my employee is combative and rude — how could I have prevented this?

A reader writes:

I’m a professor and I direct a lab that does my research; my lab consists of a small group of relatively short-term students and also long-term staff. One lab staff member who has worked with me for years (“Icarus”) is very talented, and consequently I helped her develop professional skills beyond the typical level of someone in her position.

I am now having a major problem with Icarus’ attitude, which has deteriorated dramatically. She is openly disrespectful of me, disruptive of my lab, complaining all the time, and almost combative towards me about many lab decisions. I am curious how this could have been prevented, and if there is anything I can do about it now other than firing her, which is probably what I will do soon. But I don’t want this to happen again!

All was well in my lab for many years. A couple years ago, Icarus started becoming more rude and less professional in interactions with me, openly expressing frustration both when we met in private, in her emails to me, and also in my lab’s general meetings. This started right after I was successful in finally getting her a promotion and increase in pay that she had wanted! Which I personally was paying for. (I should say that as in many universities, my lab is entirely run and funded by me as if I were CEO of a small business — all personnel, including Icarus and me, are paid for through my grants that I obtain solely in my own name, and if I lose my grants or go over budget, my school will discipline me and possibly I’ll be fired or my lab closed down, etc.)

I thought maybe Icarus was experiencing a temporary personal crisis or something like that — it was so unexpected. So I tried to respond mostly sympathetically to her attitude change and have tried to work through it. I met with her often to check about her complaints and tried to check about her work level and if it was too much, and I was supportive of hearing her concerns, etc. But I also haven’t been a cream puff boss — I had some tough meetings with her and made clear that certain behaviors (such as refusing to do experiments that I asked to be done) were simply not okay. No matter what I did, the behavior continued and has gotten worse with time.

The most confusing thing to me has been that her bitterest complaints and battles with me have been about things that I, as the professor, would obviously have the final say about since it’s my lab. Things such as my lab’s overall research directions, the writing and data and citations we include in papers and grant applications, which particular aspiring students we should accept into the lab to train, and so on. Icarus gets white hot mad at me when I do not take her exact advice or preference on these things. I’ve sat down with her and asked, why are you mad about this? And she has said that she is more knowledgeable about the science and field and grants and the writing of scientific papers than I am (?!). I’m baffled by this response because she knows very well she does not have much experience in these areas. I try to be sensitive to her feelings and say that I appreciate her input, etc. and then I carefully explain the scientific reasons behind my decisions. But it doesn’t work — she just stays mad and continues to think I am wrong.

It feels like such a ridiculous situation to me … why do I have to keep arguing with a lab worker about these things? I’m a tenured professor with 40 years experience and I’ve been very successful in my field and so on, and Icarus is a much younger lab worker in my lab without an advanced degree.

One more thing — I’m a woman. I thought maybe Icarus would respond better to a male faculty member and this has proven correct. I brought a male faculty friend of mine to some of our lab meetings, and of course he agreed with me about research directions and so on. Interestingly, Icarus now thinks this male faculty member is the cat’s pajamas, and asks to consult him about all our disagreements! Which is not happening, of course — I am fully capable of running my own lab.

So, any suggestions?

Fire Icarus. Like, this week.

You’ve been way too tolerant, and it’s time to end this. It’s not okay for someone who works for you to be be openly disrespectful, disruptive, rude, and combative. Academia can have a higher tolerance for disagreement than some other work environments do, but what you’ve described in truly unacceptable in any environment.

It’s great that you’ve tried to be supportive and sympathetic to whatever might be going on with her, and that you’ve tried to hear her out and respond to her complaints. But only up to a point — once someone’s behavior is openly rude and disruptive, it’s time to sit the person down and say, “This is how things are going to continue to run here, and I need you to decide if you can work here and be reasonably content knowing that or not. It’s not an option to stay and continue being combative and disruptive.”

It sounds like you’re long past that point.

But you have had meetings where you’ve told her these behaviors weren’t okay, which is good. She’s continued them anyway, which means that this is now the part where you say, “We’ve discussed in the past that I can’t have you work here and continue to do XYZ. Those behaviors have continued and even worsened, and so I need to let you go.”

I suspect you’ve let this go on as long as you have because you’ve been trying to understand it. Her behavior is so odd (telling you that she’s more knowledgeable about your field than you are?!) that you’re trying to figure out where on earth it’s coming from, and if there’s something you can do that will make her behave differently.

But at a certain point — and you’re long past that point — it doesn’t matter why someone is being disruptive and inappropriate. It only matters that they are, and that you can’t have that. You’ve told her that, she’s ignored you, and now it’s time to follow through on that.

You asked about preventing this again. The key really is to call out inappropriate behavior early on, make it clear what you need the person to do differently, be clear that the issues are serious ones, and then impose the natural consequences pretty swiftly if they continue. One of the problems with cutting people slack over and over is that — while it can feel like you’re being kind and accommodating, giving the person chance after chance — you train them to believe that they don’t need to take you seriously when you tell them “this isn’t okay and I need you to change it.” They can even end up blindsided when you eventually do fire them — not that they should be blindsided if they’ve been warned for months/years that their behavior is unacceptable, but your actions have contradicted your words (because you’re saying “this isn’t okay” while letting it happen over and over).

The best thing you can do is to be really up-front and transparent when you need someone to operate differently, and then mean it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 443 comments… read them below }

  1. Kay*

    I’ve never gone to or worked in a university so I had no idea a professor could be fired or disciplined if they lost their grants. I admit I don’t know how grants work but it seems weird to me that a professor would get in trouble if aa grant was lost through no fault of theirs. I definitely learned something new today.

    1. Justme, The OG*

      I work with both state and federal grants (as an employee, not the faculty that got the grants). The ability to get and keep grants is definitely something that the tenure committee looks at. And if the income source is gone, there is literally nowhere to pull the paycheck from.

    2. Research Administrator*

      It’s a whole thing! The setup varies by school/institution type, but generally STEM professors are responsible for funding all of their lab personnel (plus research expenses/equipment and a certain level of contribution toward the organization’s overall operating expenses). Some schools require you to fund all or part of your salary (for some it’s just the summer, for others it’s 100%, for others like where I work it’s 0%) out of your grants too. Losing your grants could mean, depending on what you’re expected to be funding, losing all of your staff or, as the OP notes, your job (if you’re 100% responsible for your own salary). And as an early career professor, not getting grants, or the right kinds of grants, in the first place can mean not getting tenure (i.e. effectively fired).

      1. Flower*

        To add onto this – I’m a PhD student in a life science – at the university I’m at, faculty gets start-up funds from the university (I think it’s intended to cover the first two to three years of research?) and after that it’s all you and the grants you can earn (note – your own salary might be partially the purview of the university, I’m not sure (would make sense, since they’re required to teach a small amount) – but everything you need for your research, salaries for your lab techs, postdocs, graduate students, etc, is definitely up to you). It can limit the students, too – you can’t choose a lab for your thesis where the PI can’t pay you, no matter how much you might admire their research or like them as a manager, and your compensation *is* dictated by the university. Here, the programs can provide some fallback funds for the students if a longtime proven faculty member has a temporary problem getting money. As a student, you can also apply for grants, though, which could cover your salary, allowing the professor to divert those funds elsewhere.

        It’s a little frustrating to witness – personally, I wanted to get a PhD to learn to be an independent researcher, not to end up spending most of my time writing grants. Hence, why I’m not aiming to stay in academia.

        1. Tara S.*

          If they’re roster faculty, a PI’s salary during the school year is covered by the University. But all their lab staff, and any summer pay, come from grants. If you’re tenure track, you likely won’t be fired for not bringing in any grants, but there will be pressure, and possibly disciplinary action depending on your contract.

          Also, yeah, academia research is a rat race for funding. The “rainmaker” PIs apply for funding constantly, and/or get HUGE grants on a continuing basis (think hundreds of millions for like 5 years). You get a lot of control over your research, but the tradeoff is you’re always scrambling to publish/apply for new funding.

          1. KM*

            This may be true at your University, but by no means all. I’m at a private R1 grad school, and ALL faculty, regardless of tenure or seniority are responsible for about 80% of their salary (a bit less if you have significant admin responsibilities, like deans). I think public universities are a bit better but there are a number of private R1s that function almost entirely on soft money.

            1. Tara S.*

              True! I am realizing in this thread that there is more variability than I realized. My only impression of private universities is that whenever we get a PI coming from private to our public, they get a shock about how many more rules there are ;)

            2. Optimistic Prime*

              Yep, I went to an R1 for my PhD and our professors were also responsible for about 80% of their salary. And there were definitely positions that were 100% soft money.

        2. Thing1*

          In the large university where I got my PhD, professors in the main part of the university were paid by the university, although I think some of them got paid a summer salary out of their grants, since they were on a 9-month pay schedule. Professors in the med school had a reduced salary that they could get from the university, but generally paid much of their own (especially any summer salary) through grants. So it partially depends on discipline, too.

          1. Murphy*

            At my university it varies a lot based on discipline. Some professors are expected to write grants that include their salaries, and others aren’t.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        Off-topic, but I’m murky on all this because I’m not in academia (and stupidly, one of my book characters is a STEM professor who moves to a private lab). Can I ask you some questions about this? You can email me aelizabethwest at Thank you.

        Now, relating to the post: could Icarus’s behavior cause the OP to lose her grants? I mean if Icarus were driving away other staff or student workers?

        1. Tara S.*

          Hey! I’ll email you, though my experience is from the staff side, not the research side.

          I highly doubt Icarus could do something to make OP lose grants. That’s usually only done when the research completely fails to conduct research, or there’s financial misconduct. There are a lot of controls in place to avoid that.

          Icarus’s behavior could be driving good people away, though, so the lab suffers because it doesn’t have the best people it could.

          1. A Nickname for AAM*

            Icarus could, theoretically, cause them to lose grants due to misconduct. I was a lab manager, briefly, for STEM lab with a few huge grants. There’s a ton of stipulations within the grant for appropriate conduct, and there’s a bunch also attached to the Institutional Review Board who greenlights and oversees the experiment.

            Something stupid like incorrect data storage methods, mismanaging equipment paid for by grant funding, incomplete paperwork for funds spent on the grant, incorrect paperwork for study participants if they were human or animal, can cause the lab to fail an audit, have research suspended, and lose paperwork. While I was working in the lab, we ended up with a few near-misses over mis-signed paperwork and some computer hard drives where the original researcher lost the password, graduated, and left without telling anyone, trapping grant-paid-for data in an unrecoverable format. These had to be reported.

        2. Optimistic Prime*

          Indirectly, possibly. If Icarus’s behavior was causing the OP’s lab to slow down on the research work, stalling or preventing publications from going out, driving key staff members to leave the lab, etc., then she could make it really difficult for the OP to do the work necessary to get grants renewed or to get new grants to pursue continued research. It’s unlikely that current funding would be pulled, but future funding could be at risk, since PIs at universities rely on their lab staff to keep it all going.

        3. yasmara*

          Also @Elizabeth West, read Lab Girl! There’s a ton of how-the-sausage-is-made info about STEM academia & funding from her personal standpoint.

    3. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      It’s on a par with publish perish. If you aren’t bringing money into the university, either directly with outside funding, you need to part of the research (or let’s face it, sport) that does bring revenue to the school.

    4. Untenured perspective*

      I would be surprised if a tenured professor could be fired. I assume LW is untenured but tenure-track.

      1. Fergus*

        If she overspends she can be taken through discipliniary measures and if she has no grant incone she can be moved to teachibg only which would effectively be making her job redundant wven if funds are still available to pay part of her salary.

      2. cataloger (tenured)*

        Tenured professors can be fired. The state where I live is currently trying to pass legislation to make it easier to lay-off tenured faculty.

      3. blackcat*

        Depends on where. For example, it is now quite easy to fire a tenured faculty member from the University of Wisconsin (because Scott Walker). You’ll have a much harder time at, say Harvard (because Harvard) or the University of CA system (because CA).

        The world would be a better place if more were in the middle IMHO.

