Tuesday, December 4, 2012


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?)


Anonymous said...

I think it depends on why AR is avoiding BftP

It is reasonable if there was harassment involved (sexual or otherwise) for example.

BugDoc said...

I think AR is really facing two questions, what is best for AR's career vs what is best for AR at a personal level. It should always be "ok" to make choice dictated by your personal needs. But passing up a lot of opportunities to speak at meetings or serve on panels might impact AR's career (although perhaps AR is sufficiently well known that it doesn't matter whether they turn down a few things. Turning down less than 50% of these things, probably ok. Turning down more than 50% for this reason, maybe not). More importantly, AR is tacitly giving BftP power over him/her by allowing this person to dictate their choices. I think regardless of the circumstances (harassment, gender, etc), AR might find some personal resolution and satisfaction by attending such events and keeping the interaction minimal and absolutely impersonal. As distateful as the interaction might be, hopefully, it need not be extensive and AR can see if it is really as awful as anticipated.

Alex said...

Without knowing the specifics, it's hard to say whether AR is acting reasonably. AR is certainly acting within his/her rights to avoid aggravation, but there's a difference between acting within your rights and acting reasonably. Not knowing the history, I can't say. If, say, this is about safety, or if BftP is horrifically unethical, by all means, avoid.

I guess the one thing I would want to know is if AR is unreasonably burdening others. Are they pulling out of commitments at the last minute? It's one thing to avoid a harasser at all costs, and another thing to withdraw from a task at the last minute because you just find somebody obnoxious. That puts the people who assigned the task in a tough spot. If it's about safety or something similarly weighty, by all means, pull out at the last minute.

I do wonder about avoiding invited talks at conferences. If it's, say, a Gordon Conference, where people are living in close proximity for a week, I can totally see not wanting to stay in the same venue as a harasser. But for anything short of mental health or safety concerns, I wonder if the reader wouldn't be professionally wise to at least show up for the day to give a talk, and ask a few friends in the field to stay in their presence at all times. (I've seen people show up at small conferences on the morning of their talk and leave later that day.) Of course, I don't know enough of the history to say.

So, as it stands, all we know is that somebody is avoiding another person at all costs. We know nothing about the stakes, and we don't know if this is imposing burdens on others unnecessarily.

GMP said...

There was no harassment involved in this case, just very, very unpleasant/messy personal history.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me as though AR is unnecessarily burdening him/herself both personally and professionally with this history. Every time AR goes out of hir way to avoid being in the same room as BftP, the history is resurrected and the old pain comes back. I'd highly recommend that AR do whatever it takes to put all of this behind hir and move on. That doesn't mean that AR would magically enjoy BftP's company, it just means that AR could find a way to be in the same room with BftP in professional circles without reliving past insults. Plenty of people with very messy/unpleasant personal histories do this every day and I really think that it's better for everyone involved if they can do it professionally and find a way to move on. For example, couples with children who divorce often find ways to work together for the childrens' sake, even if the divorce was messy and unpleasant.

Anonymous said...

I have been avoiding one such interaction from my former PI, so this belongs to to your question 3. I have moved to slighly different field, so we don’t go to the same conferenes anymore, although I can not avoid going to the some conference where he belongs in future completely as there is some overlap and I am not sure I need to go to this length. As I am building my career independently, i will be comfortable going to the same conference probably in future as well. From my personal experience I would say that AR is not unreasonable. If someone makes you so uncomfortable, it is better to avoid them whenever possible. The piece of mind is worth the sacrifice you make in your career (don’t we all have too much pressure/stress already? and actually I am not sure if it is a sacrifice). Each field provides enough opportunities/venues to grow professionally without going through mental hell.

Anonymous said...

sorry, i meant peace of mind...

Anonymous said...

This scenario doesn't sit right with me.

I can't imagine making significant professional sacrifices in order to avoid someone. Of course I can imagine a scenario where one person is victimized by another (e.g. sexual harassment, even if that's not the case here). In a case like that, if I was unwilling to share space with the abuser (legitimate decision), I hope I would be angry and confident enough to disclose my position to the person in charge (e.g. conference chair). Perhaps I'd end up withdrawing my talk, but at least it wouldn't be a private sacrifice. It would be a necessary unpleasantness and a shared responsibility, at that.

And this x1000 if the reason the AR wants to avoid BftP is because s/he continues the abuse.

This all holds even if nothing was "illegal." People can behave badly in relationships (romantic, platonic, professional) without breaking laws or technical university policies. The issue must come down to the degree to which AR and BftP are equal participates in the past and present power dynamic.

