work. If his presence precludes that, he needs to go. Sure, he deserves a chance to learn. But it's more important that women not be harassed. Especially early in their careers. Valuing helping the harasser more than helping his victims is not right.

kamikaze said...

If there is a correlation with academic position and opinion in this case (and I think you might be right) -- does this automatically mean that the level of empathy is the deciding factor? I think other factors are just as important: A more senior person is (hopefully) one who puts effort, money and energy into her or his PhD students and post docs and hence wants to get something out of them as well, hopefully scientifically. Firing someone for not behaving properly would mean not getting "paid back" for what one has already invested in that person. As a female post doc, on the other hand, when I imagine myself in a work environment with a guy like the one you described, I become a person with something to lose; namely my self confidence, my professional integrity and, sadly (and I don't like to admit it but it's true) my ability to perform -- because I strongly believe that performance in my field correlates with confidence. I am a mathematician. Hence, from my point of view, the best thing would be if there are no such people in my work environment. That does not mean I am not empathetic. It just means my empathy for the guy weighs less than my fear of being suppressed.

I would also urge you to think about what is happening to the women around this post doc while you wait for him to change. They might change, too, and not for the better. If I was a female post doc in that position, I most likely would not be as productive as I am in a healthy work environment. If I was aware of that, I would be looking for another job.

Anonymous said...

Is mandatory counseling under consideration for the perpetrating postdoc?

When I was a postdoc, my advisor was so bad at how he dealt with his postdocs that HE was ordered into counseling in order to keep his position. It made a big difference.

app said...

"That is, professors should be more aware that graduate students and postdocs don't arrive fully trained and perfect,..."

Has the postdoc in question just arrived? How long has he been behaving offensively to his female peers for? How many female peers has he behaved offensively to so far? How long has his boss (your colleague) known about this, and how many times has he talked to the postdoc about it already?

I can't help being reminded of the "humane" response of the Catholic Church to their pedophile priests:
"Father Joe is such a nice man with so many wonderful personal qualities. Wouldn't we all benefit if we can get him to change and stop fondling the alter boys? We must give him a chance; it is our duty to help him."

Obviously the behaviour of the postdoc in question can't be compared with pedophilia, but the effect on his victims is still something that should be considered, right? That aspect is completely absent from your posts. Can you tell us about what effect the guy's behaviour has had on his female peers, e.g. on their productivity, their decisions to stay/leave academia, etc?

mathgirl said...

In my short career as a prof I only have my second postdoc now. My first postdoc has some personality problems that are mainly harmful to her. I've put a lot of effort in helping her, but I feel that she didn't change much.

I can't help feeling that you're already formed when you're a postdoc, and while you can certainly learn a lot of skills in terms of managing and leading, it seems to me that there are other aspects of your academic personality that are have already taken a final form.

Based on that experience, I'm inclined to be in the "fire the postdoc" crowd, because I think he won't change and I agree that there are way too many good people out there who could take his place.

I guess my case still suppports your thesis, because I'm young and inexperienced as a mentor. I still want to believe that people can change. But I believe in this less than I did it when I started as a prof 3 years ago.

Anonymous said...

"Is a desire for the elimination of sexism (and similar problems) in academia incompatible with a wish to educate and reform the perpetrators?"

Perhaps not, but it asks a great deal of those who work with the perpetrator. When I have been in such positions I can logically understand your reasoning but it seems that I am being asked to do more than my share. Not only am I supposed to further my career, I must put up with this behavior and help reform those who cause the problem in the first place. I suspect this is part of the trend you are seeing. Junior women feel powerless and frustrated anway but the focuss on reform feels like our mentors care more about the prepetrators than us.

Jean Grey said...

I'm a postdoc, and I think that the postdoc in question should be given a chance to change and not be immediately fired.

If the situation isn't dealt with now, he's going to continue the same behavior in the future. In my opinion, someone should at least try to help him change his attitude. If no one does, then sexism is knowingly perpetuated.