        1. Magenta Sky*

          You are correct about the UC system. Among other requirements, the tenured faculty have to vote to approve the firing. A few years back, there was a huge scandal in the fertility clinic that ended with the guy in charge on the lam in Mexico to avoid criminal charges. The vote to revoke his tenure passed, but only barely. Nearly half the tenured professors didn’t feel that a triviality like felony indictments was a reason to fire him.

      4. Nephron*

        Depending on how much of the OP’s salary comes from grants the University does not need to fire her, it can simply have her income become minuscule and wait for her to walk away.

        1. Agnes*

          Right, usually you keep your job and your desk, but with no salary and no lab, not much point, is there?

    5. Specialk9*

      Icarus needs firing, but I’m wondering if there is a clue to why she is so angry at the OP in this statement
      “Which I personally was paying for. (I should say that as in many universities, my lab is entirely run and funded by me as if I were CEO of a small business — all personnel, including Icarus and me, are paid for through my grants that I obtain solely in my own name”

      Because personally paying for isn’t actually true. OP isn’t using their own personal money — a grant isn’t their money, it’s professional money they’re managing. And the grant may be under their name, but it’s not a personal loan, and they have to do certain things with it. It’s not OP’s money, they’re a manager and there would be serious consequences of them mishandling money, because it’s not their personal money.

      So some of the problem here may stem from the OP feeling so confident about claiming something so wildly untrue, and smacking of arrogance and grandiosity. How else is that dynamic playing out in the lab?

      That said, definitely fire Icarus.

      Then reflect on your attitude and consider if you may need to adjust your own self image.

      1. Forking Great Username*

        I didn’t get that read on OP’s post at all, even the parts you quoted. It was a simple comparison to help those unfamiliar with how grants and funded research works. Grandiose, arrogance, wildly untrue…that seems like a pretty extreme reaction. OP was very clear about the fact that it is all being paid for through a grant.

      2. Empty Sky*

        If the OP accepted a research position at a different university, would she bring the grants with her?

        If the answer is yes, then I think the description in the post is fairly accurate.

        1. TreeSilver*

          Depends on the negotiated transition. Grant awards are generally made to the organization, not the individual, BUT the experience of the principal investigator (PI) is a factor in getting the award in the first place. When moving from one org to another, it’s possible to either bring the grant, leave the grant but still be funded by it on a subcontract basis, or leave the grant for another PI to take over.

        2. GoingAnon*

          It partly depends on what kind of university and where she’s located. In Canada it is SO not your money – even though it goes with you if you change universities and its in your name. It’s public money or in some cases industry money but it is clearly not your money. The spending rules, the audit requirements, etc. are significant and for most grants you cannot just work on whatever you feel like. That said, lots of faculty and PIs view it as their money but it’s really not.

          It may be different in the US – so grain of salt.

          1. TL -*

            Some grants attach to a person, some to a lab (PI), some to a lab+institution. Some grant money travels, some does not. Some is attached to a person, some to a lab, some to a combination of things. Some of it can only travel within certain geographic (state, usually) boundaries; some can travel anywhere in academia but not into industry (obviously.)

            And some of it gets really detailed – when my last PI left for industry, his lab was kept open for a year after he went. Some grants had to be spent by the time he started his new job, some had to spent by the time the lab closed, some were transferred with the project to a new lab, a very few went back to their funding source. Some people took their grants with them when they left; others had grants that went away when the lab did.

            Finally, the name of your university has a very large impact on whether or not you’ll get funding anyways – a hugely disproportionate amount of NIH funding goes to Boston, even after accounting for quality + amount of work done there.

        3. Specialk9*

          It’s still not her personal money. It’s grant money. She can’t go buy herself a car for her mom, for instance, with that grant money. Calling grant money your personal money is odd to me. I’ve managed a lot of other people’s money, and never gotten confused.

          1. Optimistic Prime*

            When academics say “my personal money” they usually mean grant funding they manage vs. university resources. It’s kind of like at my company a PM might say “I am going to pay for this,” which means it comes from their program’s budget and not my org’s budget. She doesn’t literally mean it’s coming out of her paycheck; she means it’s money that it is up to her to manage and spend mostly as she wishes within reason.

            1. Sack of Benevolent Trash Marsupials*

              +1 to this, and also – getting grants is increasingly difficult, and the whole process is a ton of work for the PI, so if you have chosen to allocate some of your grant budget to support someone’s salary, it would really feel like a slap in the face to have that person being disrespectful/ungrateful/disruptive. Also, PIs frequently say stuff like “I am supporting so-and-so,” that’s not weird – the ‘personally’ was probably intended for emphasis.

          2. Brittasaurus Rex*

            I don’t think she’s confused either. You seem to have an uncharitable read on LWs.

      3. Ace*

        No, this is totally normal in academic settings. Before you make up your own illusions about the situation, spend some time in a university with professors.

      4. KM*

        That stuck out to me, too. Giving someone a job and paying them more money isn’t a personal favour you’re doing for them — it’s a transaction that, in this case, you’re paying for with money intended for that purpose. Is the implication that the OP would have pocketed that grant money otherwise instead of spending it on the project?

        I got a really condescending vibe from the whole thing — even calling this person “Icarus” and implying that it was a mistake to train her to have skills and abilities “beyond the typical level of someone in her position.” Also: “It feels like such a ridiculous situation to me … why do I have to keep arguing with a lab worker about these things?”

        It reads to me like, “Why can’t she just accept that she’s my Igor?” which I find a little rude.

    6. Igg*

      That’s poo if he’s got tenure. And why does he bring it up at all? It’s a flag

  2. Envoy*

    I’m honestly shocked that this has gone on for two years – especially since the only thing Icarus has going for her is that she’s “very talented”. Not irreplaceable, not the shining star of the lab, just… talented.

    OP, you’ll presumably be able to find another employee who is equally talented and not unhinged.

    1. chocolate lover*

      As someone else who works in an academic environment, I can tell you this kind of prolonged aggravation does indeed happen. The OP has clearly been addressing it with the employee, but I wonder if they’ve also documented/reported it with HR? Even with documenting, I’ve seen issues with employees go unresolved because HR didn’t consider anything egregious enough to do anything about it – despite an ongoing pattern of poor, unprofessional, and at times completely insulting/rude behavior.

      1. WellRed*

        This isn’t the sort of thing HR is for, though, is it? The LW needed to nip it in the bud.

        1. Annette*

          I’m not sure what you think “nipping it in the bud” would entail.

          At a university, if the letter-writer wants to create a formal paper trail of issues with this employee, they will need to involve HR.

          They most likely would not be able to fire the employee without involving HR and documenting an attempted improvement program.

          1. College Career Counselor*

            It may be different if the PI is essentially the employer of record, since her grants pay for her employees. She may have leeway not to go through HR (although I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it) to fire Icarus. That said, the easiest thing may be not to renew Icarus’s contract (presumably she’s on an annual, renewable contract), which is likely to be up in a couple of months. The PI can say, “your contract is not being renewed, so you should start to look for other employment.”

            If Icarus wants to leave early, that’s fine. If she stays the entire length of the annual contract, however, I would make it contingent upon very specific professional behavior and if not demonstrated, terminate her. I’d also watch her for possible sabotage of experiments, based on what the PI says.

            Why not fire her immediately? Based on what I’ve seen of the speed of university bureaucracy, that’s liable to take longer than letting her contract expire at the end of the fiscal year (this is often June 30th).

            1. Luna*

              Your thinking more of postdocs, not staff. Most staff are not on annual contracts and are definitely employed by the university, not PI.

              1. Your Weird Uncle*

                At my university, anyway, it depends on what kind of employee they are. I am considered academic staff and on a permanent contract, and employed by the university’s general funds.
                However, in my department we have lab managers and research staff (which category it seems like Icarus falls into) who are grant-funded and these employees would be on an annual contract.

              2. College Career Counselor*

                Fair enough re: postdocs, and it may be that lab staff have multi-year contracts as university employees.

                That said, I’ve been in higher ed administration for many years, and my contract is annual, as is that of most of my administration colleagues. All of us could be told that our contract will not be renewed come July 1st. And in the at-will states, I could be let go tomorrow (although they’d have to pay me through the end of my contract, unless I was being let go for cause).

                1. Rachel01*

                  The process of discussing the problem with the employee, preparing formal documentation and having them sign a PIP plan may get rid of her. She may job hunt. Also, have a female staff member from HR sit in one the conversation. If you’ve been if documenting this, submit it to HR. You may be able to do a final warning.

              3. So long and thanks for all the fish*

                That’s true of like, departmental staff- I’m not so sure about staff who work for a particular lab though. Particularly as the OP says she has no advanced degrees and is not a grad student, my bet would be that Icarus is probably pretty low on the university totem pole and is probably very easy to get rid of as far as academia goes.

        2. chocolate lover*

          That’s exactly the kind of thing HR is for at our University, as far as setting employee policies, when someone is allowed to be on a PIP, grounds for termination, etc. The manager, like OP, can address it with the individual, but they have institutional protocols to follow as far as actually getting rid of someone.

      2. Luna*

        Yes, I’ve seen it happen more than once. The LW definitely needs to document with HR if she hasn’t been already. Often universities have strict rules about when an employee can be fired.

        LW, it doesn’t sound like you could have done much more in this situation. I don’t know what is going on with this particular employee, but it can be very difficult being a staff member in a university. Staff are always, always second if not third class citizens, have no say over anything, and there are often limited opportunities to advance and move into a new job within the university. Given your description of her unhappiness I wouldn’t be surprised if she has been applying to other lab jobs for a while and getting nowhere. My point in saying this is that her behavior and attitude is likely more a sign of frustration with an overall situation that is out of her, and your, control.

        1. Tinnuvial*

          +1 to all of Luna’s post. I work in HR for a UK based research org and OP would only be able to fire Icarus if they had documented all these discussions and put a PIP in place, even if Icarus is on a fixed term contract. If OP came to me now I would advise a PIP with a 6 month review and if she fails she is fired. 6 months seems like a lot but it is easy to fake attitude change in the short term but hard to maintain and you need to be able to document that you have given them a good chance to improve.

    2. Parenthetically*

      TWO YEARS! From the title, I figured a few months.

      Fire her. Goodbye forever. Keep on flying.

    3. LibbyG*

      Oh, I can imagine why this has gone on for two years.

      The first six months I would think, “Huh, something’s up with Icarus. Maybe it’s personal, maybe it’ll resolve.” Then the next six months, “Nope. Not resolving. Must have conversations.” Six months later, “Not improving. Have more conversations.” And then at about the two year mark, “This is off the rails. Must address this firmly and figure out how to make sure I don’t ever recreate a situation like this.”

  3. Marillenbaum*

    Ooh, buddy. OP, Alison is entirely right: Icarus needs to GO. Like, yesterday. I can understand the desire to figure this out and solve the problem so that Icarus slows her roll. Realistically, that will never happen; the only way you can solve this now is by getting her out of your lab, pronto. Her bananacrackers behavior is inappropriate and firing is an entirely reasonable consequence.

    1. Michelle*

      Agree a million times. You’ve actually gone “above and beyond”, met with her and used your words- now it’s time to fire Icarus.

  4. Detective Amy Santiago*

    You are far, far more patient than I could ever be.

    The whole thing about the male faculty member is just so so gross.

    1. chocolate lover*

      Agree about OP’s patience. And willingness to address the issues directly with the employee, as so many managers avoid those conversations.

    2. serenity*

      The whole thing about the male faculty member is just so so gross.

      Agreed. Icarus clearly has some pathology going on here.

      1. Flower*

        Maybe I’m reading this differently than how you intended, but I’d like to suggest not implying that sexism/misogyny is rooted in mental illness. There’s already enough stigma.

            1. serenity*

              I mean, when one says someone is a pathological liar, for example, I don’t think the first thing that leaps to mind is “You’re connecting lying to mental illness, and that isn’t right”. It feels like there’s a streak of pedantry and word policing going on in today’s comments.

              1. Flower*

                My apologies! I misunderstood how you were using the word.

