That Person at your office

That person at your office

Posted on May 6, 2014

As a professor who teaches and serves as a mentor to university undergraduates, MA and Ph.D. students, and junior faculty, I’m concerned with how we teach people to deal with, and respond to, the bad behavior of their colleagues in the workplace. This post is about that topic.

In 2010 when I was a recently tenured associate professor at my university I agreed to serve on a panel on successful grant writing strategies. The panel had participants from both the social and biological sciences. I spoke about my reasonable success with foundation grants and gave some advice based on my own experience as an anthropologist. After I spoke, a senior professor from the sciences spoke and he basically countered every suggestion that I had given. It was as if he was structuring his entire presentation around an attempt to show that I was wrong. During the Q&A portion of the panel, I was polite to him, actually hedging a bit so as not to offend a stranger, saying that my experience was, of course, based on the social sciences and that the sciences might be very different. He continued in the same vein throughout the rest of the event, quite literally correcting everything that I said when I was answering audience questions and even making fun of my answers a bit.

By 2013, I was a full professor of anthropology, with a named position, and chair of the anthropology department at my college. One of my “faculty service” jobs had become attending a monthly meeting which brings together other senior faculty. At the first meeting in the fall I noticed the aforementioned scientist and it was the first time I had seen him since the panel in 2010.  In addition to seeing him at this meeting every month this year, I’m also on a big, important, multi-disciplinary committee with him now.

This year, at each of these venues, this man has, repeatedly, made fun of something that I have said during the meetings. He has mocked a question I asked about how to do budgets using excel (a program I don’t use very often), he has made fun of my ability to understand spatial relations after I asked a question based on something a student reported to me – making clear that I was asking the question in the terms I was because the student asked it in that way – and he has chided me after I suggested that our administration send important e-mails at the end of the year from addresses that are connected to people and not offices because when we get busy we often delete messages from presidentsoffice@ or deansoffice@.  In all of these instances he has done this publicly, eliciting laughter from our colleagues. I’ve not seen this person outside of these meetings and have no idea how he interacts with his departmental colleagues, but I am the only person he attempts to humiliate during the meetings we attend together.

I started thinking about this a little more carefully recently because I realized that he had “disciplined” me during our last committee meeting. His making fun of me actually altered my behavior. I wanted to contribute to the meeting but because he had made fun of something I said early on, I sat silently for most of the rest of the two hours.

My first thoughts were about what it is about me that elicits his mockery. Could it be that I am an anthropologist and he finds that field ridiculous? Could it be that I am a woman and he finds women ridiculous? Could it be that I am a particular sort of woman and that he finds me, personally, ridiculous? Could all of this be why this person publically and repeatedly attempts to use humor to humiliate me?

But then, after fretting about this for a while and talking to my husband about why this was bothering me so much, I realized that I was shifting the focus and blame to me, basically thinking about what I might have done to cause his inappropriate behavior. And this made mad.

Why is it that we so often give the aggressive and inappropriate colleague the power in the social relations of work? Why is it that I, someone who in every other aspect of my social life would stand up to this person and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that he had better back the F off, am unwilling to do this in the workplace? Why do I allow someone to create asymmetrical social relations when in reality I am fully his equal in position, status, intellect, and ability? Why is it that many of us, in our attempt to maintain the social contracts of the workplace, allow others to break those social contracts repeatedly?

I don’t have answers to these questions but I think it is worth stopping for a second and thinking about this. And I don’t want to think about it using the term “bullying”. Here is why:

The US government defines bullying as:

“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that             involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose”   (http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/).

Bullying is a category of behavior that is meant to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society: children. I think that using the term to describe other forms of socially inappropriate behavior dilutes the power of it and takes away from the important focus on stopping these forms of behavior among and towards children.

I am concerned with repeated, regularized and normalized, actions in the workplace whereby one adult attempts to derive or demonstrate status and superiority through humiliating another adult and how we prepare our students to deal with this.

My mother, who spent her working life in an office, offered the following analysis and comment when I read her this post:

“I don’t think my advice about how to deal with this would be helpful to anyone. I’m from the old school where I was taught that as a woman you just take what is given in the workplace. I can’t even think about it right. He is not above you. You are on the same level…..I was never on the same level with someone who tried to humiliate me at work, it happened lots, lots of men and women above me treated me badly in the work place, but the people at my level, other women I worked with, we wouldn’t have done that to each other………and what can you do about it? You can’t talk to people about it because they will say that you are taking it too personally or that he didn’t mean anything by what he said or that you just need to have a thicker skin. They will say that he was ‘teasing’ you and that you should have a better sense of humor. But that is wrong. But it is probably what I would have said to you about it twenty years ago. But not now.”

What strikes me about my mother’s comments are that they are right on the money in terms of how people respond when you tell them that someone is making you feel bad by making fun of you. People tend to initially do what I did: look towards the person who feels bad as the source of the problem. What I want to suggest is that we need to think more carefully about why we let some people break the rules, what I called the “social contract” of the workplace, and indeed even, through our laughter at the jokes they make at others’ expense, encourage their behavior.

In my attempts to maintain the social contracts of work at my university, I’ve never called this man out for his behavior. I didn’t want to disrupt a meeting by saying, “You know X, that is not funny” or “Actually X, this is the second time today that you have made a point of making fun of something I’ve said. I’d like you to stop that.” And I want to propose that we all stop and think about this and begin to respond to this sort of behavior in more aggressive ways. Finally, I’d like my students to know that this happens to me and that I’m here if they want to strategize about how to deal with it when it happens to them.

About paigewest

Paige West, the Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University, joined the faculty in 2001, the year after earning her Ph.D. in cultural and environmental anthropology. Dr. West’s general research interest is the relationship between society and the environment. More specifically, she has written about the linkages between environmental conservation and international development, the material and symbolic ways in which the natural world is understood and produced, the aesthetics and poetics of human social relations with nature, and the creation of commodities and practices of consumption. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Australia, Germany, England, and the United States.
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Paige West, Anthropology

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