GMP said...

I agree with your premise, that junior academics are more inclined to pull the plug. There may be a mellowing of sorts that comes with experience in mentoring.

I can attest that when I first started as a TT prof, I fired students much more readily than I do now. I wasn't aware of the full range of working styles, different than mine, that would still mean a student/postdoc can be productive. It's important to learn how to work with people different than oneself, who are motivated by different things and have different technical background and career goals. I wonder if any PI can ever fully master the art of getting the most out of every trainee, for it truly is an art.

Anonymous said...

I am undecided myself, but if I leaned towards firing him immediately it would be because he might not get or take the message seriously otherwise, akin to the pedophilia comment above.

Given the potential seriousness of his behavior - ie impact on other people and their careers - I think it demands a serious treatment, that has potentially big impact on his.

Female Science Professor said...

The female postdocs are doing well. The postdoc supervisor took their concerns seriously and took action to remove them from directly working with the problem postdoc.

I think in many cases the comparison of sexism with racism and homophobia is useful because it lets us see that there are inconsistencies in what some people consider acceptable; i.e. the recent discussion in which some commenter said he/she would never work for a woman. In this particular case, however, I think the more apt comparison would be a situation in which someone had never before worked with people who were different in some obvious way (gender, race) from him. His prior educational/research experiences (in a different country from the site of his postdoc) were only with men. Perhaps he just needs to learn how to work with women. And if he can't, OK, then he should be fired.

app said...

One more thing:

"If, after efforts to fix the problem, this postdoc continued to show no signs of being able to work with female peers,..."

So the female postdocs in that group get to be the guinea pigs when doing the experiment to test if the guy's "problem" has been fixed. I'm sure they'll be delighted to be exposed to the possibility of more offensiveness, and will of course understand that it is for the greater good.

By the way, FSP, since you asked, yes I'm a relatively new faculty member and am amused by your suggestion that my "fire him" opinion is somehow related to this. The real determining factor is completely different IMHO:

When finding the balance between helping/mentoring the individual and ensuring a non-offensive working environment for the group, the real determining factor for the PI is how much he/she is influenced by personal relationships. A PI who is heavily influenced by these will prioritize "helping" someone he/she knows and likes, while another PI less influenced by personal relationships in this situation will give higher priority to the well-being of the group as a whole. It might be hard for someone in the former category to understand, but those of us in the latter category somehow feel that the offensiveness experienced by the many who we don't have close personal relationships with counts for more than the loss of one person we know and like.

Anonymous said...

Though on a slight tangent, I was sexually harrassed during my first year as a semi-professional chemist (male-dominated subfield) by my boss 2 levels up. When I complained my direct boss minimised my contact with that boss. Though I didn't have to deal with the harasser directly I was still being harassed but as I still have some time left with that project, which I found quite interesting, I tolerated. I had PTSD as a result and am now extra sensitive when I work with men, or even under them. At my worst, even the slightest sign of compliment sends me into a nervous breakdown. As a result, the year that i was harassed and the year after was a complete blur to me. The only things that I can remember of that time are the science that kept me from running away.

Though I'm getting better and am pretty much well re-integrated back to the scientific community I am still battling the fear of working under men and with men.

So, if you ask me what would I do if there was a sexist jerk in my lab. Though I'm kind of 'trained' to have a higher threshold, having experienced the worst, I would deal with it promptly if not agressively. If they are not tutored to understand equality as early into their career as possible, not only will we be nuturing a new generation of sexist behaviour (or any other forms of discrimination) we will be jeopardising the potential future of any women aiming at a career in science. I was lucky that I survived the ordeal with subtle support by the people in positions of power at the time and by the understanding of my subsequent boss (also male). Any other way I would have been forced out. Not everyone are as lucky. I would most definitely hate to see anyone sexist, racist or even ageist etc. to proceed into a professional career of which they obtained by refusing it for any others. I don't want any more of me in this world.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe this is another age/experience issue. I've spent my career "educating" those who are uncomfortable working with women. This doesn't mean that I think younger women should have to experience this just because I did, but if this postdoc is fired, then what? He will go live in an isolated monastery? I don't see any one research group as being totally isolated from the world.