                My primary association with the word “pathology” is as a description of an illness’s progression or symptoms, particularly the diagnosis of a disease based on those things. Evidently, my primary association is not yours (or, possibly, the common association). Again, I’m sorry for accusing you of something you didn’t intend.

                1. serenity*

                  Fair enough! I definitely did not mean it in a “clinical” sense, which of course it has that meaning as well.

                2. Flower*

                  (As a side note, I actually do assume when someone says “pathological liar” that they mean someone who lies compulsively, which does seem to connect it to a mental disorder or compulsion – I tend to use the term “habitual liar” for that reason. I may have too narrow of an association with the word – if that isn’t how it’s understood commonly, then that’s at least somewhat on me, not you.)

                3. Salty*

                  I always took the term ” pathological liar” to mean someone who could not help themselves, that they would lie even if it had no purpose, lying for the sake of lying, a compulsion, like kleptomaniacs who steal things they cannot possibly want or use. A clinical diagnosis.

    3. Oilpress*

      Do you really think this is a male/female thing? I think Icarus just thinks she is smarter and more capable than her boss. There could be sexism incorporated into that belief, but we don’t have great proof of that occurring here. This seems personal.

      How the LW hasn’t fired her, though, I’ll never know. Unless she is drastically underpaying market value for those skills, the LW has to expect so much more from her employees.

      1. Alli525*

        I think that OP bringing a male colleague in just as a test, and the way Icarus treated that male colleague, is proof enough.

        1. Luna*

          But I do wonder if another female colleague would have had the same effect. I think Icarus just wants someone, anyone different.

          1. Lissa*

            Yeah, it’s pretty impossible to say if it’s sexism or just a grudge against the OP for some weird reason. Regardless of which it is though, the answer is the same – fire her! (I want to say “into the sun” because of the name OP gave her, but that’s too strong. :) I hope Icarus smartens up and goes on to have a lovely career somewhere far away from OP after getting her act together.)

          2. Delphine*

            I think that’s definitely possible–an “unbiased” third-party may be what she’s looking for if she feels like she’s never being heard.

      2. One of the Sarahs*

        It’s not always possible to parse the dynamics of something personal – and sexism often is very personal, both to the person who’s being sexist, and to their target.

        I think it’s important that the OPs shouldn’t have to provide a ton of evidence to back up every opinion they bring to a letter, so we should trust them that there’s at least a likelihood gender dynamics are at play here.

      3. Elbe*

        I think it could be that the new guy is a man, but it could also just be that he’s new. I suspect that eventually the shine will be off the apple and Icarus will decide that she’s better and smarter than him, too.

        1. LBK*

          Agreed – without an equivalent female test, I don’t know that we can necessarily parse whether Icarus responded better because he was a man, or just because he was someone else of authority that she could appeal to (and that’s not to say it couldn’t be a mix of both).

      4. Dust Bunny*

        I’m not sure it is proof enough. It could just be that this other professor was one with whom Icarus doesn’t have an established power struggle. Or maybe Icarus sees Other Professor as one with more power in the department (and who happens to be male) and thus has more incentive to kiss up to him. Or maybe Other Professor took less nonsense from Icarus so she respects him more, because, let’s face it, LW has not exactly been a paragon of authority here.

        1. Tuxedo Cat*

          It could also be an age thing if the other professional were younger. It’s hard to say, but regardless, Icarus has to go.

          1. Lindsay J*

            Or significantly older. Icarus could be viewing age to be equivalent to knowledge and authority, when it doesn’t necessarily correspond.

            1. Lara*

              OP says she has 40 years tenured experience, so older’s probably off the cards.

              I think this is pretty obviously sexism.

      5. Specialk9*

        I think this is irrelevant. Icarus’ behavior is unacceptable, time to fire her.

        I think Alison is on to something by suggesting that this situation went on so long because OP wanted to understand a bizarre situation. It feels like we’re getting sucked into the same thing. (Though that’s actually our job here, now that I think on it.)

      6. TL -*

        She’s in academia? She’s drastically underpaying market value for those skills :)

        Icarus could almost certainly make more in industry; whether or not there’s an industry hub around her is another story.

  5. LSP*

    Icarus seems to either see you two as equals, or has even, in her own mind, flipped the dynamic here on its head. She is not treating you like you are the boss, which is not only disrespectful but delusional. After so long of this behavior, and the narrative she seems to be spinning about her knowledge versus yours, there is no turning this around, and there is no reason you have to put up with it. Give yourself an opportunity to find someone to work in her position that also respects you (and is maybe even eager to learn from you), and it will also give her an opportunity to find a position where she can reset her perspective (maybe).

    1. Hey Nonnie*

      That was my first thought too. It can’t be a coincidence that this happened right after she got a promotion and raise. Not that it makes sense, but it seems like she took the promotion to mean that you were both running the lab, and the two of you now had equivalent-level places in the hierarchy. She might think the promotion was in recognition of her “scientific experience” rather than just her experience in THIS lab.

      From that framework, your continuing to treat her as subordinate then made her resentful, because in her mind you were equals, with equal right to determine how the lab is run.

      I do wonder if someone had ever explicitly told her “You know you’re still subordinate to the boss, right?” what her reaction to that would have been.

    2. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

      I think you’re on to something. Earlier in my career I think I WAS the Icarus – I had a boss whom I didn’t respect, though in this case it was because she was completely hands off to the point of negligence. Still, I started to believe I was better at the work than she was, and it drove me crazy when she would try to give me instructions or reign me in from an idea I was working on. I very much felt like, “I’m the one actually doing the work, I’m the one who’s taking time to research and learn and you can’t even be bothered to show up half the time”. I left that job for greener pastures but I think I was on the road to Bad Things had I stayed there, since I was so clearly disengaged and, honestly, probably pretty rude.

      I wonder if Icarus could be having a similar internal dialogue. She knows she’s reasonably good at the work, and she probably feels a sense of ownership over it – even though, in this case, it is *literally* owned by the OP. It sounds like she’s often doing more of the hands-on work in the lab and might have lost perspective that doing the experiments day in and day out is not equivalent to being the PI and overseeing the whole thing.

      1. ImmunoMaven*

        Yeah, reading this my first reaction was fear that I AM Icarus, but I don’t think it ever got that bad for me. However, I’m sad to say that many of the PIs I’ve collaborated with are simply terrible bosses, even if the are amazing scientists and/or good people. There is just not very much training about how to be a boss in the science field. I can’t speak to the OP, and if she has pretty good relationships with her other reports it probably isn’t her management style.

        1. MM*

          I thought of this too based on some of my friends’ experiences, but if we take her at her word that everything was running smoothly for years before this trouble started, then it seems like it’s probably not her.

    3. Kitty*

      I was thinking something similar, that maybe being given so much leeway has made Icarus lose proper respect for the letter writer as a boss, and that’s why she’s ignoring the hierarchy.

    4. LibbyG*

      Yeah, I wonder if a title change has made Icarus bizarrely misinformed about her role. Like if the word “Senior” got attached to her prior title and she takes that to mean that she’s a co-PI somehow.

      But, yeah, you just can’t have this, OP. It sounds like you have to start managing her out the door. Which is really too bad.

  6. Liz*

    This sounds like it might be rooted in some resentment about the fact that academia is so incredibly hard to break into. As a tenured professor, from her perspective, you might as well have won the career lottery, and unless she is a total superstar she is unlikely to ever be in a similar position. She may be imagining her future as a forever peon with no professional respect and lashing out because of it. None of that makes her behavior ok, but it may help explain it.

    1. fposte*

      But that wouldn’t explain why she didn’t demonstrate the same behavior with OP’s colleague.

      1. designbot*

        It sounds like she sees the colleague as an ally, an opportunity to further convince OP about why she’s right. Like the episodes of Kitchen Nightmares where the owners are like “crazy people on Yelp are WRONG and Gordon will show the world how great they are!” The world she’s operating in seems increasingly divorced from the world OP is operating in.

    2. Caro in the UK*

      This is the only slightly charitable explanation I can come up with as well. You write about you “finally getting her a promotion and increase in pay that she had wanted” and the way you word this suggests that she’d been wanting this promotion for a while, but it took much longer than she hoped or expected to happen.

      Whether or not her expected timescale was far too optimistic or the promotion was long overdue isn’t necessarily important. It’s the fact that she seems to have realised that progressing up the ladder is going to take much, much longer than she wants, and she’s very unhappy about it. And she’s dealing with her anger about that in the most unproductive way possible, by lashing out at the person who she feels has everything she wants (career wise at least) and is also the gatekeeper of her future progression.

      None of this changes the fact that you need to fire her. If she’s still behaving like this after multiple warnings, she isn’t going to improve. But it might help you to avoid a similar situation in future, if you can identify whether this is contributing to her behaviour, by helping you to spot other staff members who perhaps feel similarly stuck.

      1. Luna*

        On top of this, the LW’s explanation of how she is paying for Icarus out of her own personal funds really struck me. While somewhat true, if Icarus and the LW agreed that a promotion and raise were deserved then that is a valid business arrangement. I do sense the LW has a bit of resentment in that area or feels that Icarus needs to be forever grateful for finally being given a raise. LW, Icarus’s salary is not charity. If she earned it, she earned it. It is a business expense, not personal charity.

        1. Future Homesteader*

          Yeah, I’m doing my best to give OP the same benefit of the doubt we give all OPs, but between that comment and my experience working with PIs, I’m having a hard time doing so. Which is absolutely unfair of me – it really does sound like OP has tried very hard and is *not* the stereotype of the egotistical, uncaring PI. But my guess, whether it’s OP’s doing or not (and it really doesn’t sound like it is), is that there are some serious hierarchical issues/resentments going on.

        2. Alice*

          Yes — these funds are personal in the sense that the PI is responsible for the grant, but the funder didn’t give the money to the PI as a person; they gave the money to the PI as the leader of a small or large research team.

          1. TL -*

            Also, usually grant money is pretty heavily specified; the OP has money for salaries in her grants and that’s what she used to pay Icarus. The money (probably; there are some exceptions) can’t be spent on anything but salaries.

        3. Specialk9*

          Yes, that stuck out to me too. It’s not her personal money, and she’s not paying the salary, she’s a professional administering grant money. (I am guessing there are audits and tracking of where the money goes to ensure there is no financial misappropriation.) It feels like she thinks everyone is her personal servant, like a nanny or housekeeper, but instead they are employees working in a professional setting.

          Icarus is way out of line, but it’s a clue to what might be a frustration, especially given the near-universal consensus here that PIs don’t get management training and that many labs have bizarre to toxic dynamics.

          1. Academic Addie*

            I didn’t read it that way, at all. I read the inclusion of grants in her name as distinguishing that this is a grant to fund the PI’s research, applied for by the PI, as opposed to a collaborative grant with multiple PIs. I also read the comment about the promotion and where the funds came from as intended to distinguish that the money isn’t coming from university funds or collaborative funds, but something where the PI has incorporated a higher salary into a budget request to support this person’s continued professional development. You can’t just offer someone more money on a grant, unless you either budget it or get approval to eliminate a different salary to make room. Being a PI, I’m probably more sympathetic to the PI, but I understood that to be a comment that the PI has been putting in their own efforts to make sure their staff continue to get pay commensurate with new experiences and challenges.

          2. Lara*

            ” she thinks everyone is her personal servant”

            Woah. Expecting basic professional behaviour is the not the same as treating employees as serfs.

        4. tangerineRose*

          Luna, you said “I do sense the LW has a bit of resentment in that area or feels that Icarus needs to be forever grateful for finally being given a raise.” I think anyone would resent the way Icarus is acting, plus, why do you think the LW thinks Icarus needs to be forever grateful – it sounds like Icarus isn’t even behaving civilly?

          1. Luna*

            Sorry I didn’t intend to imply that LW is resentful because of Icarus’s behavior, just specifically about the raise. What I’m trying to say is that there is the possibility that the LW was resentful or begrudging about the raise and that this resentment happened first, thereby triggering Icarus’s subsequent bad behavior. Because really, I’m not sure why the LW even included the information about Icarus’s salary being paid by grants. It’s not at all relevant to the situation or advice LW would receive. Icarus’s behavior is still problematic regardless of how she is paid, isn’t better or worse because she is paid by grants, and the advice wouldn’t change. The fact that the LW felt the need to include those details at all is pretty telling.

