In our last installment of “Sense & Sangria,” I gave advice to a first-year professor who wasn’t happy with his first tenure-track job. One of our commenters had some excellent advice for the professor:
I have been in the same situation for the last 13 years. What finally did the trick for me, I just decided it was a job, not a lifestyle. I go to work, do my job, get a paycheck and go live my life. It has made all the difference.
If you will recall in Post Academic’s past studies of the “no asshole rule,” Bob Sutton advised that victims of workplace assholes should do all they can not to let the abuse or endless slights “touch their souls.” Sutton shares a story about a woman who couldn’t leave her job but found a way to cope via a rather Zen approach:
… detached indifference, simply not giving a damn, might be the best that you can do to survive a workplace that subjects you to relentless humiliation…. Ruth was physically sitting at the table. In her mind, however, she wasn’t attached to her nasty and demeaning colleagues, their opinions didn’t affect her self-worth, their vile expressions and words weren’t touching her soul, and she was in a different and better world.
Your situation might not be as extreme. Your coworkers might be more irritating than vile. But the point is that, in order to keep work from bringing you down, you need to build up other parts of your life to boost your immunity against workplace strife. Family, friends, side projects, fitness, whatever is your thing, build it up and make it strong. Otherwise, work will just gnaw at you and make you miserable.
And if you give more in an effort to keep assholes at bay, it won’t work. You’ll probably still get laid off anyway or get assigned tasks that you hate, so don’t attach too much value to it. Attach value to what’s really important to you instead of impressing a bunch of assholes. Follow our commenter’s advice: Do your job, get your paycheck and live your life. After all, it is your life, not your boss’s life or your dean’s life.
Antique lap desk with hidden compartment. Image by Koppas from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
I’ve often said that a big benefit of the Hamster World is the ability to turn to HR when you encounter assholes in the workplace. And I will say this: Some HR reps are sloppy, but most of the people I’ve worked with genuinely want to help. I can think of one person who should probably earn a Lifetime Achievement Award in HR.
If that isn’t the case and you have an issue, what do you do? Well, I hate to say this, but you might need to lawyer up. Very few people are excited about hiring a lawyer. It’s expensive, and they have a bad rap from all those late-night ads that scare people with nightmare scenarios like getting hit by a rampaging Oscar Meyer Wiener Truck or catching salmonella from tainted licorice. Whatever. You name it, and there’s a lawyer who can handle it.
But using the words “I am CC-ing my lawyer” will put the fear of a Higher Power in others. One of my neighbors had a problem because the landlord wouldn’t repair a water leak that destroyed some of his books, and he was lucky enough to have a sister-in-law as a lawyer. He wrote a nastygram to the landlord, mentioned that he had consulted a lawyer, and threw in a CC at the bottom of the nastygram for good measure. Within a day, my neighbor received a visit from some efficient handymen, plus money for his books.
I’m not a lawyer. I know a few lawyers. Lawyers can be scary, but they can also be your best friend if you are serious about stopping a problem. Unlike what you may think from seeing “Judge Judy,” no one wants to be dragged into court, and no one wants to pay a settlement.
Caricature of a lawyer from Vanity Fair, 1873, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
One of a bully’s best tricks is to make the victim blame herself. You may get confused as to what is your fault and what is the bully’s. Eventually, you will need to step back from the situation to determine whether or not your boss or a colleague is a bully.
This can be harder in academia because academics aren’t known for having the greatest social skills in the world. But a “creative temperament” is no excuse for acting like an idiot and treating people badly. Yes, creatives are emotional, but part of getting through life is learning how to interact with and compromise with others. If a person with a “creative temperament” also has an anger management problem, he shouldn’t be in charge of anyone, no matter how talented he is.
These cues can help you tell the difference between a bully or a creatively inclined person who is having a trouble managing others:
A bully always has a target. David Yamada of Minding the Workplace says, “In my judgment, the main line in the sand is whether the behavior becomes targeted and malicious. Once it reaches that level, questions of bad social skills, standard-brand incivility, etc., dissolve and what you’re left with is a form of abusive treatment.”
More after the jump! Caricature of Boss Tweed by Thomas Nast from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Our post asking “Can being a lowly grad student kill you?” provoked many comments and responses. When I wrote the post, I hadn’t heard of Kevin Morrissey, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who committed suicide several days before the post went up. While the post discussed the relationship between workplace status, power and health, it didn’t cover outright bullying in the ivory tower.
Perhaps it should have. According to news reports, Morrissey may have been pushed to the brink by his former boss, Ted Genoways, the editor of VQR. All charges against Genoways are alleged, and no one can change the circumstances that drove Morrissey to take his own life, but a picture is emerging of what it was like to work at VQR–and it’s ugly.
On the “Today” show, one of Morrissey’s colleagues called the behavior of Genoways “egregious.” If you want more details, by all means dive in at the Hook and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. More than likely, you’ll be grateful for your boss and your workplace.
But what do you do if you are faced with a bully at work? After reading Morrissey’s story, you might think these situations can be hopeless because UVA’s HR department was allegedly unresponsive after Morrissey complained.
So I asked David Yamada, who runs the blog Minding the Workplace. He is a law professor, Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School, and author of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. He says, “Right now one does not have a right to sue for severe workplace bullying.”
But that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. He advises, “For those who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, union intervention may be a possibility and should be explored early.” If you don’t have a union, Yamada recommends reading The Bully at Work by Gary and Ruth Namie.
A few other suggestions for what to do in a tough work situation after the jump! Image of Boss Tweed from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
The response to “Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?” was intense and informative. One of the comments led me to Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule,” and this book needs to be shared with anyone who is about to enter the work force. Sutton argues that a) Assholery results in lost profits and b) Assholery is contagious, so unless you know how to handle a workplace asshole, you might turn into one yourself.
One of the best tips Sutton offers involves how to cope when you can’t escape an asshole. The Hamster World offers many more avenues of escape, but the Ivory Tower is difficult to navigate, and you may find yourself trapped with an asshole. You can’t fight back because assholes can wreck your career, but you can thwart the asshole by employing strategic detachment:
If you face constant abuse, then (until you can get out) going through the motions and “not letting it touch your soul” is one tactic that can help you survive with your self-esteem intact. In my view, when organizations and bosses treat their people badly, they get what they deserve when their people respond by becoming emotionally detached and doing as little as possible without getting fired. In this imperfect world, there are times when learning “not to give a shit” is the best short-term solution available.
A seasoned asshole wants a reaction from you in order to validate his or her own power. Encouraging the asshole only makes matters worse. It is tough to resist punching someone in the face, even if it is richly deserved, but doing so means you’ve just been infected with asshole syndrome. The best survival strategy is to look for a new advisor, a new field or flat-out a new career. At the very least, the asshole will lose interest in you and move on to more interesting prey.
Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.