One bright spot in all this is that the large number of female postdocs who came into contact with this guy may have helped each one come forward.

Anonymous said...

I think I said he needed a smackdown, but I didn't think an immediate firing was in order unless he'd already been talked to and disciplined.

I agree that sexism is more invisible and sneaky than other "isms"; after all, everyone either is a woman or knows one. It's easy for some people (of both sexes) to decide there's nothing new to learn about societal attitudes toward women when the whole "gurlz r dum and for baybeez only" notion is so pervasive.

It's also easy for women to be guilted into making it easy for a poor boy who's trying so hard to learn to treat them like actual human beings.

Women who lose confidence when dealing with this garbage aren't imagining the ill effects. It's in the air and the water already, how could it not destroy someone's confidence (especially when a confident woman is a bitch and is targeted even more virulently).

Anonymous said...

I think that the notion of older mentors being more willing to train rather than firing immediately is probably correct.

In my 29 years as a professor, I've only had one postdoc---most of that time I was in computer engineering, where postdocs are exceedingly rare. I have had my share of difficult grad students though, and there it is always a difficult problem deciding when to pull the plug and force the student to find someone else to work with.

Junior faculty often are too reluctant to say "no" when first asked by a student, and so end up with some of the hardest students to deal with, leading them to want to "fire" students easily. After a while, many faculty get better at judging who they can work with and how much change in student behavior they can reasonably expect, and so are less likely to want to fire someone.

I think that a lot of the commenters missed FSP statements that the victims of this postdocs harassment have been protected from him now, so there is no question of keeping them in harm's way while trying to re-educate the offender.

Anonymous said...

On a larger "humanity" level, if we don't believe that people can change, and that we should *want* to help them see the change that is needed, what hope do we have for our society making great strides in changing the stereotypes/prejudices that create our problems?

Yes, I acknowledge we have centuries of history to point out how well people CANNOT change their views. But it seems jaded to thus conclude we should stop trying to help others.

Anonymous said...

"Why do some people think the postdoc should be fired without any effort to find a way to change his attitude and behavior? If there is much evidence that this postdoc is a thoughtful, sincere, and nice person in other aspects of his professional life, why not try to build on that?"

Because his attempts to reform may be faked? I (then a female undergrad) suffered harassment from a young man who could be described as "a thoughtful, sincere, and nice person in other aspects of his professional life." Except that it was that part of his life that was a front; if you were not someone he thought it was useful to please, it was apparent that he had no real respect for the people he appeared to treat well, because he would always speak disrespectfully about them in private. He was just putting up the facade to get ahead, and if you were one of those people he thought he could gain something from, you would never know. This was also a much worse case, as it involved physical contact and intimidation. As far as I know, the problem was never addressed, he went on to win several major awards and be the golden boy of the university, which was humiliating for me. I still fear this man. The situation was much worse than you described, since it included physical contact and intimidation. I am still afraid of him.

But still, I think you start by assuming that it is the thoughtful, sincere, and nice aspect of him is his default personality, when that may not be so, and you, given your position, would not be able to know that.

Alex said...

I think in many cases the comparison of sexism with racism and homophobia is useful because it lets us see that there are inconsistencies in what some people consider acceptable;

Let's be careful about doing apples to apples comparisons, though. Usually when people get in trouble over racism, it's because they said something very openly racist. As I understood your description of the situation, the guy never said anything openly and indisputably sexist to female postdocs, but rather was a generally obnoxious person for female postdocs to work around (while being pleasant to female students and professors). The sexism was only apparent from the pattern, not from any single event.