            Not all PIs do this of course, but there are many who can’t separate themselves enough from their grants and take the necessary step back to view staffing costs as a normal part of business. Some of those PIs complain openly about staff costs, some make occasional snarky comments or “jokes”, others stay mostly quiet but the attitude is still palpable. Anytime staff are hired, whether by a PI, a small business, a department, or large corporation, it costs money. Retaining talented staff requires raises over time. No one has an unlimited budget, so it always takes money away from something else. But no employees should ever be made to feel guilty for accepting their agreed upon salary or asking for a well-earned raise. Unfortunately in academia, this guilt-tripping happens all the time.

            At my OldJob I almost didn’t ask for a raise, even though I had been there for years and did excellent work because I felt guilty about taking money from the PIs. Even though they were lovely people and graciously gave me the raise, I still always felt SO so guilty. My response was to kind of self-punish myself, by imposing unreasonably high work standards on myself, working overtime without reporting the hours for pay like I was supposed to, etc. I don’t recommend this strategy because I burned myself out and ended up flaming out (not as bad as Icarus, but still it wasn’t great). But I could also see someone else, in this case Icarus, responding to similar guilt by aggressively trying to defend their knowledge and skill level and going totally overboard with it in an attempt to prove their worth.

            It’s really demoralizing and humiliating to feel like you don’t deserve to collect a paycheck or like you are a burden taking something away from others. Especially since it’s not like university staff are known for being particularly well paid! It doesn’t excuse Icarus’s current behavior and it’s probably too late to salvage this situation, but I would encourage the LW to consider how she speaks about funding and budget issues around her staff, whether she made any comments or jokes to Icarus about the raise or the impact it would have and so on.

        5. CB*

          I can say from what I’ve seen within academia this can be a common problem. Principle Investigators (PI) can feel and often say out loud that they resent the ‘overhead’ costs of peoples salary…. I had a PI have an absolute fit in front of the entire lab because the school raised the minimum salary for the grad students $1500 a year, these were kids making maybe 1/4 or 1/5 of the PI’s salary which also came out of the grants.

    3. Agnes*

      It’s not clear what Icarus’ position is, though. Long-term staff tend to be master’s level, while postdocs have PhDs. That was my assumption reading it.

  7. C.*

    I don’t know if there are contracts or tenure or other things at play here, so if firing Icarus immediately is NOT a viable solution: start documenting everything and pull together any documentation that will provide prior history as well. Warnings given and dates, unsatisfactory performance and dates, etc. Make sure your case is clear and well put together, and it sounds as though you should be able to move quickly (assuming Icarus doesn’t have a massive change of heart and attitude once it’s clear THIS IS IT, GIRL).

    1. Snark*

      Generally, under this kind of grant-funded setup, the PI has a lot more freedom to do what they want.

      1. Luna*

        PIs can do what they want with postdocs since they usually have shorter contracts that have to be renewed each year or two. But staff are completely different.

        1. Cassie the First*

          Our postdocs are unionized so there’s a certain process for firing or laying off them, but it can still be done. Or you could just not renew for the next year.

    2. Tara S.*

      If Icarus’s position is a state-funded classified position, it would require a lot more documentation to fire them. But most lab staff are not state employees, they’re University staff (esp. if it’s a private university). These are usually at-will employment. There may be University processes to fire someone, but they are not typically as stringent as government positions.

      (A lot of administrative staff at the public University where I work ARE state-employees, but these roles typically support departments or institutes. To see it in a lab staff position is practically unheard of where I am.)

      1. Murphy*

        Really? I’m pretty sure all full time employees of my public university are state employees. (But I could be wrong.)

        (Also, every time I hear how hard it is to fire a state employee, it makes me sad because I was fired as a state employee once. *sigh*)

        1. Flower*

          I was wondering about this – I’m at a public university and my paychecks come from the state treasury. I don’t know if that makes me a state employee or just one in a child organization – also complicated because I’m definitely classified as a student first. But I’m also still rotating in labs, so that might change after I’ve chosen a thesis lab – I don’t know.

        2. TotesMaGoats*

          I’ve worked at two state universities. We are all technically employees of the state, they sign our paychecks. But there may be employees who are a part of the state employee union who operate under different rules regarding hiring and firing. Or they could be outside contractors.

          I would imagine an fully grant funded lab would only need follow the university main firing policy. YMMV

      2. nonymous*

        That’s weird. The first time I was employed as lab staff in academia (research lab tied to an individual Prof), the hr stuff clearly stated that I was a state (University) employee. This was helpful when Dad died because the PI didn’t want to allow me time off for bereavement. My position was not union, so I was definitely an at-will employee. But when I worked in a different lab at the same StateU later on I was in a union position and certain employment procedures were more bureaucratic. I had the same leave accrual/insurance/wellness/transit/etc benefits in both positions.

      3. Annette*

        At my state university, everyone (faculty/staff) is a state employee. Pay lines come from different sources, but we’re all employed by the University and therefor the state, and all staff (with the exception of student employees) would fall under the same set of guidelines for hiring and firing.

        To fire lab staff would require similar documentation to firing office staff, unless the faulty member had a situation where the grant/funding had just vanished and the position itself was terminated.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Are you maybe thinking of unionized v. non-unionized employees? Unless someone is a contractor, full-time lab employees of a public university are usually state employees. But depending on their classification and union status, they may have access to different programs (e.g., certain health plans, the pension fund) than other employees.

        1. Tara S.*

          Reading all these responses, it may be where I work is different. It is not a question of unions – almost no-one is unionized here, no one I’ve heard of. Everyone who works for the University is a public employee, and there are restrictions on firing. But there is a distinction between Classified and University staff. Classified are state employees – they pay into the state pension plan, and have a different set of pay bands and leave rates. University staff pay into a 401A with matching, and pay bands/leave rates are set by the university.

          My understanding is that Classified have more procedures involved in termination – they have more protections, more documentation processes. University staff are at-will. Almost all research faculty, including post-docs and lab managers, are University staff and therefore do not have Classified protections. Admin staff that support departments and institutes are typically Classified.

    3. designbot*

      And in the meantime I’d say OP should throw her weight around a bit more. Like, have the talk about, “do you know how this lab runs? Do you know who pays your salary? I make all of this happen, because people trust my experience and my judgement and the proposals that I put forward, and give me money to run things the way I see fit. Someday you may get to a position like this because you do have talent, but right now you are here to help execute the research that I have proposed. If you can’t do that, if you need to be running your own lab right now, then it’s time for you to leave and see if you can find a position that lets you do that, because that’s not what I need here and your attitude about it is not acceptable.”

      1. Indie*

        “There is a hierarchy here and you are being embarrassingly oblivious as to your place in it”

  8. Shawn*

    I would imagine that she continues to act this way because she’s continued to get away with it. These meetings with her have clearly not been effective. I’m not sure how it works in academia but, I’d put her on a PIP and then move her on out the door. It would probably be more pleasant for the OP to actually work with someone who respects her and her knowledge.

    1. yasmara*

      I agree with this. The OP needs to be incredibly direct in her management of Icarus, research the process for firing an employee at her university, and start documenting to support that end.

  9. arcya*

    OP! I have been in academic biomedical research as a technician, grad student, and now postdoc. My advice here is right in line with Allison’s. Fire her, like ASAP. I guarantee if she is being a jerk to your face she is poisoning the rest of the lab when you are not there, and that has probably been happening for years. I’ve seen this before, especially with PIs that don’t really like direct confrontation, and it can absolutely kill a lab. Students and postdocs stay away because lab members are stressed and unhappy, other staff members either begin to agree with the complaining lab member OR get out because the environment is becoming toxic.

    Tell her you talked about this, she hasn’t listened and she’s out. Make sure you follow all university requirements for firing an employee (you may have to start a file now and document and PIP and all that, it’s more complicated at universities.) You probably can’t just say “you’re done as of now” and show her the door – unless she’s done something more egregious there will be a whole procedure. She is going to crank her jerkiness WAY up during this process, there is not much to be done, sorry about that. Call in another faculty who has fired someone before, or at least their admin so you can learn the protocol.

    1. the_scientist*

      Yes, this. She is definitely poisoning the well in the lab. I also worked in labs as a technician and an undergraduate student and you need to get the ball rolling on getting rid of Icarus, because you will for sure lose out on good students and employees once they realize what’s going on.

      1. Flower*

        principal investigator – the head of a lab (generally the faculty member if at a university)

      2. arcya*

        Principle Investigator – the faculty member in charge of the lab and bringing in the grants. The OP is the PI of her lab

      3. Turkletina*

        Principal Investigator. The PI is the person whose name is on the grants and is responsible for publications and meeting the conditions associated with the grants.

      4. RES ADMIN*

        A PI is a “Principal Investigator” – that is, the person whose name is on the grant award.

        Grants are awarded to a university under the direction of a PI. Any change to the PI requires approval from the grantor.

        When applying for a grant, the prospective PI (usually) has to provide a detailed budget of expenses to justify the funding that they are requesting. There is more or less wiggle room on changes to the budget after the award is made depending on who is funding. In the case of the OP, she probably had to cut other essential budget items in order to give the lab person a promotion/raise.

        Bottom line, though, the OP’s name is on the grants so Icarus needs to re-align his expectations. The OP is the one who did the work of getting the funding (and it is a LOT of work) and the OP is the one who will be held responsible for the results.

      5. Shiara*

        Principal Investigator, ie the lead person on a grant project and head of the lab/research group.

        Depending on the current dynamics, the LW might expect some tense and uncomfortable relationships with the other people in the lab for the near future from people Icarus has dazzled into thinking she’s in the right in this. Most of them will probably come around when they realise that somehow everything has not fallen apart without Icarus, but it can be tense until they figure that out if she’s made them think she’s the power behind the scatterbrained and absent professor. (Not that LW is necessarily either, it’s just the easily bought into narrative sometimes)

    2. oldbiddy*

      That’s a good point. I’m a staff member in a research group and have a good relationship with my boss. If she’s being that combative to the PI, I strongly suspect she is either spreading discord among the students/postdocs or treating them badly, or both. I’ve seen the effect that one disgruntled student or postdoc can have on group morale, and that would be magnified if it were coming from a staff member.

    3. AKchic*

      I agree. If she is doing what she is doing *to* OP’s face, she is doing much worse *behind* OP’s back.

      1. Indie*

        Different field, but my predecessor was like Icarus to the boss and she was also playing favourites/bullying team peers with her imaginary status.

    4. Seriously?*

      Yep. I also work in a lab and over time I have gained a very narrow expertise that my boss doesn’t necessarily have when it comes to specific experiments, but she definitely knows more than me about the field and grant writing. Sometimes I have to correct a section in a grant or paper, but I don’t argue about it. I explain what we actually did and either she accepts that to tells me to repeat it the other way. Sometimes I wonder what she was thinking when she hires someone new who doesn’t seem qualified to me, but I don’t argue about it and defiantly don’t go into a rage. Academia definitely has a lot of room for “questioning the boss” but none for blatant insubordination. I can almost guarantee that everyone else in the lab is becoming miserable because of the situation.

      1. blackcat*

        Right, my experience of questioning the boss ends up two ways: I convince him through evidence that he is wrong, or vice versa. Often, one of us assigns the other reading. Our day-to-day work is quite different and we keep up with overlapping, but distinct, sets of journals/lines of research. I definitely know my dissertation work better than him (including the relevant work by others), but he knows a lot of other stuff and is a much better grant writer.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes. I also think OP may have made a mistake by justifying why she chose different approaches or methods than the ones Icarus proposed. It sounds like OP may have treated Icarus’ feedback as reasonable, even when it was not. Going forward, I think it’s ok to draw firm lines and say “no, dude—I’m the PI.”

      But absolutely fire her. She’s almost certainly destroying morale, and she’s likely undermining the rest of the team’s confidence in OP by spreading weird complaints.

