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Bosses Who Bully

If you think bullies only lurk in playgrounds, think again. Adult bullies are ubiquitous, cropping up as supervisors in organizations around the globe. In laboratories and other scientific settings, the inherent imbalance of power between trainees and their supervisors can set the stage for workplace bullying. "Bullying thrives in situations where the perpetrators are both powerful and frightening, and those around them too scared to challenge," writes physician and career counselor Anita Houghton, M.D., in BMJ Careers .

There are other reasons why science is a fertile breeding ground for bullies. "People in certain fields rise up the managerial chain by being experts," says sociologist Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., author of A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses: Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-Stabbers, and other Managers from Hell (American Management Association, 2006). "Science is one of those fields. You can have supervisors who are brilliant in their work as scientists but who don't necessarily have people skills. They may not have management training or an understanding of how to work with employees. Also, in scientific laboratories, there isn't always a human resources person to go to, and there may be few opportunities for oversight. If someone complains, there are likely to be repercussions, and the person can be blacklisted."

If you're a science trainee whose boss is a bully, the challenges and risks, to both your professional and your personal life, are formidable, and your options are usually limited. But if you recognize this phenomenon, there are ways to minimize its adverse effects.

Barbara's experience

Barbara,* currently a postdoc, acquired what she now calls "emotional scars" while earning her doctoral degree. Even though the experiences occurred several years ago, she still can't put them out of her mind. She was a Ph.D. student in biology working in a laboratory at a European university when she was bullied by her bosses.

"It felt like the slave trade," she says. Her advisor, one of two co-directors in the lab, was enraged when he learned that Barbara had moved in with her boyfriend. "If you are planning to have children," he said, "I should know it so you can leave the lab now." Barbara had no such plans--but when one of her labmates became pregnant, the advisor started assigning the woman less and less work, isolating her from her peers. "You became pregnant, and that's the last thing you do in my lab," her advisor told her. The woman resigned.

While Barbara was writing her dissertation, the other co-director told her he needed help running some experiments for a project that would be published in a top-tier journal. When she told him that she was already stretched thin finishing her doctoral work and applying for postdocs, he got angry. He demanded that she think about it overnight and return to his office the next day. Barbara returned and told him that she simply didn't have the time. "You don't understand, Barbara," he said. "I'm not making you an offer; I'm telling you that you are going to do these experiments." Because she was close to finishing her degree and didn't want it derailed, she felt as though she had no choice. She took on the additional work.

Her advisor also asked her to share authorship of her papers with people who had nothing to do with the work. When she questioned the dubious ethics, he made it clear that she wasn't in a position to negotiate. "This is my lab, Barbara; if you don't like my rules, you can go straight to the door," her advisor told her, not for the first time. Other students suffered similar indignities. "Both of them were controlling, possessive, and had no problems threatening students to get what they wanted," Barbara says.

People like Barbara--on the first rung of their career ladders--often have no choice other than to "grin and bear it" when faced with a bully in the workplace, says Scott, who often consults on workplace relationships.

What it means to be bullied in the workplace

There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of "workplace bullying"; the phenomenon can manifest in different forms. Social psychologist Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, defines it as follows:

Repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; threatening, humiliating, or offensive behavior/actions; work interference--sabotage--which prevents work from getting done.

The box below provides a more detailed description, with examples provided by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Although most of us have probably fallen victim to one form of abuse or another, it counts as bullying--and becomes a serious problem--when there is a regular pattern of such behaviors.

Is Your Workplace Toxic?

Examples of Workplace Bullying (Source: CCOHS)

  • Spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo that are not true

  • Excluding or isolating someone socially

  • Intimidating a person

  • Undermining or deliberately impeding a person's work

  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse

  • Removing areas of responsibilities without cause

  • Constantly changing work guidelines

  • Establishing impossible deadlines that will set up the individual to fail

  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving the wrong information

  • Making jokes that are 'obviously offensive' by spoken word or e-mail

  • Intruding on a person's privacy by pestering, spying, or stalking

  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload in a way that creates unnecessary pressure

  • Underwork--creating a feeling of uselessness

  • Yelling or using profanity

  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly

  • Belittling a person's opinions

  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment

  • Blocking applications for training, leave, or promotion

  • Tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment

According to the Canadian Safety Council, bullying--which they consider a form of harassment--is far more prevalent than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, perhaps because the latter are more likely to be illegal. As heinous as the practice is, few countries have laws that discourage workplace bullying. (France, Sweden, and Norway are exceptions.) A recent review in the Journal of Business Ethics suggests that although the body of research is growing, the United States lags behind other countries both in studying the problem and addressing it. The authors speculate that workers in the United States may be more comfortable with autocratic bosses than are workers elsewhere.

A study in the British Medical Journal estimates that workplace bullying affects up to 50% of the workforce in the United Kingdom at some time in their working lives, with annual prevalence rates of 38%. Statistics from a workplace bullying advice line suggest that 90% of cases in the U.K. involve a manager bullying a subordinate; 8% involve peer-to-peer bullying; and in 2% of cases, subordinate(s) bully managers. Perpetrators are equally likely to be male or female, but targets are more likely to be female.

A study published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal focused on doctors who work in a research environment. The investigators surveyed 259 doctors who had registered on largest Web site for doctors in Europe--and found that more than half reported having been bullied in the form of threats to their professional status and personal standing.

