Challenging Workplace Negativity

EGU’21 held a Great Debate: Challenging discrimination in the geosciences: amplifying unheard voices. I started thinking about all the conversations I have had over the past few years. Every day I hear more and more accounts of countless people facing difficult situations at their workplace. Situations where it was plain as day that they were being discriminated against. Situations where people walked away, made them feel  as if they were at fault when they were harassed or abused. Equally importantly, some coworkers have been in situations where it was difficult to identify the source of the negativity; were they being systematically discriminated against, or did they just have bad co-workers? As with many things in life, there is often no simple answer here.

Negativity in the workplace could be due to the lack of a good leader, lack of open communication, distrust and lack of transparency, limited development opportunities, harassment, and/or discrimination. Academia is infamously rife with all these issues. The obvious signs of a negative workplace include disrespecting, harassment, inappropriate touching, name calling and jokes, as well as physical, verbal, and mental abuses. However, many signals and warning signs are more subtle. Through discussions with peers, I have drawn an additional list of signs to watch out for:

1.     Are discussions about your work happening in a language that you don’t understand?

2.     Are you being yelled at or blamed regularly by one or more of your co-worker(s), senior researcher(s) and/or technician(s)?

3.     Are you being ignored by one or more of your co-worker(s), senior researcher(s) and/or technician(s)?

4.     Do you have a nagging sense of feeling that your scientific opinion is being ignored, or that the time you put for the assigned tasks is not being valued?

5.     Are you stonewalled when conducting your research (either in field or in laboratory) due to lack of cooperation from senior researchers, technicians and/or the group leader?

6.     Do you have a general feeling of not being treated fairly by your supervisor and/or co-worker(s)?

7.     Are you feeling isolated in your research group?

8. Have you been assigned extra tasks for which other people are responsible or take the credits?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then unfortunately you are likely in a negative workplace environment, and possibly even being discriminated against.  You may or may not have the courage to raise the issue with your research group leader or even someone further up in the hierarchy. However, you are not powerless in this situation. Try to surround yourself with a positive community and peer group, and reach out for support outside your research group (e.g. students and researchers union).

On the other hand, if you have witnessed a colleague being treated this way, we hope you can take supportive actions as well. You can be part of a culture change by actively supporting the victim mentally and/or emotionally. You may also be able to assist them in whichever action they decide to pursue against the perpetrator in order to solve problems. Alternatively, you can call out your colleagues on their negative behavior independently. You could also initiate group activities or team building exercises to build a foundation of trust within the research group.

While early-career researchers may be able to express their dissatisfaction with the workplace environment, the onus to sustain positive culture change in the workplace and to instill anti-discriminatory attitudes in all team members remains on the group leader or the head of the organization. The conversation during the panel discussion also veered towards this aspect: We must stop putting the onus of change on early-career researchers! At the same time, we must remember that as we progress through our careers, we will, one day, be part of that leadership. The way we behave as leaders will build from how we ourselves behave now and how we interact with our colleagues in our working environment. And so, our work begins now: treating each other with respect, compassion, kindness, and dignity. This is our answer to Prof. Pancost’s parting question at the panel: What does it mean to be a good ally?

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