Monday, April 18, 2011

Inappropriate Behaviour

Recently Athene Donald blogged about two situations: a male colleague speaking to her on the phone told her that he could hear she was getting emotional and her experience at a reception after an event when a complete stranger put his arm around her waist when a photographer appeared. FemaleScienceProfessor also blogged about her experience as the only female member of a working group when a senior professor in the group mentioned, twice, that she was only included in the group as a gesture to diversity. FemaleScienceProfessor described her response, which was to ignore the remark and move the business of the group forward. There were a range of responses to these posts, many offering suggestions for ripostes in these situations, ranging from the manipulative to 'forgive and forget'.

I am from a cultural background that does not encourage physical contact. I think my own reaction to arm-draping behaviour would have depended on the stage of my career. As a very early career scientist I think my reaction would have been 'So this is what people do at this type of event'. That may also have been the conclusion drawn by my male collaegues. Later on, pre-assertiveness training, I think I would have thought something along the lines of 'I am not comfortable with this but I'll probably never see the guy again so why make a fuss'. After five years exhorting other people to use assertive responses I hope my response would be to move away, saying something like 'I would prefer you didn't do that. It makes me feel uncomfortable'. Assertive responses are not always appropriate. They rely on the person you are interacting with reacting rationally. If they are focussed on 'winning' the encounter this may not be the case. (The Harvard Business Review, May 2008, has an interesting study by Deepak Malhotr, Gillian Ku and J.Keith Murnighan on how competitive arousal leads to poor decision making.)

In general, how you respond to instances of remarks along the lines of 'you are getting emotional' or 'you are only on this committee because we needed a woman' depends on the context. If you suspect that the speaker is trying to provoke a reaction then it may well be the best strategy to ignore his remarks. A humorous remark, if you can think of one, may well be a good response if you think the speaker is just being thoughtless. 'I'll ignore that remark' may be a way of taking control without making too much fuss. Clearly, no one should be expected to object to every single belittling remark. There are circumstances in which it is better to stay focussed on the matter in hand.

In a comment on Athene's post, Dorothy Bishop mentioned 'an incident where everything hinged on whether or not a male academic had sleazy intent in an interaction with a female colleague', (more information on her blog).Here is a definition of inappropriate behaviour taken from the dignity@work policy of the University of Cambridge:
...behaviour is defined as inappropriate if it is:
Unwanted by the recipient.
Perceived by the recipient as violating his or her dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Having regard to all the circumstances, including the recipient's perception, the behaviour could reasonably be considered as having that effect.
There is nothing in this definition about the intentions of the person whose behaviour is in question. The focus is entirely on its effect on the recipient. Of course, the intentions of the person accused of inappropriate behaviour are relevant to what actions are taken to resolve the issue but they are not relevant to the question of whether inappropriate behaviour has, in fact, occurred. What sort of behaviour might be regarded as inappropriate? One scenario, from diversity awareness training material, involves a group of three people, two men and one woman. One of the men tells a joke that hinges on a comparison between a woman with pre-menstrual tension and a terrorist.(I don't remember the joke. It wasn't particularly funny, though I didn't think it was offensive either.) One of the implications of this definition of inappropriate behaviour is that there are bound to be grey areas where some people see behaviour as violating someone's dignity and others do not. This is why people should be encouraged to be able to say when someone's behaviour makes them feel uncomfortable and people who find they have inadvertently given offence to apologise and stop doing it rather than become defensive. No one wants to invoke their institution's formal dignity@work process every time someone makes an unfortunate remark.

What can institutions do to help? We should not be relying on the recipients of inappropriate behaviour or the efforts of a few individuals to address this issue. A common intervention is compulsory training. The problem with this option is that it can end up being counter-productive leading to a culture in which treating people with respect is perceived as enforced political correctness and making inappropriate behaviour more likely and harder for the recipients to deal with as they have to transgress group norms to do so. Macho 'zero tolerance' policies have the disadvantage that often no one is clear what it is that is not tolerated. Also, the problem tends to be framed  as identifying and punishing offenders, which can be a barrier to people seeking help with a difficult situation if what they want to achieve is a resolution that is acceptable to everyone.

Institutions should recognize that staff and students come from a variety of different backgrounds and encourage departments to find ways of promoting appropriate behaviour. It could be as simple as the PI of a group sitting down at morning tea and saying 'I heard about this incident' (making sure it is fictional or anonymised), asking for suggestions on how to deal with it and making sure people understand why someone might find a particular behaviour inappropriate in a professional context, what they should do if they are the recipient of inappropriate behaviour, what they should do if someone suggests their behaviour is inappropriate, and why it is important. Apart from the fact that most of us would prefer workplaces in which people are treated with respect, tolerating inappropriate behaviour leads to lost productivity, attrition of good staff and students, and, if allowed to escalate, to the loss of large amounts of time and energy in pursuing formal complaints procedures.

Finally, do professional bodies have a role in promoting appropriate behaviour and appropriate responses to inappropriate behaviour? Following two high profile cases of data fabrication in 2002, the American Physical Society surveyed (Physics Today, November 2004) its members to find out the state of ethics education and how ethical issues were addressed in practice within physics. A clear majority of members who had held a Ph.D. for less than three years felt that American Physical Society ethics statements should be broadened to include treatment of subordinates. In response the American Physical Society added a statement to its Code of Ethics that subordinates should be treated with respect and with concern for their well−being. This includes the responsibility of supervisors to mentor students, postdoctoral researchers, and employees with respect to intellectual development, professional and ethical standards, and career guidance. Could other professional bodies do more to promote high standards of behaviour in the workplace?


  1. This would make a very good topic for a CamAWiSE meeting, to say nothing of a work-based session.

    thank you Esther.

    The retort I like best is 'I shall ignore that remark', spoken quite neutrally.

    Penny Coggill

  2. As someone with Aspergers' I find the whole concept of inappropriate behaviour to be an ill-defined mess. How can someone who cannot judge the responses of other people to actions which seem quite logical be expected to know which are "appropriate" and refrain from those which are not? I'm not talking about sexism here - I'm talking about simple things like being told off for soaking a shirt in a bucket beside my desk.

    I'd donated blood at a workplace session, the puncture began to bleed again, it stained my shirt and so on the advice I'd heard that one ought to soak it straight away I found a bucket in the cleaner's room and soaked my shirt in it. I set it beside my desk so that no-one would steal it. I had a worked-up manager saying "what would a visitor think?" Well to me the answer is if I were that visitor I'd think "there's a bucket with a shirt in it" without making any value judgement at all. But apparantly this is "inappropriate behaviour."

    Hopefully you can understand why I hate the term "inappropriate behaviour" with a vengeance.

  3. I apologise for arriving at this conversation rather late...
    I wanted to point you in the direction of resources Vitae has prepared for a HEFCE-funded project to improve equality and diversity in researcher careers, it contains scenarios pertaining to E&D issues for PIs to think about:
    with a 'negotiation worksheet'.
    Briefing of how to use the resources is here:
    hope these are of use!