The following post is based on an email exchange with a reader. I am retelling their story rather than quoting in order to make it more general, as I think the issues are not all that uncommon.
Academic Reader (AR) is a professor who has some unpleasant personal history with a former colleague, whom we will call Blast from the Past (BftP). Over the years, AR has tried avoiding BftP whenever possible. It is easy to avoid someone at big society meetings and AR has certainly avoided going to a number of smaller conferences where BftP was going to appear, even to the point of cancelling some talks of their (AR's) own.
Most recently, AR had agreed to serve in a professional capacity with a several-year term. A few weeks after agreeing to serve, AR received information that BftP would be serving in the same capacity, which would mean they would on occasion have to sit in the same room, with other people around, and actually interact. While the service role would be beneficial to AR's career, AR decided the benefit did not outweigh the aggravation and pulled out of that service role.
In general, however, AR wonders if and to what extent are they shooting themselves in the foot with the avoidance strategy that results in missed meetings and passed up opportunities. AR asks whether they should generally just suck it up and face the music (and presumably keep facing it over and over in the coming years), which would mean running into BftP more often and getting uncomfortable and upset. AR adds that the unpleasant personal history is such that they never want to interact with BftP again in their life and that in an ideal world their paths would never cross again.
We should certainly appreciate that being comfortable in one's professional setting is important for the person to be able to do their job. We can all agree that cases of a hostile work environment are very detrimental to one's well-being and career. Occasionally, there is someone toxic (for personal or professional reasons) in one's larger professional community, and interacting with them, even if rarely, can indeed make you very uncomfortable, perhaps even fearing for your career or your safety, so I think it's natural to want to avoid them. But yes, there may be penalties associated with avoiding professional activities in order to avoid interacting with the problematic person.
So what say you, blogosphere?
1) Is it OK for AR to keep avoiding BftP for as long as they need to, or do you recommend a suck-it-up approach? How long is it OK to practice avoidance, could AR do it forever if they so desire? To what extent is it OK to practice avoidance, e.g. is it OK for AR to cancel invited talks or sitting on funding agency panels to avoid BftP?
2) Do you think AR's career suffers more from avoidance than it would from forced exposure to BftP
(it should be noted that there is nothing violent or illegal about AR and BftP's past connection, nobody's safety is at stake)
3) How does your response depend on whether AR and BftP are peers (i.e. similar in career stage) versus one being significantly more established than the other?
4) How does your response depend on the sexes of AR and BftP? (FF, MM, FM, MF?)
5) How does your response depend on the actual history between AR and BftP? (E.g. what if it was harassment or another form of abuse? What if it was something more benign?)