      1. another scientist*

        ‘Going forward, I think it’s ok to draw firm lines and say “no, dude—I’m the PI.”’

        well, not really, not in academia. Yes, this letter sounds like an extreme case where the relationship is not salvageable and you probably need to let Icarus go. But within the boundaries of professional conduct, questioning each other is what research lives on. Justifying your methods and interpretations is the basis of peer review and honestly discussing the rationale behind your decisions is a way for you to train your staff members and to double check your own work.

        I’m not implying that any of this situation is the OP’s fault, but the line ‘I’m a tenured professor with 40 years experience and I’ve been very successful in my field and so on’ is similar to what I’ve heard other PI’s say when they are annoyed by younger group members who question them. Sometimes it comes with a dismissive, disdainful attitude towards younger scientists. Sometimes it comes with complacency about your successes from 50, 40 and 30 years ago. Especially for bigshot-older PIs that are managing a larger lab, it’s important to acknowledge the valuable contribution from the people who do the experiments, and bring fresh ideas and move the group towards new fields every now and then.

        1. Snark*

          You’re not wrong, and I’ve posted before about my old labs and their “no holy cows” attitude towards egalitarianism and questioning each other’s work. But being open to thoughtful criticism is a long way from having to tolerate being aggressively undermined and second-guessed at every turn.

          And as far as dismissing younger scientists….speaking as one who was once one of those young scientists, with a chip on my shoulder and giving the gears to people with more experience than I had years of life, sometimes the youngsters need to get taken down a peg or two. It’s very easy to cast yourself in the role of brilliant young rock star who’s going to change this field forever, and harder to actually do it, and sometimes a reminder that your ego is writing checks your publication record can’t cash is a good and healthy thing.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t know—maybe this varies by discipline. I worked in academia on research interventions, and we certainly debated research design and disagreed, etc. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what Icarus was/is doing. It sounds like a situation where it’s legit for the PI to say, “is this about the design or something else?”

        3. Lara*

          Yes, but point blank refusing to do the work you are asked / told to do is unacceptable, surely?

          1. TL -*

            In this context yes, but a lot of people have the 3x rule – if you’re asking me to do something I don’t think is relevant/necessary, then I just ignore the first two times you suggest it.

            (Used with extreme judgment, of course, but a lot of academics have no problem asking for a month’s worth of work and then forgetting about it completely by the next day.)

      2. Nesprin*

        ‘do it because I said so’ is a good indication of a bad PI. Part of being a scientist is learning how to defend your work and your ideas, and if you have to resort to ‘because I said so’ something is gone seriously wrong.

        1. Snark*

          But at the same time, the PI is not obligated to make a federal case to their lab techs every time they want an experiment run or decide which grad student to accept. And they are not obligated to tolerate being given the gears on every decision just because being a scientist means knowing how to defend one’s ideas.

          1. Snark*

            Ideally, there’s enough professional regard and respect that the underlings trust the PI to be making reasonably sound decisions for reasonably sound reasons, even if they personally disagree or would make a different decision, and they’re willing to take the justifications they’re given instead of angrily dismissing them.

        2. TootsNYC*

          ‘do it because I said so’ is a good indication of a bad PI. Part of being a scientist is learning how to defend your work and your ideas, and if you have to resort to ‘because I said so’ something is gone seriously wrong.

          True–but there comes a point when you say, “I have already explained my reasons. Do it because I said so.” (Of course, yes, something is now wrong–but it may not be the PI, it may be the other person)

          I once had a subordinate who bucked me a lot, and who also only “chatted” with me in order to ask what sort of job I would go to after the one I had.
          When I asked her a follow-up about a department head’s question, she actually said, “I gave that answer to the department head,” as if I had no right to the answer.
          We had an “I am your boss, do not forget it” conversation.

          Ever after, I have said to people I was hiring, “I try to not be very micro-manage-y, and I like for people to feel they have autonomy in their jobs. But I am the boss, and if I ever have to remind you of that, I will consider that a big deal, and a big failure on your part.”

    6. Bye Academia*

      100% this. My old lab was like this. My boss was non-confrontational and did nothing when a superstar student treated the rest of the lab like crap. Everyone was miserable and complaining to each other all the time. It was so, so toxic. When she graduated, it took years for the lab to get back to normal, basically until the rest of us who had overlapped with her graduated too. The dysfunctional procedures were really ingrained and we all resented my boss for doing nothing. And we lost some good prospective students who were warned away.

      If she is behaving like this to you, she is also undermining you to your students and/or spreading a cloud of misery. This will ruin your lab. Fire her now. As for not letting it happen again, you just have to be more proactive when there is an issue in your lab. Don’t dismiss it as a personal issue or a personality clash, or whatever. You can certainly try to understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t make the behavior acceptable. This kind of stuff can tank morale and prevent students from joining your lab.

      1. Expat*

        “If she is behaving like this to you, she is also undermining you to your students and/or spreading a cloud of misery.”

        I think it near-certain that this is the case.

        We had an Icarus in my lab too, except she wasn’t a superstar, she was just a ding-dong with an enormous persecution complex. Unfortunately, you don’t need to be a superstar to be toxic. She did her level best to poison everyone in the department against each other, which she largely did by buddying up to new or vulnerable/lonely employees and telling them her alternate universe version of what went on the lab, complete with sinister motives and grand conspiracy theories. Some saw through her, but some did not. The more people she had “on her side”, the more emboldened she became. This eventually culminated in the alleged sabotage of her colleagues experiments. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did intentionally commit sabotage, but she was so toxic that I just don’t think it matters whether she did it or not. She needed to go.

        The department head was so conflict-averse that she refused to do anything besides endless one-on-one meetings that lead to no change in behavior. This went on for years. Eventually, our Icarus threw an epic tantrum in a meeting and her direct supervisor told her to go home and not come back if she couldn’t control herself. She flounced shortly thereafter. As far as I’m aware, she never graduated.

        LW, don’t be our department head. Spare yourself and your lab the prolonged drama and fire her.

    7. TootsNYC*

      Also, be sure to create direct relationships with everyone in your lab. Pronto.

      Relationships that completely cut her out.

      You may not be able to fire her completely, but you can cut her out of the communication channels, etc. It’ll be more work for you, but that’s management!

    8. Optimistic Prime*

      Yes, this was my thought, too. If she’s annoying you, she’s terrorizing the living daylights out of the rest of your lab and you risk losing good people who actually like doing your work because they are so fed up with her. This stuff is toxic within an academic lab, and has the potential to make your lab staff resentful of *you* – and put less trust in your leadership ability.

      We had a similar problem in my lab and we ended up having to bring in the university ombuds to help mediate because our PI was SO non-confrontational he let it fester.

  10. seejay*

    We had an engineer that behaved almost exactly like this. Amazing guy for awhile, we treated him like gold even, and when he had a bad day, we would reward it with being super nice to him and trying to cheer him up (we actually would do that with everyone on the team). He was usually nice overall, and a great asset. Then something switched, he had personal problems in his life and he was lashing out at us, got an attitude that he was great and amazing and he talked down to us, was bullying some of us, and being a total wankmuffin. It went on for months and months. We did what we could, we tried to push back, and it started to fracture our team, to the point of making some of us want to find another job because of the toxicity. Our team manager tried to talk to him about leaving his personal problems out of the office, he’d apologize, it’d be ok for a few weeks, and then he’d lose his crap at someone again.

    It finally came to a head when our team manager wanted to fire him after multiple meetings and disciplinary talks, but HR wanted to go through PIPs and proper steps. He got put on an improvement plan, his planned raise taken away, etc. He wound up becoming useless to us though, as he withdrew into himself and wouldn’t contribute or would just acquiesce with “whatever you decide/want to do” when I asked for his opinion on things. It was almost as bad. Then he quit two months later for another company. We were pretty happy to see him leave.

  11. I, too, flew too close to the sun*

    Ugh. I think *I* was Icarus in a past job. Not academia, but a situation where I was very good at my job, and had no issues with telling my boss what I thought about wrong decisions that were being made on projects. I pissed off people and overstepped my bounds, but I thought that it was OKAY to do that, because we were all “open and collaborative” and very comfortable with each other. I thought that was our culture.

    I just didn’t know when to shut up, and I was utterly blindsided when I got fired. I couldn’t believe it — I’d just gotten a promotion, and a raise (like Icarus!). It was the worst professional experience of my life, and it taught me a huge lesson — just because the boss is listening to my highly critical feedback, and even nodding along at, it doesn’t mean it’s welcome.

    I keep my mouth SHUT at work now, and I save my criticisms for sharing at home with my partner. I do wish my boss had done a better job of reigning me in, because he mostly acted like he agreed with my feedback, and never once explicitly told me it wasn’t okay. But now I’m the biggest yes (wo)man you ever met.

    1. Lance*

      I can see where you’re coming from… but it’s still fine to not agree with everything. Certainly, you can’t be rude and dismissive (and act wholly superior) like Icarus in the letter, but disagreements are a natural part of thing. It just comes down to handling them well and non-aggressively, and knowing when and where to speak up.

      It’s not an easy thing for a lot of people, I can’t doubt, but ultimately, saying ‘yes’ to everything isn’t a good way to go, especially if your contributions could otherwise make any difference.

    2. SallyForth*

      I was a little like that, too. My ED said that due to salary restrictions, I could have neither an official promotion or a title change, but she considered me the manager of my area and would rectify it when she could. I was in the weekly manager meeting, had a budget, and was asked to supervise and train a new team member. On the basis of the promised move, I acted like a manager. Apparently the boundaries were not as fluid as I believed!

      If the ED had drawn the lines under which this secret promotion was operating, this issue would have been solved earlier.

      1. AKchic*

        I absolutely *hate* that “unofficial promotion” crap. The “its not in the budget, and we can’t give you a title change, but we consider you management in all but name and pay” line. They expect the *work* of a manager, without the pay, prestige, or actual authority. And they will give you that extra work no problem, but will drag their feet for eternity because “hey, we’ve already got someone covering the work without paying extra for it”.

        I’ve been there. Never will I step into managerial house slippers without getting the fluffy bathrobe of title and pay first.

        1. GG Two shoes*

          My friend worked her way up in her exjob at Toxic inc. She got regular ‘promotions’ and was happy to see her very hard work pay off. I asked if they were also giving raises with the promotion… no. Just title bump and more work for same pay. That’s not a promotion. That’s a title change. I’m so so glad she got out of there.

        2. Khlovia*

          I am stealing that imagery and applying it to everything I can think of. But I’ll credit you if asked.

          1. AKchic*

            I’m not a stickler for credit.

            I’m just cold right now and the idea was in my head that I wanted a fluffy robe and slippers in my office. I have a blanket, but I’m too lazy to reach into my drawer and pull it out. And its not big enough for what I want (I want a proper full-body snuggle, not a lap-blanket).
            *sigh* spring time in Alaska. Where the weather is as mercurial as my mood when I’m trying to pick only *one* book to buy.

    3. Sam.*

      I think it would be very easy for me to find myself in a similar situation. I’m good at what I do (it’s not lab research, but it is in academia), and because of that, my boss openly asks for my feedback on things, even if it’s negative. He very frequently takes my feedback (supportive or critical) into consideration when making decisions. That’s great, but it means that I feel comfortable saying when I feel Very Strongly about something, and occasionally we butt heads if he feels Very Strongly in opposition or effectively has his hands tied by people above him. Fortunately for me, he makes clear when that’s the case, and I know the conversation is closed. If he didn’t do that, I don’t think it would end well, but as it is, he gets the feedback he wants, and if I ever overstep, I know it immediately and back down. Which is essentially to say: OP, set boundaries early!

      1. Specialk9*

        I think this can be ok, with tact and a clear understanding of who makes the final decisions. Disagreeing is not the problem, it’s the insubordination.

    4. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

      Me too! I mentioned this in another comment, but earlier in my career I had a boss whom I didn’t respect, though in this case it was because she was completely hands off to the point of negligence. Still, I started to believe I was better at the work than she was, and it drove me crazy when she would try to give me instructions or reign me in from an idea I was working on. I very much felt like, “I’m the one actually doing the work, I’m the one who’s taking time to research and learn and you can’t even be bothered to show up half the time”. I left that job for greener pastures but I think I was on the road to Bad Things had I stayed there, since I was so clearly disengaged and, honestly, probably pretty rude.