I'm not excusing patterns of behavior as being any better than open remarks. In some ways, patterns are worse. But patterns take time to notice and when the problem is analyzed over time people generally respond by trying to fix the problem over time. Remarks are open and sudden, and quickly-noted problems are often dealt with quickly and harshly. It's the same reason that when somebody is injured in a lab accident the authorities come down hard, but when a lab is poorly maintained but has not yet had an open, blatant, obvious violation, they usually try to clean the place up and take preventive measures.

So, I'd expect (hope?) that racist remarks and sexist remarks would get similar responses. I'd expect that an analogous pattern with race (somebody who's nice to all of the grad students and faculty of a particular race, but obnoxious to the postdocs of a particular race) would probably get similar treatment.

Finally, if he was just generally an obnoxious jerk to everyone, I wonder if he'd be regarded as just one more arrogant scientist to put up with rather than a problem in need of fixing.

BA said...

People with tenure should not be cavalier about firing people. I've not heard many people calling for a PI to be dismissed for abusing postdocs. Maybe a talking to from the chair?

BugDoc said...

I find this comment from GMP interesting: "I can attest that when I first started as a TT prof, I fired students much more readily than I do now."

I think I have gone in the opposite direction, in that I am much less tolerant of poor behavior of any kind that when I was a new TT faculty. With regards to behavior, the contribution of "isms" should be removed, i.e. unprofessional, obnoxious behavior to others in the workplace is inappropriate whether or not it is defined by gender, race or any other category. The postdoc should be told what about his behavior is objectionable and given one chance to remediate, with the consequences of not changing clearly defined in writing. Everybody deserves a 2nd chance. I used to give people 2nd, 3rd and 4th chances and if they didn't take advantage of the 2nd chance to change their ways, then they generally did not change at all.

Anonymous said...

I hear your point re: "but if this postdoc is fired, then what? He will go live in an isolated monastery?" However, I believe the PI has a responsibility to his other employees which should come before any altruism towards the scientific community as a whole. In fact, I think the good of the scientific community must be disregarded if it conflicts with what is best for the lab group.

For the record, I'm an asst prof but I was a postdoc a mere 4 months ago...

Ms.PhD said...

Fundamentally I think the issue is that you believe his apparently sincere, thoughtful, nice behavior towards you is actually sincere and genuine.

Have you considered the possibility that his good behavior toward you is calculated, phony ass-kissing, and the real person is in fact the abusive one?

Truly abusive people are usually masterful liars.

I find it very difficult to believe that this guy is just in the dark and didn't realize he was being offensive. If that were the case, then yes he should be educated about what is appropriate and given another chance. But given the stark contrast between how he acts toward you vs. towards his peers, I suspect he is well aware of how he *should* behave, and just believes he can get away with it in some situations and not others.

Hence, the "just hasn't worked with women before" argument doesn't really hold up. Why is he respectful of you, if that is the case?

I understand where you're coming from, because I've worked with people who were supportive of me and abusive to others. It took me a long time to realize my experience was not representative. It really is all about how you treat the little people.

In that sense, the pedophilia analogy works. Let's say you're the adult and you never witness the abuse, you have to take the testimonials as your only evidence. You might be an exception.

The abuse to "the little people" in this analogy is still real and extremely damaging. Even if you don't personally experience it.

Why are you willing to risk letting it continue?

If you were the postdoc, would you want to give this person another chance? Would you feel like your advisors were looking out for you if they assured you this guy was getting a quick slap on the wrist?

I don't completely understand why, in our culture, it's fine to harass people verbally, but if it's physical we take immediate action. Isn't it just as damaging in the long run?

Anonymous said...

If you were the postdoc, would you want to give this person another chance? Would you feel like your advisors were looking out for you if they assured you this guy was getting a quick slap on the wrist?

