Bullying & Incivility: PART 1 – Defining the Problem

This blog entry was actually posted on December 9, 2015.

This article is from the WLUFA Advocate 1.2 December 2012.

Judith Fletcher, Professor,
History, Full-time liaison officer

A junior faculty member accepts an invitation to present her research to students and colleagues as part of a departmental lecture series.

The formal presentation seems to be going well until halfway through a senior
professor interrupts to announce that he doesn’t believe what she’s saying
and that her analysis is unacceptable to him.

Rather than wait for the question period, when he would have had the opportunity
to air his opinions in the appropriate forum, a senior scholar humiliated
a young professor in the presence of her students and colleagues. This example of incivility is unfortunately not an isolated case for faculty and librarians at Laurier. Workplace bullying is typified by a systematic attempt to demean and belittle coworkers over a period of time.

Academic incivility is the term used to describe some behaviors associated
with bullies in a university context: snide remarks made while another
member has the floor at a meeting, for example.

Bullying and incivility are associated with, but are distinct from, harassment
and discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion
and other prohibited grounds, i.e. bullying does not always fall under the
jurisdiction of the harassment policy. Bullies often blur the distinction
between personal and professional motives. Professional behavior
focuses on the efficiency of a department: for example, a program coordinator
might ask a faculty member to make more equitable contributions by
sitting on more committees.

Bullying, on the other hand, is directed at an individual: if a chair excludes
a faculty member from an important committee for no valid professional
reason, or cuts him out of an email exchange with the rest of the
department, then the behavior is clearly not focused on efficiency, but is
now a calculated act of hostility.

WLUFA’s grievance officer receives a growing number of complaints about bullying and toxic work environments. Committee meetings where one participant feels that he or she has the authority to disparage colleagues have become the norm for many professors.

Ridicule and sarcasm are common weapons against coworkers who may
have disagreed with the dominant clique, or seem different because of
their research interests, or threatening because of their popularity, accomplishments
or gender.

Academic incivility includes giving coworkers “the silent treatment” by
refusing to speak to them, spreading malicious rumors and gossip, micromanaging,
or exploiting rules and regulations (which are otherwise ignored)
to further an agenda of humiliation. It is not uncommon for
members who do not participate in the bullying to turn a blind eye to
pathological behaviors, either from fear of reprisal or perhaps because
after years of such behavior it seems normal.

Our institution is not a unique specimen of this problem. Darla J. Twale
and Barbara M. De Luca have identified the nature and scope of the toxic
academic workplace in Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully
Culture and What to Do About It (2008). Their examples suggest that the
phenomena of bullying and incivility can occur at every level of the
academic hierarchy.

One respondent reports how the appointment of a dean was contested by a faction which had supported one of their colleagues. The new dean’s authority was challenged
at every turn and her decisions were consistently blocked by
the hostile faculty. Eventually she had no option other than to step
down from the position, but even after she left, her critics continued
to disparage her openly.

This phenomenon, known as mobbing, has been intensely researched over the past decade.

Common symptoms of group bullying include gossip and malicious
rumors about the target, or defamatory, emotional rhetoric (even in
the presence of students) regarding the target’s perceived faults. There
is often a sense of collective outrage when the victim seeks outside help.

What’s causing this proliferation of incivility, bullying and mobbing?
Possible explanations include increased stress due to diminishing
resources. Twale and De Luca associate the culture of incivility with the growing corporatization of the academy. Introducing market forces promotes competition and self-promotion rather than collegial and cooperative behavior; incivility goes unchecked as long as the entrepreneurial goals are met.

Other explanations include a strongly patriarchal culture that resists and denigrates challenges to male dominance in the academy. In many cases, however, it comes down to individual character flaws: poor social skills, a sense of entitlement, narcissism, professional immaturity, and other antisocial traits, that are tolerated in a profession that has a reputation for eccentric behavior.

In the next issue of Advocate I will examine the effects of a toxic work environment on mental health, individual and communal productivity, and an educational environment that aspires to “a vibrant sense of community.” I will also explore some strategies, both at the individual and institutional level, for dealing with a problem that has become all too familiar.

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