How to call out bad behaviour

Last week, my university welcomed a brand new Vice-Chancellor. The excitement at a new leader was palpable and his welcome address to staff was booked out. On Wednesday morning, flocks of academics left their labs, offices and hobbit holes and walked en masse across campus to hear his first official speech.

His address was vague and inspiring and fluffy and promising all at the same time. He touched on cultural issues in academia and his vision for all to have same opportunities to succeed, regardless of ethnic background, gender, sexuality etc. The new VC also discussed the university’s illustrious alumni and current academic leaders, talking about his well-justified pride in the legacy of the university in Australian of the Year awardees.

Just a week or so earlier, alumni David Morrison had been thrown again into the national spotlight when he was crowned the best amongst us on Australia Day. Morrison, former Chief of Army, is well known for his no-nonsense approach to fighting systemic cultural issues in the armed forces.

His video message to troops at the height of a police investigation into allegations of criminal behaviour by Army members took an uncompromising line on those opposed to diversity and inclusivity. Morrison is the “The stand you walk past, is the standard you accept” bloke. He also said “If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it…If that does not suit you, then get out!”

At the time, I commented that academia needs a Morrison. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. The Army is a hierarchical institution, where a strong stance from the top has impact. Academia is an entire industry, spanning many complex organisations that aren’t the same. We don’t need a Morrison; we need a Morrison in every lab group, in every corridor, in every department, in every faculty, in every university.

So how can you be a Morrison? It’s not so easy to call out bad behaviour when you are the victim of it, or the disempowered student or postdoc witness of bullying. In departments with poor workplace cultures, there is often a vested interest in not acting on complaints of bullying. Sometimes the bullies are the ones at the top. Or sometimes simply addressing complaints would reveal systemic issues that have long been ignored.

Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules for calling out bad behaviour. However, there are lots of resources and people around universities help. There’s always someone around who can be trusted, whether that be a supervisor, mentor or student representative, a staff officer or counsellor. Use these resources to remind yourself regularly that you are not at fault or to blame for being bullied.

If you are the victim or witness of workplace bullying or harassment, value your mental and physical safety and make sure you take care of yourself first. If required, remove yourself from places you feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s ok to end meetings where you are being bullied by getting up and walking out

If you feel that your position is too fragile to publicly call out bad behaviour, don’t feel additionally bad about this. It’s the nature of bullying that the bully builds himself/herself up by pushing others down. Nonetheless, there’s still options for protecting yourself at the time, including taking notes in or asking to record meetings, distributing email records of conversations, and raising concerns informally with senior staff members so that a record of bullying exists. And use those resources to help yourself through – go to the university counsellors, seek advice from the dean of students or HR liaison or whoever can help.

If you do feel empowered to call out bad behaviour, there’s a plethora of ways to do so, from launching a formal complaint through to a gentle but firm “you shouldn’t say that, it’s not appropriate”. Not all discriminatory or inappropriate workplace behaviour is intentional or cognisant. Many people let slip hurtful comments by mistake and actually appreciate an opportunity to correct themselves at the time. In other cases where such public comments are intentional, having someone in a strong position call them out sends a strong signal to those in weaker situation that such discriminatory comments are not representative of everyone in a department.

On a personal note, I’ve let bad behaviour slide more times than I can remember. Sometimes I’ve been too frightened to speak up and laughed along at being the punch line of a hurtful joke. Other times, I’ve simply been too worn down to act. I certainly don’t regret not calling out bad behaviour on these occasions, protecting yourself must come first.

But I have learnt that bad behaviour doesn’t go away. A bully is always a bully, who will always be back for another turn at the same victim, or another. In this case, we are all collectively responsible for the worst behaviour in any department. That is, the standard we walk past is the stand we accept.

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