As a postdoc who has been in a similar situation, and as a person who has been given several second chances, I wouldn't be averse to giving this person a second chance.
We have all received many second chances in life, academically or otherwise, and I don't think any harm can come out of a controlled second chance.

If the postdoc is fired, he would probably move to another lab and start afresh, harassing other women. At least in this lab, he has some history, and he will make an effort if he knows that people are watching him. Sending him off will simply reset the clock.

Helen Huntingdon said...

Having just recently dealt with one of these guys who could be extremely convincingly gentle-charming-harmless but had decided to stalk me, I'm also concerned that keeping the work environment clean doesn't sound like it's the primary focus here.

The situation I've been in sounds a lot like what you're describing. My descriptions of this guy's behavior sound completely unlike him to others, because he wasn't treating others that way. He was told to change his behavior and there was a lot of reassuring each other all around among the faculty that they were Taking This Very Seriously. After all, they gave him a Talking To. And they were all very sure that someone so gentle-charming-harmless was fixable.

Naturally, that wasn't the end of it, and he simply looked for insidious ways to harass and attempt to intimidate me that didn't break the rules he'd been given. When I complained, I got a few rounds of "Well what is he supposed to do?" My answering by asking what I was supposed to do just got blank looks.

I had to state in no uncertain terms that department who employed him knew they had a problem employee, and thus they were responsible for his behavior, whatever that might be.

Your colleague at this other university knows he has a problem employee, and if he chooses to keep someone he knows is a problem, he is responsible for his behavior, whatever that might be. Can he be sure he's got the guy under control? Given how vague it all sounds, the answer is probably no. In which case, your colleague should recognize his own limits and fire the problem employee.

To reiterate: The question is not: "Can this person be reformed?" but "Can I, his employer, control him sufficiently that he causes no more of these problems at work? Do *I* have the ability to deal with this situation to that extent?"

Conflating, "I think this person is fixable," with "I have the ability to fix this person," winds up just being an excuse to screw over the people this guy targets.

lauren said...

I was (am) firmly in the "fire him" camp. I'm not in academia, but I spent several years as a supervisor/coordinator. Early in my career I was all about giving people second (possibly third) chances. But with time I realized that the shows of contrition were put-ons. If someone's reached adulthood without figuring how to act normally and decently with colleagues, really the only thing that might "help" them is the shock of getting fired!

And you wrote: "Perhaps he just needs to learn how to work with women."

I'm trying to imagine a scenario in which I act obnoxiously towards African American colleagues, and then try and excuse myself by saying, "But I've never worked with Black people before!" Pretty horrid. I would hope I wouldn't get away with that!

yolio said...

I'm with MsPhD, the guy comes across as having serious, deep-seated issues. I believe that he could learn to hide his abusiveness better, but I doubt that he will stop being fundamentally abusive. And do we really need to help create more sophisticated abusers? Besides, getting fired could be a very effective way of retraining him. It is sends a clear message: this shit is unacceptable, get your act together.

Kea said...

The trouble is that this guy is essentially ruining the chances of a career for some women. Why should he be given help while the women are thrown into the trash? We did that for several decades. If he hasn't learned the lesson yet, he should be FIRED. Like the first commenter says - blatant racism would be considered intolerable, so why is sexism tolerated?

There is no shortage of brilliant, unemployed female postdocs. Every one of these Doods should be fired ASAP and all of their jobs should be given to women and minorities. And that would barely begin to address the problems in STEM fields.

Materialist said...

People are not disposable, never mind the surfeit of postdocs competing for positions in academia. I think we have to try and help people change for the better, or else "someone else's problem" becomes everybody's problem.

Anonymous said...

I just wish that firing a sexist professor would be considered as easily as a sexist post-doc.