      I wonder if Icarus could be having a similar internal dialogue. She knows she’s reasonably good at the work, and she probably feels a sense of ownership over it – even though, in this case, it is *literally* owned by the OP. It sounds like she’s often doing more of the hands-on work in the lab and might have lost perspective that doing the experiments day in and day out is not equivalent to being the PI and overseeing the whole thing.

      1. I, too, flew too close to the sun*

        Yup yup. I really felt a ton of ownership on my projects, because I was carrying so much of the load that my manager barely contributed at all — I was definitely doing stuff above my pay grade. I think that’s exactly where I overstepped, daring to presume that I was better at the work than my boss. FWIW, I probably *was* doing a better job than him… but my mistake was acknowledging that (not explicitly, but with my demeanor). I also spoke negatively about him to others, which I imagine got back to him.

        My boss understandably did not care for that behavior, and that’s what got me pushed out. If I’d been more diplomatic, I’d probably still be working there. I treat my managers VERY differently now, and I will never speak out about a boss of mine to colleagues again.

        1. Ann O.*

          This is what I always wonder… what IS supposed to happen when you genuinely are better than your manager and your manager’s issues are hurting the project. I generally try to be a good, easy-to-work with employee, who is very careful about how I push back against things. But at ex-job, my manager was just all around bad at the work.

          I initially thought it was a personality style conflict, but then ex-manager drove out almost the entire team and did some very objectively bad decision making that either delayed or outright tanked a key project. (Since I’m not longer there, I don’t know the status of the project.) The nearer I got to the end of my time, the worse of a report I became. But this was, in part, because I could either be a well-behaved, deferential report or I could try to help advance the project/facilitate a smooth transition. And if I didn’t say anything negative about my manager to manager’s manager, how would manager’s manager know how bad things were? I didn’t say anything negative until I was already leaving, but maybe if I’d said something sooner, the situation could have gotten fixed. Also, it was only by being willing to get negative with other co-workers that I realized the problems were with everybody and not just me.

    5. tangerineRose*

      There are ways to disagree with the boss that tend to work, and there ways that usually just make most people mad. When I have a concern about a plan, I try to just ask about the concern. I’m not disagreeing; I’m just pointing out a possible problem. Of course, a lot depends on tone.

  12. Elbe*

    I think that this will be a great opportunity for Icarus.

    If she is “more knowledgeable about the science and field and grants and the writing of scientific papers,” then she should have no issues getting her own grants and starting her own lab. The LW is clearly holding her back, what with the raise and promotion and all. Now she can really shine.

    1. Marie*

      Actually, the resentment can steam from here.

      Getting tenure was *much* easier 40 years (OP’s experience) than it is today, and tenured professors are usually so swamped in paperwork and management issues they don’t have time for the actual science stuff. It’s not unusual at all that the rock star postdoc is more knowledgeable than the professor.

      Not to defend Icarus because she sounds awful, but good professors know that. I find some remarks a bit surprising about the decisions concerning “things such as my lab’s overall research directions, the writing and data and citations we include in papers and grant applications,”.
      So of course the lab overall research direction in the OP responsibility, but certainly not data! Scientific data is vouched by the one who produced it, Icarus in this case. Same thing with writing and citations: the final say belongs to the paper first author who is probably not OP.

      1. One of the Sarahs*

        Icarus cannot be that superstar postdoc you’re talking about, though – “Icarus is a much younger lab worker in my lab without an advanced degree”.

        1. Flower*

          That actually doesn’t necessarily preclude that. Scroll down to Student’s post.

          My PI’s boss the other day was saying that she always needs to make sure she has someone who can teach techniques to incoming students or post-docs, because she doesn’t have the daily practice of techniques anymore to do that teaching. She can teach the background and the current research and some of the processing level stuff, but she can’t teach the techniques at this point.

          Now I do have a hard time imagining a “younger lab worker” having more knowledge of the literature and theory than an experienced PI does, but I can definitely envision them having a better sense of the techniques used in the lab, exact methods, current results, or what might be possible given current equipment and manpower, especially if they’ve been there long term (two years is longer than some post-docs stay with a lab, and this person was there for some time before that!).

          1. One of the Sarahs*

            I don’t understand – how could Icarus be a postdoc if she doesn’t have a PhD?

            1. Marie*

              She cannot but that’s not the point.
              She can still a very valuable and knowledgeable team member. She’s been a lab tech for a very long time; because of that she is probably more up to date on technical stuff than OP.

              And OP laundry list of stuff she is better at is inconsistent with my (and apparently other commenters’, scroll down) experience of how a lab is usually structured.

              1. Snark*

                “she is probably more up to date on technical stuff than OP.”

                I think that’s an assumption we don’t have a lot of evidence for, and is unnecessarily uncharitable to OP.

                1. Seriously?*

                  I don’t think it is uncharitable. It isn’t the PI’s job to master all of the latest techniques. It is the PI’s job to write papers, secure funding, teach, come up with the scientific questions asked and hire the people who can do the latest techniques or secure opportunities for current lab members to learn those techniques. If the PI is spending significant time running experiments, in my experience it is a bad sign and means that the lab has no funding.

                2. Snark*

                  That’s fair – I just get the impression some people are devaluing the role, and expertise, of a PI, as I suspect Icarus is doing. But maybe that’s off base.

            2. Flower*

              She can’t be a postdoc, but she can be a superstar who knows many of the ins and outs of the lab. I had understood your comment to mean not that she can’t be a postdoc but to mean that she can’t be in the position Marie describes (more knowledgeable about certain topics than the PI – though probably not the field as a whole).

        2. Student*

          Sad truth about PhDs – the degree itself doesn’t actually impart much useful knowledge. It’s just a credential, and it’s not much of a marker of competence (mostly arrogance, persistence, and a willingness to be deeply underpaid for a few years).

          An experienced, smart lab tech that’s been there at least two years could very well be the superstar more knowledgeable than the professor.

          A lab tech involved in grant-writing is a lab tech who’s very deeply involved in the lab and knowledgeable. It is deeply not-normal to have a lab tech even see a lab’s grant.

          1. One of the Sarahs*

            But they can’t be a postdoc without a PhD, surely? Or is it something that I have only ever seen it used it a literal sense, for post-doctoral, but in countries like the USA it means something else?

            1. Seriously?*

              A postdoc always has a PhD. Staff scientist sometimes does not but usually does. It sounds like Icarus is a high level lab tech.

            2. RabbitRabbit*

              It doesn’t mean something else in the US, at least. Postdoc means just that, has a PhD and is doing some work in a professor’s lab.

          2. Snark*

            “An experienced, smart lab tech that’s been there at least two years could very well be the superstar more knowledgeable than the professor.”

            I’ve observed a lot of experienced lab techs who thought they were this, but at the end of the day, their mastery was of lab protocol. They could do a PCR run with their eyes shut, but they weren’t staying current with the literature, they weren’t identifying new questions and priorities, and they weren’t writing articles. There’s a lot of difference between being an experienced lab tech who contributes to proposals and being the PI.

            1. Marie*

              ” they weren’t staying current with the literature, they weren’t identifying new questions and priorities, and they weren’t writing articles”

              At least in my field, lab techs do that all the time.

              1. Snark*

                I’m kind of surprised, because those activities are entirely out of the scope of what a “lab tech” by definiton would be entrusted with. Those are activities of a staff research associate or investigator, not a lab tech or even a lab manager.

                1. Marie*

                  It’s true that they usually have less cross-disciplinary knowledge of the scientific issues, and that they identify new problematics at a slower rate than researchers.
                  Literature and writing are part of their official missions though.
                  That being said, research team are much more horizontal in my country than the US, so I may be biased

              2. biobottt*

                I’m super curious as to your field, since my experience is much more in line with Snark’s. Lab techs may be dynamos with protocols and running experiments, but they don’t come up with research directions and hypotheses to test and they don’t generally design the actual experiments.

                1. Nesprin*

                  I wrote a bunch of papers as a research tech before grad school- my PI was very good about letting me have my own projects, and when I did technical good work, he had me start drafting the papers. Very much depends on the lab.

                2. GeekyDuck*

                  I’m STEM, and specifically molecular biology. My lab has a tech that is absolutely worshipped for her skills. She’s been in her job for so long that a) she interviewed my/our PI when he did his job talk, and B) if she was actually full time I think she’d be paid more than the PI because of the union step-and-grade system. She’s the unquestioned (and fortunately benevolent and wonderful) Empress of the Lab, and there was a not actually serious campaign to make her department chair last go-round. She also writes manuscripts and keeps very current on the literature for the grant she’s on, and she’s proposed some great ideas that have been incredibly fruitful.

                  Sometimes you get lucky and get a phenomenal tech. Academia lost out when she didn’t get a PhD and go run her own show.

                3. yasmara*

                  And if a lab tech just *wouldn’t run* an experiment the PI requested? That would be a Huge Deal.

          3. Specialk9*

            Willingness to be underpaid for a few years? I know someone my age who is incredibly smart, has a PhD from a top university, and now makes half my salary, in a job that many of my successful co-workers enter sideways after starting in an admin role (ie certification but not degree requiring). It’s put me off academia, and PhDs in general.

          4. Dahlia*

            I completely disagree that a smart experienced lab tech can be a superstar more knowledgeable than a professor. They are likely more knowledgeable on techniques and specific technical skills, or even specific data that is currently being produced by the lab, but I sincerely doubt they are ever more knowledgeable on the research questions, the larger literature, or understand better the overall data trends, implications, and contribution to the literature. These are things that require a very full understanding of the literature of the field and do take the years of training and experience that the professors role requires.

            It’s like saying a scrub tech is more knowledgeable than a surgeon because they understand how to prepare and care for surgical instruments better. It’s just not the same job.

      2. catsaway*

        OP doesn’t say that this person is a post-doc, but that Icarus is a long staff member. While there are long term staff can have PhDs it’s more likely that they are a tech with a Bachelors or Masters, and while there isn’t a direct correlation between degree and ability to be a lead on any sort of project in academia you have to have a PhD or be on the way to earning one.
        The OP could very well stay on top of data methods and as a good PI she should know what’s good and bad, even in she hasn’t used the latest form of technology. In regards to papers, at least in my field, the first author is the grad student/post doc/tech/talented undergrad who did the brunt of the work/writing/experimental design but the PI is just about always last author and people in the field recognize that pattern, and if there’s something wrong with the paper (data, writing, citations etc) the PI will get the blame too and it will look bad for them, since they are the ones in charge.

        1. RES ADMIN*

          Agreed. I remember a couple of really, really good lab managers who only had a BS degree who were listed as co-authors on papers, helped design experiments, etc. They were below the post-docs and assistant-ins, however their experience gave their opinion more weight on many matters. They were also respectful to the PIs and appreciated the chance to get published before getting an advanced degree.

        2. Anna*

          Yeah, vouching for your data is not the same as being responsible for the data when it’s published. Nobody is going to give a crap about how much Icarus has to do with the research if it turns out they missed something significant. That’s all going to land on the PI.

        3. DArcy*

          What I was taught in my research ethics class was that coauthorship practices differ widely from subject to subject. The specific examples they gave were that in biology it is the accepted norm to give the PI last author status on all papers published by their research group even if they did not directly participate in the research, whereas in other fields it is the accepted norm that no one should be given author status unless they personally made significant contribution to the research. In the former fields, such attribution is considered recognition of the fact that the PI inherently provides at least indirect support and guidance for all projects within their group; in the latter fields, such attribution would be considered fraudulently puffing up your paper with a “big name”.

  13. Eye of Sauron*

    oof…. Icarus sounds like a peach. I’m not even sure that have anything to add except use this opportunity to hire a great new employee!

  14. lisalee*

    You say you’re not sure what happened to cause this, but I’d bet my bottom dollar she just got increasingly irritated with being a staff member without an advanced degree.