If instead the "very, very unpleasant/messy personal history" contained no unethical behavior, just a lot of high emotion, then I hope I would find the personal fortitude to reach a better place. Two mature professionals should be able to inhabit the same space, avoid overt contact, and interact civilly when required. If BftP is unwilling to respect AR's wishes and forces interaction, or if AR is unable to even breathe the same air without misery, then I would say there is something important to be resolved.

Gender doesn't enter into it, except insofar as the larger professional community is likely to interpret the dynamic.

Power dynamics certainly do enter into it. Right now it looks like BftP exerts an inappropriate amount of power over AR and this would be exacerbated if BftP is senior.

Tina said...

None of this. AR should have clear authentic conversation with BftP, and work it out with them.

Anonymous said...

It obviously depends on the situation but I see no reason for the AR to sacrifice himself and his career just for the sake of avoiding someone.

This is unless AR knows that upon any interaction, AR would not be able to maintain a professional attitude and move to an aggressive stance (or something similar that will make him lose more than he has to gain from participating). It is all in the ARs hand..

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to me that BftP is obviously not going to lengths to avoid AR. It may be entirely possible that BftP has put the situation behind hir or just doesn't care. AR may be burdening hirself. (BTW this sounds like something I would totally do in order to avoid unpleasantness.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this is similar to my experience, but during my graduate studies I had a one-time romance (very heated) with someone. We were young and "stupid", so it was not some conventional public relationship. Fast forward almost 10 years, I am a professor and someone too (someone is tenured, I am -hopefully- close to it). WE still cross each-other. We review each others' papers, proposals and meet a conferences. It is weird and embarassing. Someone is still single, and I tried to avoid hu as possible for the past 8 years. It is not easy, and I got tired of doing it. However, I would not jeopardize my career for someone, I don't think it is worth it. My life, now, counts more than what happened many many years ago. That's what AR should probably do. Move on.

BBBShrewHarpy said...

Whether any of these useful suggestions are possible depends entirely on your Q3: whether they are peers. If they are forced together and in that situation forced to interact, then if BftP is senior and other people present do not know the situation between them and also are more aware of BftP than AR owing to seniority/reputation, then if BftP carries animosity towards AR, AR risks at every turn coming off badly in every encounter. So avoidance is good IMHO. If they're peers, it should be possible to suck it up if one's career is important, unless it's so difficult on a personal level that one makes a fool of one's self out of being so uncomfortable.

Dr_WIS said...

If AR did nothing wrong then there is no reason for AR to hide. AR should take a courageous high ground and face this person. Not confront this person, but start showing up where BftP might be. The first time will likely feel terrible, but will get easier and easier each time, I expect. Although BftP may not "deserve" AR's equanimity, it is probably the best thing for AR to do, personally and professionally. AR needs to get past this.

This is the scenario that I am envisioning: AR and BftP had a romantic relationship while AR as a student and BftP was a professor. This relationship ended in such a way that BftP decided professional retribution against AR was called for and necessary and, if it were up the BftP, AS would never work in the field again. Grad school was thus extremely difficult for AR, but AR managed to get out and still build an excellent professional life. BftP is, however, a respected member of the field who is generally thought well of, and BftPs critiques of AR are taken seriously.

AR needs allies, AR needs other people to know what really happened, and AR needs to move forward with his/her personal and professional life.

Anonymous said...

There is another option, which is not to turn things down, but to discuss the other person's involvement with e.g. the panel or conference chair. I have faced similar situations in the past with someone who harassed me as a grad student (incident witnessed and subject to formal complaint). When Senior Harasser was invited to my department to visit, I discussed the situation with my department heads and explained that I would not feel comfortable being at work during his visit. My department head was horrified and told me that although it was hard to withdraw the invitation, this person would not be invited again since I was a valued staff member and it was important to them that I felt comfortable. Similarly when I sat on a conference organizing committee and someone suggested inviting SH. I mailed the Chair personally, explained the situation, and that I would not be happy to sit on a committee where this person was invited as a speaker. Again, they were horrified (not a side of the person that they had known about), and SH was not invited. It surprised me how understanding my senior colleagues were to this situation, and it did not affect my participation in the meeting.

If AR has a compelling enough reason for not wanting to sit on a committee with the other person, talk it over with the Chair and ask which of the two of you they would prefer to have on the panel. The reason would need to be compelling though I think.

Anonymous said...

short of messy personal history involving physical assault or murder, i think AR is overreacting. I am also guessing some kind of romantic relationship went awry. but we all have to deal with assholes. that's a huge part of life, learning to deal with them, so buck up!
A professional asshole a.k.a. the annoying commenter