Professors that are overtly sexist towards their students and post-docs and make sexist remarks about their female peers (to post-docs and students, well loved by those peers), seem to be untouchable.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the tv show "Dexter." For those who don't know it, Dexter's character is a serial killer who chooses murderers as his victims. The premise of the show is that, while the serial killer could not change this behavior in spite of much effort, he could confine his behavior to one specific class of victim. So...I guess part of the question here is what does "changing" this postdoc really mean? It's doubtful to me that subtle guidance by a scientific mentor could truly change somebody's core belief structure. I'm inclined to believe that his innate attitude is unlikely to change without consistent, concerted effort on his part with some professional guidance beyond what an academic adviser may reasonably be expected to provide. However, if changing the postdoc in this context simply means that he will learn how to NOT express his true attitudes while in a professional setting, then perhaps it would be worthwhile to provide an opportunity for him to learn what the acceptable behavior is? Those people who have seen his unprofessional, biased behavior will likely only see the insincerity in any new behaviors or attitudes, so I do not think it's advisable for him to work with the same people again even after an "attitude adjustment." I am also an early career adviser, so we'll see how my attitudes change over time! [I also have some experience dealing with somebody like this - my (male) adviser in grad school had me (female) have a series of coffee meetings with a problem graduate student (male) to discuss similar issues periodically, and my adviser even had weekly meetings with him on professional behavior in addition to his scientific meetings. Great scientist, but ultimately a colossal waste of all of our combined efforts in a professional capacity. After completing his postdoc, the scientist who was once a problem grad student was not hired for good positions because the HR people were the ones to stop offers from going through. (I know this because I know people on the hiring side of some of those companies). There is a profound difference between what is acceptable in academia and what is acceptable in industry, period.]

I think another troubling aspect of this situation is that there are SO MANY current advisers who behave in this way (or perhaps more subtle yet equally sexist ways) toward their female colleagues, and it is completely acceptable for them to do so. (I mean, can you imagine a reality show that followed advisers around and documented some of their comments?!) This postdoc could reasonably be modeling some of his behavior off of his adviser or other well-respected male professionals, so perhaps the behavior is more pervasive than just this one postdoc.

Kea said...

Materialist, what you clearly fail to understand is that many women in STEM fields are SO USED TO being treated like disposable garbage, that the idea of firing someone is positively tame. Heck, I've been literally left for dead more than once. It would do the guy good to be fired.

Anonymous said...

The tangential thought which occurs to me here is, how bad does disruptive behavior have to be in order to get someone fired? [I should mention I am a woman who has previously suffered from fairly serious sexual harrassment, so I'm not trying to be dismissive of this.] Obviously this postdoc sounds like a mess. However - at my work - the woman who talks on the phone continually 20 feet away from me in a very loud and annoying accent distracts me from my work. The guy who gets bored doing his work and walks around the office chatting with people (who are trying to work) in also a very loud voice is preventing me from working. The woman in charge of the NMR facility at my last job would go to any length to avoid people from her lab using the NMRs, but then - if directly confronted by a professor - would make it sound like it was all a misunderstanding. Another student (male) in my graduate lab couldn't be bothered to keep a lab notebook, yet my boss insisted I collaborate with him, so I had to redo everything he had already done to make sure it was real. While none of them are specifically targeting me, or any one group of people, they are causing me mental anguish because I have/had to try to find ways to work around them. All. the. time. I guess the mini-conclusion is that maybe sometimes we just have to accept that other people are idiots, and as a result of being in the world, you have to interact with them. After all, if we fired everyone who was frequently an idiot for any reason, there might not be many people left to work.

Anonymous said...

I've been a PI for close to 10 years, and in general I have a low tolerance approach to abusive behavior-- I let a student go last year, because he wasn't too productive and because he was nasty to some of his peers (the foreigners and the women). I would have put up with the first, but not with the second issue. More than from my experience as PI, my low tolerance comes from my experience as a postdoc in a group in which one of my peers had mental health issues, and would have frequent hissy fits. The PI was very understanding and supportive of this person's issues. Less so of the terrified students and postdocs in the group who were yelled at on a daily basis - the PI just didn't see how disruptive this person was to our productivity.
Let's just say that every time I fired a student or postdoc, out of concerns for their behavior, I have watched the person's peers sight with relief. That confirmed to me that I made the right choice.