    I notice you say this in your letter: “I helped her develop professional skills beyond the typical level of someone in her position.” Personally, I’m currently leaving my job in higher ed in large part because I’ve taken on duties far above my job title, and many of the same duties as my colleagues with advanced degrees, but the university system will never reward that unless I go and spend money on a degree. It’s a very frustrating position to be in, though kind of unavoidable in the current environment. The raise/promotion was probably also less than Icarus expected (or she thought it would make her feel more appreciated, but it didn’t) and instead of leaving like she should have she felt trapped for some reason.

    Icarus handled it in an absolutely horrible way of course, and she’ll find it really sucks to have burnt all your bridges.

    1. fposte*

      That may be contributory, but she’s also not acting that way with the OP’s colleague, so there’s something about her view of the OP that lets her unleash things she should keep leashed.

      1. Murphy*

        I’m wondering if for some reason Icarus is at BEC stage with the OP, so she’ll respond more reasonably to literally anybody else. (Not saying OP deserves that, but that might be where Icarus’s head is at.)

        1. LBK*

          That’s what I was thinking – that Icarus has developed a specific dislike of the OP through which she feels comfortable funneling all her other problems with her situation as a whole.

        2. mediumofballpoint*

          Agreed. I’d be curious about whether Icarus has experienced any discrimination or sexual harassment. That kind of behavior is unfortunately not at all uncommon in harder science labs and when I’ve seen students hit the BEC stage suddenly, it’s often been because there have been underlying issues that haven’t been addressed. As Murphy said, that doesn’t excuse Icarus’s behavior in any way but it’s something I’d be on the lookout for.

      2. lisalee*

        Idk, it could be a little bit of the thing where people are nicer to strangers than they are to people they know. Or the OP has just come to personify Icarus’s unhappiness. Or good-old-fashioned sexism (I do wish the OP had explained why she thought Icarus would respond better to a man). But yeah, I’m sure there’s layers here. I was just hoping to give the OP some insight since it sounded like she was really puzzled over Icarus’s behavior.

    2. Ama*

      With the caveat that none of this excuses Icarus’s behavior to the OP and her failure to correct it despite requests is a whole separate thing.

      I had a similar thought to lisalee’s, as someone who left academic administration when I could feel my attitude toward my daily work starting to sour. The problem with a lot of academic administrative career tracks is that a lot of times a promotion is more a recognition of tenure than any kind of change in responsibility. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Icarus thought her promotion would prompt some kind of major upgrade in her authority or responsibilities and was subsequently frustrated when that wasn’t the case. (Again, doesn’t excuse the behavior but might explain it in part.)

      Before I left academia, my department was considering creating a new, slightly higher level position I would move into which seemed like the solution to all my workplace problems — until I really thought about it and realized I’d still be doing many of the tasks I didn’t enjoy, still have no real authority, and (the biggest factor in my deciding to leave) I couldn’t see myself continuing to progress along that career track to anything I really wanted to be doing 5 or 10 years later. It was *tough* to admit that I had been working for ten years and was now going to have to start all over again in a different sector, but it’s what I ultimately needed to do to stop feeling resentful at work.

      Honestly I don’t know that there was anything my then-boss could have done to help me at that point — I had to figure that out for myself.

      1. lisalee*

        I do think universities have a HUGE issue with upward mobility/professional development for regular staff, especially in labs. The OP might think about how to promote regular growth (not just in responsibilities but in pay and recognition) for employees in the future. That might mean getting them to move on regularly, if there’s no real upward mobility in her lab.

        1. DoctorCactus*

          Yes! I also think this is a contributing factor allowing a toxic lab tech/manager to stay so long. Staff researchers like techs and managers hold highly specific and valuable skills but also hit a career ceiling (and financial ceiling) pretty quickly. Resentment and burnout are common.

          From OPs perspective, I can understand not wanting to throw the baby out with the bath water if the bulk of her skills were strong. Lots of other academics have weighed in and I bet we all can tell stories of AT LEAST one toxic lab mate who was Icarus-level bonkers.

    3. ket*

      Agree, and in your exit conversation you may want to broach the topic of whether she really in her heart wants that PhD. Maybe she does but she’s been telling herself, why get it? Why make the sacrifice? I’m running this nice lab right here!

  15. voyager1*

    The why she is acting like this is the pay, she feels like she is underpaid I am willing to bet.

    But I would just fire her and move on.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      she feels like she is underpaid

      When I felt underpaid, I quit and found a new job that paid more. I didn’t disrespect my manager or the rest of my team in the process – that’s counterproductive.

      1. Snark*

        My feeling is that Icarus regards herself as the brains of the operation and isn’t about to just leave – because it’s rightfully hers.

    2. Mananana*

      I have found very few people (actually no one) who believe that they are overpaid or paid just the right amount. Yet we manage not to act like Icarus.

      1. Specialk9*

        I know one person who thinks she’s overpaid. But she did manual labor in a stable for years before she did a coding bootcamp. So her calibration is a little funny.

      2. Natalie*

        I’ve definitely felt like I was overpaid before. Not like I was going to give the money back or anything, but it was frustrating when I wanted to move on and had difficulties finding a position that was lateral to my current pay.

  16. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    Every time you respond to her challenge, even to prove her correct, you reinforce that the point is debatable.
    This is a sore spot for me because I worked with an absolute horror of a coworker who threw fits and pouted until she got the cherry assignments that she would sit on until the 11th hour and then cry to boss who would split the actual work up between the rest of us. And then talk about being proactive…
    Horror went so far as to to threaten to quit. Got a ten percent raise and a made up title. Was still not happy. Was still a horror, was still petty, spiteful, did nothing etc. TWO YEARS. Decided to try that again. Her threat to quit was accepted this time. And six months later my boss was complimenting me, saying I did a great job, but there are no promotions in this department, so I can be happy or move on.
    An injustice of biblical proportions? Probably not, although I always think of when the prodigal son returned and his father had a feast. Hardworking brother said why? Father said, he’s returned to us. Yeah, well, that’s great and all, but the best lamb was slaughtered for slacker brother.
    So stop wasting time and resources on someone whose goal is to get you to use up as much of your time and resources on her as she can.

    1. Snark*

      I’m kind of wondering if OP, in her desire to be kind and sensitive, inadvertantly gave Icarus’ narcissistic ego enough room to run wild and come to believe that she was more of a stakeholder in the lab than she really is.

      1. LBK*

        Agreed – I don’t have a strong sense of how much the OP might have contributed to this perception, but something has led Icarus to think she’s the OP’s peer.

        I’ll admit sometimes I feel that way with my manager because of how much more we collaborate as equals rather than a more typical boss/employee dynamic, but I still know in the back of my mind where I sit in the hierarchy. I can reasonably express disagreement with how he wants to do something as an expert on the subject in my own right, but ultimately he’s the boss.

        1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          This. In some situations, I even have more expertise than my boss. She will come to me with a game plan and I can suggest a better way, or doing something altogether different. And in the end, my boss will decide if that’s the way to go. Or not.
          It’s a discussion, not a debate.

          1. Cordoba*

            My approach to this is that before a decision is made I will advocate for what I think is the best course of action to anybody, regardless of where we all fall in the company org structure.

            After a decision has been made by the bosses I will put my head down and implement it as though it was my very own idea, even if it is not what I was promoting.

            The exception is something that was illegal/immoral/dangerous/etc. But for regular day to day office stuff or technical decisions ultimately the folks who sign the checks get to have the final say.

            1. Sarah*

              This! I am the only person in my company with experience doing what I do. I’m the only person who can look at a system, listen to my boss’s directions, and do what she wants done. As such, I have a lot of leeway to say, “This won’t work because of x reason,” or, “I’m concerned about doing this because of the implications of y.” And if I bring that up and she decides her current path is still the one we’re going down, well…I basically link arms and walk down it together. I’ve said my piece but the actual decisions are above my pay grade.

          2. Jules the Third*


            In my area, I’m a *lot* more knowledgeable than my boss was when he started, and more than the two bosses before that. If they or I identify a problem, we think out potential solutions, talk about the + / – / risks, and then my boss makes a decision. In the 10% of situations where we disagree on the solution, my bosses have explained the bigger picture, usually how the problem relates to a different geography and that the solution needs to fix it for both, and I go, ‘a ha! thanks, I’ll go make your solution happen.’

            I do not go with ‘my bosses are wrong because I know more.’ Not ever. I know a lot, but there is a bigger picture out there, and my bosses are my link to it.

          3. Anonym*

            Bosses also own the risk (in a reasonably functioning organization). If something fails, it’s on them as the final decision maker. This can be a helpful reminder when they override your ideas or concerns.

        2. Snark*

          One feature of narcissistic people – and I keep using that word because I do think it fits – is that they have a grandiose idea of their true role in the world and seethe with resentment when the world fails to place them in that role. I don’t doubt that Icarus regards herself as the true brains of the operation, the key to it all, the brilliance that shines in the lab, and OP is just the washed-up old bag who doles out paltry raises and refuses to listen to her.

          1. LBK*

            Yeah, I mean, she pretty much said it outright when she told the OP she knows more than her.

            1. Snark*

              I’m not. Whether she is diagnosable, or diagnosed, with NPD or not is irrelevant; it’s the dynamic of grandiose expectations and seething resentment at people who fail to satisfy them that I’m getting at. It’s a narcissistic pattern, whatever the medical reality.

            2. Anna*

              You can use words like “narcissist” without referring to an actual diagnosis of mental illness.

              1. Lissa*

                yes, the word has been in use for a very long time! In fact I thought it was fairly apt with the mythological theme we got going on. :)

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          That’s my suspicion, as well. I think OP may have been over-compassionate or kind in a way that allowed Icarus to think her massively expanding delusions were reasonable or valid.

        4. Tardigrade*

          Yes, some employees behave like gas and will expand to fit their perceived status.

        5. Lara*

          There was a great line in a CS Lewis book.

          “You’ve had my advice, now give me my orders.”

          1. Anonym*

            This just went into my Helpful Reminder Post-its. Thank you, from an argumentative but well-meaning employee!

    2. George*

      The prodigal son’s father also said that all his property would go to the hardworking son. I somehow suspect the father had more than one lamb. Also, the lamb was slaughtered as a celebration of younger son’s return, but not really given to the son; one person can’t eat a whole lamb.

  17. Tara S.*

    Be sure to check with your admin staff about how to handle the firing – if you’re in a public space, there may be hoops you need to jump through. Not crazy ones, but you will probably have to write out why you’re firing Icarus. Just know what you need before you actually announce that you’re letting them go.

  18. J. F.*

    Before I got to “I am female” I was thinking “this person is female.” (So am I, and I am a PhD scientist who works in academia, ftr.) This pattern of trying to be understanding is a very societally-female one and I would advise the LW to think about how she handles personnel issues. How many warnings *should* someone get – about something really fundamental like “do this experiment”!!! – before being fired? I’d go for three at most. Maybe you need three incidents with a HR rep in the room (I’d always have a witness from now on, if you’re planning to fire her!), but this person needs to be gone.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        OP has put up with this nonsense for 2 years. It’s time for Icarus to go be happy (or miserable) somewhere else.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, this. (I’m also a woman, BTW.) I’d be furious if I were a coworker of Icarus’ and watched LW velvet-glove her tantrums all the time. Sympathy is good, but at some point this person HAS A JOB and needs to be doing it.

  19. Trout 'Waver*

    Hey OP,

    I have been the STEM grad student rotating through labs my first year. I intentionally did not join a lab where the lab manager and PI were in conflict. That’s way too much for a first year PhD student to deal with on top of classes and starting a project.

    This lab manager is almost certainly costing you the best and brightest students to join your lab. Do what needs to be done.

    1. Optimistic Prime*

      Yeah, as a 40-year tenured professor, OP, you probably already know that word gets around departments like lightning. Above and beyond people actually leaving your lab due to Icarus, the other grad students in the department probably all know and may be warning new grad students away from working with you because of this. I myself advise people considering graduate programs to talk to current students to get a sense of what things are like in the lab.

