“It’s simply time to say No!” to abusive behavior and toxic interactions

How many of us have either suffered or know someone that has dealt with abusive behavior and toxic interactions in their working place?
We all know someone, right?

Recently, this article “Overcoming Microaggressions in the Lab” written by Kawanda Foster got my full attention and voiced deep and important problems, often hidden. More awareness is needed!
Importantly, the first section “Time for action against hatred and threats against researchers and research” on the KI Newsletter and the Rektor Blog from last week brought more “local” attention to this concerning topic as well.
These experiences of abusive behavior that often lead to toxic and negative interactions are, unfortunately, common in Academia. And sadly, in many other fields as well. 

“It’s simply time to say no”!

Despite getting more and more attention and even media coverage, much more is needed to help researchers, especially young researchers in more vulnerable and precarious situations, facing these career challenges.
A better system in place as a very defined work conduct for both employers and employees is necessary. Knowing the boundaries is important. Respect for them is crucial!


Not long ago, I personally dealt with a dispute with a previous PI. To note, he was never a mentor to me, he was my boss and he made that clear since the beginning. I dealt with disrespectful interactions, irrational emails,  false accusations towards my work,  my scientific conduct and most importantly my integrity & my values. This type of toxic interactions were regularly triggered by a scientific disagreement or simply by a different opinion. Shockingly, many months after leaving this lab – “this boss” and his behavior behind – that was when everything got “out of control”!
Sadly, I was not the first, actually many previous colleagues have dealt and suffered with “worse” situations. But I would love to believe I was the last. (there is) Hope!
During the time dealing with these unnecessary “challenges” I felt lucky to have a supportive environment, not only my encouraging and loving family, partner & friends, but also my colleagues and peers at work, that encouraged me to stand up for myself and to defend my case. I had all the facts. So I did. And I won! (it felt as a victory at the least 🙂 )

After few months, the closure of this “misconduct case” brought me a sense of fairness and positive satisfaction: “seeing” a clear abuse of power being “disciplined”. Although it is not common.
Voicing these problems more publicly can be challenging. It is! Believe me, I can resonate. And in her article, Foster describes it perfectly why: “Unfortunately, reporting this type of mistreatment is an uphill battle, especially when that mistreatment is difficult to prove, the microaggressions are hard to spotlight and there are accompanying implications that you could lose your lab position, research project, ability to graduate – or be labeled as ‘difficult,’  impacting your future hiring potential.

Aren’t these thoughts on our minds constantly, when we deal with a toxic environment or detrimental challenges with your boss or colleagues in the lab?

Time and experience teaches us to develop internal tactics to overcome “ugly” situations like these. It does, and we more often grow after negative experiences rather than positive. But are we ever prepared to really deal with your integrity being questioned in a very unprofessional and disrespectful way? Or to be subjected to vindictive defamation among your peers and working community? With the only goal to damage your career and to show you “who the boss is”.
We need to understand the academic context in which there is a huge power dynamic! Your boss, your PI may hold your future in his/her hands, especially when your career is evaluated by recommendation letters, by the publications he/she determines to publish (when, where and how!), networking opportunities that commonly depend on which lab/Institution you come from. And unless you completely change your work field, Academia has a very proper and unique niche! (love this word, by the way :)) 

Being opinionated and straight-forward, even if respectful can always put you in a tough spot. It is a fact.

However, I loved this advice from Foster 

“Learn the skill of discernment!” 

“This applies not only to your work – what experiments you perform, how you evaluate data, when to cut your losses and try a new approach – but also, who you confide in, trust and consider to be a friend. Do your best to surround yourself with different people who can be mentors, confidants, allies and accomplices. And when you find them? Keep them close. That, to me, is what got me through. I was able to do a lot by myself, but I couldn’t have done it without my support system.”

By talking about this experience more publicly and openly, I really hope it can bring more attention to some intentionally created “blind spots” about toxic interactions and abusive behavior that exist in academia.
Also, *extremely important* is to save all your data, emails, and facts that can always back you up. Save it all. It definitely made a huge difference to me and my case.

 “It is imperative that academic institutions take this issue more seriously and work to create more fair and healthy environment for all”

Importantly, if more of us share our stories and bring our facts, a deep institutional change should occur. It Must.

With all my heart, I hope and believe it will!




Thanks for sharing your experience - this is such an important topic. The easiest solution for many is simply to leave the job/field/academia and I am thankful that there are those that decide to take on the fight and hopefully make it a better for those that follow. That takes a lot of strength!

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