Anonymous said...

If this guy is fired for being a sexist jerk, then presumably this should be reflected in his reference letters. So the chances of him being hired in the future by a laboratory that values its female scientists is close to nil. So maybe that monastery will be his only employment option.

Like many of the other commenters, I am in the 'fire him' camp. Once someone has reached that age, believing that those attitudes are acceptable, they will not change.

Anonymous said...

One interesting aspect of this situation that has not been discussed is the degree of openness. It sounds like many of the women involved are (at least by now) aware of each other's experiences. FSP wrote "One bright spot in all this is that the large number of female postdocs who came into contact with this guy may have helped each one come forward." The advisor is aware of the problem; FSP is aware although she's at a different institution. Hopefully other faculty and collaborators have also been made aware-- so that they can minimize the impact on their female trainees. This approach takes away much of the offending postdoc's power to do harm.

If it is widely and openly acknowledged that Postdoc X needs to improve his ability to work with women, he will either 1) change or 2) find himself unable to obtain a new position.

Margaret L said...

Tenured professor here. FSP, much as I usually admire your judgement, I think you're wrong on this one. As others have suggested above, I think you're giving undue weight to his nice behavior around you. That is not the real him.

I saw this many times when I was younger -- not just the chameleon-jerk, but also the decent senior people who hadn't a clue. Once it was an office manager who was pure evil. Everyone hated having to talk to her. If she couldn't find anything to yell at you about, she would start yelling at you about past infractions. We are talking unhinged.

Then one time I was in the office of the Head Biggy-Wig, and she came in to check with him about something. I swear, she was a different person. Friendly, reasonable, professional, even showing a sense of humor. I'm sure the Head had heard the stories, but in his mind those things were small little gnats compared to his big vivid personal experience with this person.

Bagelsan said...

I'm in the "fire him" camp. Actions speak louder than words; telling him that his behavior is unacceptable is just words. Acting on it -- literally not accepting that behavior (ie. kicking him out for it) -- is a much stronger response. And it will send a clearer message to the women involved as well; just like the male postdoc, the female postdocs can tell lip service when they see it.

(And maybe his PI is genuinely serious about this talking-to. But it reads like lip service.)

As for 2nd chances... do you think this would really be his "2nd" chance? I'll bet it's his 102nd chance. He's an adult (and, presumably, an intelligent one.) He knows what he's doing.

DrDoyenne said...

I'm a bit late to the discussion, but my opinion is that any kind of "punishment" such as firing or forcing the post-doc to take a formal course in diversity will help ingrain his sexist attitude--because he'll blame the target group for his fate.

Without intervention, the sexist post-doc will likely become the sexist professor and adviser of future post-docs and students.

I agree with several commentators, however, that it may be difficult to change ingrained behavior. But it's not necessarily impossible, and it's the responsibility of his current adviser to at least try (while protecting others from him).

It's not unlike training someone who has a deficiency in technical skills--and helping them to gain the necessary skills to succeed.
Interpersonal skills may be more difficult to teach, but no less important for career development.

The post-doc has to want to change (or made to want to change), however. Sometimes a strong mentor or group of mentors can influence and gradually change the thinking of someone with a poor attitude. The exact approach depends on the people involved and the specific situation.

If nothing works, the post-doc can always be fired. However, simply foisting him onto other unsuspecting employers is not responsible.

Anonymous said...

I believe that as a postdoc advisor it is your job to train him in research but it's NOT your job to teach him "how to get along with others" that is why I vote to fire him. Look, by the time you're a postdoc you are not a kid anymore. You are not even a youth anymore, you are in at least your late 20s, many are in their 30s. By now your social behavior is your own responsibility, not that of your parents or your teachers.