Namie estimates that nearly three out of four bullied individuals ultimately lose their position, which suggests that perpetrators aren't often held accountable for their actions. In many cases, victims are blamed; other times, the situation is written off as a personality conflict between two or more people.

"Some people are more bully-hardy or bully-resistant than others," says Eddie Erlandson, a physician and one of the co-authors of Alpha Male Syndrome (Harvard Business School Press, 2006), a book that describes highly competitive and energetic leaders who unintentionally create chaos in the workplace because of bullying tactics. Although there is some research that portrays victims of bullies as unassertive and conflict-avoidant, other reports suggest that bullying is an "equal-opportunity" activity and that anyone of us is vulnerable. Although evidence is only anecdotal, some postdocs feel that foreign trainees are particularly vulnerable as targets due to the social isolation that occurs when someone is new to a country and just learning its language and culture. "You don't know other faculty or other people, so from the beginning you find yourself in this 'you and your advisor on a boat' position," says one postdoc.

The consequences of bullying are serious and extract a huge toll on physical health (leading to migraines, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, and loss of appetite), emotional health (leading to anxiety, depression, irritability, family conflict, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide), and productivity (due to impaired concentration, low morale, absenteeism, and staff turnover).

Bullies exist because the workplace culture supports them. "The incentives to challenge bullying behavior are far outweighed by the incentives to keep your head down," writes Houghton. "This creates an aggressive culture that continues because it selects people who can survive in it--people who are likely to be thick-skinned and aggressive themselves. These people in turn provide role models for the up-and-coming generation."

Tips for turning it around

So what can a science trainee do to avoid the landmines?

Look before you leap

Because it's never easy to deal with bully bosses, try to avoid them. Be careful before you agree to work with an individual who will likely have influence over your career for years to come. Before you accept a position, visit the laboratory (even if it entails a trip across the ocean) and spend time speaking with fourth- or fifth-year trainees who know the history and culture of the lab. Directly ask them about their working conditions and staff turnover.

Watch your back

Once you're on board, experts agree that one of the most constructive approaches to minimizing bullying is for trainees and supervisors to be vigilant and educated about its symptoms. There is a growing body of empirical literature, advice books, and Web sites to help you recognize first signs and teach you coping skills.

Trust your instincts

If you feel like you are being bullied, chances are that you are. Keep in mind that there are no objective tests or criteria; bullying is subjective. One individual may not feel bullied under the same circumstances as another. If you are uncertain about your feelings or if you aren't sure whether you should approach your supervisor, seek advice from a trusted friend, family member, colleague, or mentor. If you want to speak to someone removed from your direct situation, find a safe place online where you can remain anonymous and solicit feedback from others who have had similar experiences. The Forum is one such place.

Don't suffer in silence

Recognize that supervisors are often clueless about the impact of their words or behavior. As a first step, in a firm, but calm, professional demeanor, tell your supervisor how his or her behaviors or comments make you feel and see whether things change. If the situation is so bad that you feel you have nothing to lose, consider reporting the abuse to the next level of management--realizing it may backfire and the consequences may be dire. Be sure to keep a diary recording details of events and collect any written documentation.

Find ways to maintain your self-confidence

Don't wallow in your situation. Instead, allow yourself downtime from work and engage with other people and activities that allow you to feel good about yourself. "Trainees need to develop an awareness of how they react to stress, strain, stretch, unexpected change, and pressure, as well as sleep deprivation," says Erlandson. He suggests that trainees practice "reset" strategies: regular habits of exercise, breathing, relaxation, yoga, meditation, prayer, or music.

You are not alone

Don't let your shame keep you isolated. If your boss is a bully, chances are that other people feel the same way you do. Find confidants, in and out of the office, to whom you can speak openly and with whom you can strategize appropriate actions.

Plan an exit strategy

If the situation is intolerable or causing you more grief than it is worth, it may be time to think about leaving. Don't leave impulsively. Discreetly check out options in other labs or other institutions. Try not to burn any bridges before you go. And remember that the situation will look different when you're out the other end. "I joke about it now," says another postdoc. "I say I deserved a second Ph.D. based on my graduate school experience--one in psychology."

Become a bully-buster when you're in charge

As a manager later on, you can play an important role in guaranteeing a bully-free environment for all. Clarify the steps a trainee should take if his/her concerns aren't heard or are ignored by a supervisor. Assess the negative impact of bullying on victims and bystanders, and be willing to step in. Make sure your organization has mechanisms in place that allow for feedback from employees; periodic evaluations of supervisors should be standard organizational policy, perhaps through an anonymous survey, suggests Scott. Without exception, there should be a "zero tolerance" policy for bullying behavior, says Erlandson: "Clear communication of this intention makes it easy to hold bullies accountable."

Out the other end

By making concessions to her supervisors and by working hard to keep her own frustrations in check, Barbara was ultimately able to complete her doctorate. She also used her experience positively when the time came to choosing her next move. "Money, location, or publications were no longer my priorities when I chose my next lab. I just didn't want to make the same mistake again," says Barbara. She landed safely in a new workplace and was fortunate to find "a wonderful advisor" who is always willing to listen and to help. Entering his office continues to bring back painful memories of her past, but she is hopeful that those too will pass in time.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Was there a great mentor who helped you "kick it up a notch" personally and professionally during the course of your training? How did you find this mentor? What did he or she do for you that was most helpful? Please share your experiences for an upcoming Mind Matters Column. Send your thoughts to

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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Irene S. Levine

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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