  20. HRChick*

    “Helpless” managers are my #1 pet peeve working in HR. No matter what recommendations we give, it seems like the managers with the problem employees do whatever it takes to appease the problem employee and avoid conflict rather than resolving the problem. I can’t tell you how many managers have been in my office throwing a fit because they wanted to terminate someone’s employment and I told them “no” because their documentation indicates there is no problem with this employee.

    What to do? Write the employee up. Put them on a PIP. If they get performance reviews, make sure you accurately review them. And, if it comes down to it, terminate them. Remember that *attitude* and *peer interactions* are, in fact, a part of a job. Just because they can do the function of a job doesn’t mean they are a *good* employee if they do it so combatively that they’re a toxic presence on the team. Remember that the longer you put off doing something, the longer you are forcing your students and other employees to deal with that one employee’s bad behavior.

    1. AKchic*

      Yes. My goodness yes. Keep notes somewhere so you can refer back to them during review times so you can actually remember incidents that don’t actually merit a write-up, but you’d like to note for the annual review (both good and not so good). Did they make a mistake that they learned from? Document it. It shows the negative and shows how it turned into a positive. Yay! Did they do something excellent that benefitted the department 8 months ago? Great! Glad you wrote it down, otherwise neither of you may have remembered it. Did they do something that warranted a strongly worded email from another department but you didn’t quite feel it was enough to merit a write-up? Hey – annual review is a good time to note it.

    2. Lindsay J*

      *Remember that *attitude* and *peer interactions* are, in fact, a part of a job. Just because they can do the function of a job doesn’t mean they are a *good* employee if they do it so combatively that they’re a toxic presence on the team. Remember that the longer you put off doing something, the longer you are forcing your students and other employees to deal with that one employee’s bad behavior.*

      This. 100%.

      Now, I am not managing incredibly skilled positions. But given a person who is of adequate intelligence and willing to take direction, I can have a person trained to be very competent in what I need them to do, with no prior experience, in 6 months.

      I would much rather start with someone who knows nothing but has a good attitude, than with someone who is prickly or just plain mean or who thinks they know everything and are unwilling to take direction and feedback, but already competent. Because I can fix skills, fixing attitude is much harder. And when I – and the rest of my team – have to work closely with this person every day, being pleasant and easy to work with is important for our enjoyment of the work.

    3. Lefty*

      Yes! I’ve referred to a former manager as “he who complains, but never acts”. There was a pattern of particular employees being problematic, the manager complaining to me but never acting on it, then the manager being surprisingly outraged when the employee continued the same problematic behavior(s) later! I felt like I was in some sort of alternate reality where suggestions like “Discussion/counseling time? PIP? Time for re-training? Written warning?” were dismissed as being too harsh or too much work for the manager, but the on-going cycle of “problematic behavior-complaint-no action” was fine to continue in perpetuity.

      I hope OP is ready and able to act in regards to Icarus. If firing is not an immediate option, documentation should still be! If there are any steps for firing, it’s time to have (another) warning discussion and document it in writing in some way. Like Alison often says, no hints- be clear about the issue and the expectations.

  21. AdAgencyChick*

    She needs to be fired — not only so that OP doesn’t have to put up with this behavior from her any longer, but also so that the rest of OP’s lab sees that this is not acceptable behavior.

    One of the worst things about keeping a subpar or downright awful employee around is that it encourages good employees to leave, or to slack on their own good habits because why not, if bad behavior doesn’t carry any consequences?

    1. yasmara*

      Or, as was pointed out up-thread, they are also being bullied by the toxic employee. I found out after I fired my problem employee that other employees had been fixing her mistakes without bringing them to me and they were SO RELIEVED when she was gone. Even though we were now short-handed (and I actually had to take on the fired employee’s work myself until we could hire a replacement), morale was better almost instantly.

  22. RES ADMIN*

    If it is at a university, there will definitely be hoops to jump through. It is HARD to fire someone at a university unless they helpfully do something really stupid. I have seen examples.

    OP, document, document, document. And call you department admin and/or HR as soon as possible. If this person just received a promotion/raise then you are looking at months of documentation since, essentially, when you gave the promotion, you set the clock to zero and documented that Icarus was doing great and there were no issues.

    Also, don’t discount what is being said/done when you are not around. As has been mentioned, one rotten apple can sour an entire lab. They can also really mess up research. One “accident” with a timer can kill months of research that you probably don’t have the time or money to replicate.

    1. University HR rep*

      ^This right here. Especially if its a public university. I’ve seen so many managers/PIs screw themselves by promoting the biggest complainer to appease them when they should have been reprimanding them.

    2. Runner*

      I read the promotion as happening two years ago, and then Icarus turned sour and has been acting this way since.

  23. Snark*

    One thing that leapt out at me was how much time OP seems to spend on the defensive with Icarus, and treating her as a near-equal who must be persuaded and placated. And having worked in some very egalitarian labs with not much hierarchy, I can see how that comes to be, and how someone with more than a touch of narcissism could take that as license to have a snit fit about the research direction of the lab or the new grad student or whatever. And OP’s desire to be sensitive and egalitarian speaks well of her!

    But moving forward, it would be good to keep in mind that you can be the boss, not just the mentor and the trainer and the researcher. You can say, “I understand you may disagree with my decision here, but I’ve made my decision on the matter and I’m not open to continuing to hash it over.” You can say, “Bartlebina is going to be an excellent addition to the lab, and I’m very confident in my decision to bring her on, so I’d like to close this discussion. Can you see a way clear to accepting that and moving on?” You can state your reasons, but you’ve earned the right to make decisions and have them respected by your employees – you don’t need to justify your research priorities to them.

    1. Student*

      Being egalitarian verbally, but having totalitarian expectations is actually really bad. It misleads and confuses everyone.

      There’s nothing wrong with wanting a solid chain of command in your business. There’s something deeply wrong about acting as if you want everyone’s feedback, that all feedback is equally valuable, when you really want people to shut up and take your orders without question.

      It’s even okay to have certain areas where you want feedback and other areas where you want your orders to be followed – as long as you make it very clear which one is which. If you do give people clear blessing to give feedback, but respond badly every time their feedback disagrees with you, then you’re looking for brown-nosing, not feedback.

        1. Wibby*

          I’m not Student, but I think I see generally what they’re reacting to. Many of us have had that well-meaning supervisor who gave instructions phrased as suggestions (because it’s “more polite”) and then got annoyed when subordinates didn’t follow them. Or who asked for input (again, because it’s “nice”) even though they’d already made a decision, wasting everyone’s time in the process. The examples you provided remind me of that type of leadership because while they’re very politely-worded, the sentiment seems to be, “I’m not accepting your input because I’m the boss, and I don’t want to hear anything more about it.”

          Of course it’s fine to (politely!) dismiss someone’s input when it’s unwanted, assuming that you didn’t invite it in the first place. However, I think the examples would come across a little better if the supervisor was trying less hard to manage the subordinate’s feelings– so maybe, “I hear what you’re saying about Bartlebina, but I’m sure she’ll work well here,” instead.

          1. Lara*

            Surely most people realise that a boss giving you a ‘suggestion’ is an instruction?

            1. Yorick*

              Right, when a boss gives you a suggestion you can perhaps gently question whether it’s the best thing to do, but you still recognize that it’s what they want and you should do it unless you have information they didn’t and that changes their mind

            2. TL -*

              Eh, academia. Some PIs make suggestions like Zeus makes babies – not all of them are gods, er, worthwhile.

              Some PIs make suggestions and it’s more Word of God said nicely than Greek god. You gotta know which one you’re dealing with.

      1. Snark*

        In any case, I think your point is good. But I do think it bears mention that it’s not just a polar dichotomy – either you’re egalitarian or totalitarian. I’ve seen mentioned here how there’s different models of collaboration and direction, and can’t find the post, but some people prefer to operate in a truly consensus-based model, where everybody agrees, some prefer to get feedback and then make a decision, some prefer to make the decision and then get feedback, some just prefer to give orders and have them followed. Some people view feedback as a suggestion, but have no problem overriding it, and some only make decisions on the basis of feedback.

      2. Specialk9*

        Whoa, Student! I think your understanding of totalitarianism is way off, if you think a boss saying they have the final say is “totalitarian” instead of “collaborative”. Totalitarian is a really hugely harsh term, because of all the murdery imprisonment, embezzlement, and society destroying that goes on in totalitarian regimes.

        I think you mean directive or hierarchical. And even in a hierarchical system, you can be collaborative – one doesn’t have to be equals in all ways to collaborate, you just work together with a positive team goal in mind.

        But you need to get it really clear in your mind that a boss making the final decision IS appropriate, in any system, and fits just fine into collaboration. Because you’re sounding very out of touch, and will end up as fired as Icarus. That’s just not how employment works.

      3. Lindsay J*

        But sometimes you do want feedback, you do take that feedback into account, and then you decide to continue to do thing the way you were initially going to because of other factors that outweigh the feedback. The boss not changing the way they do things based on feedback doesn’t mean that asking for the feedback is an act, or that the feedback isn’t valuable, or that they just want subordinates to suck it up and take orders without question.

        It sometimes means that they are listening and taking the feedback into account, but they are dealing with the problem on a higher level than the subordinates. And that ultimately cost or regulatory concerns or any number of other things mean that while the decision is making life more difficult for the subordinates and/or they’re unhappy about it, ultimately it needs to be done anyway. That doesn’t mean their feedback was ignored or unwelcome all together, it just means that while it was a factor in the decision making processes, it wasn’t the deciding or most important factor.

    2. Someone else*

      What I wonder about some of the explaining/defensiveness isn’t just more of the issue of trying to understand. OP is here, trying to understand why Icarus is behaving this way, after being great when first starting in the role. OP is trying to get Icarus to also understand “I told you to do X because of valid scientific reason, not just cuz”. It’s not that they need a concensus, OP clearly knows they don’t, but it seems like, perhaps coming from a more mentor/mentee original relationship (I’m guessing) there’s this educational component, like maybe OP feels obligated as part of her role to educate Icarus on why this is to be done. In non-academic business I can see that maybe being a starting point, but more quickly progressing to “we’re not discussing this and I’ve made my decision. The end.” but possibly part of what’s going on is coming from that desire to teach, that’s preventing them from getting to the stage of “I explained why. It’s not up for debate. Either you’re going to do it or not work here anymore.”

    3. Solidus Pilcrow*

      … it would be good to keep in mind that you can be the boss…

      This gets to the heart of it. When I was reading the letter I kept thinking the OP needed to do the managerial equivalent of “Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why!” and shut Icarus down. (There was good language in an earlier post for this.)

      OP, your biggest mistake was stretching this out over 2 years. After that point you taught her she can slack off and disrespect you to your face and the worst she would get was a slap on the wrist.

    4. TootsNYC*

      ” I’d like to close this discussion. Can you see a way clear to accepting that and moving on?”

      I’d vote for, “There will be more more discussion. You need to accept this and move on.”

      With people like Icarus, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask anything. You tell.

  24. MuseumChick*

    This reminds me a bit of the Sarah letter where the OP had a very bright, talented employee who was also disruptive and disrespectful to her direct boss.

    OP, I agree with the others, your need to fire this employee. Have you documented the talks you’ve had with her? Her disrespect and other issues? Check with your HR about what the process is for firing someone at your university. If you need more documentation then I would recommend one final sit down saying: “I’m going to be blunt, we’ve spoken at length regarding X, Y, and Z. I’m not seeing improvement. I need to to stop doing X, Y, and Z and start doing A, B, and C. If I don’t see significant improvement soon I won’t be able to keep you on staff.” Then document EVERYTHING!

  25. Dust Bunny*

    LW, have there been actual *consequences* here? I mean, I see a lot of talking at her, but what else? Have you done anything that actually hurts, or have you just reinforced your own powerlessness by handing her a lot of sympathy and mushy lectures, but not dealing out something with some bite?

    She needs to be fired. Long ago. But you’re going to run into this again with some other pigheaded assistant if you don’t stand up for yourself in the future.

    1. TootsNYC*

      One thing that the OP might use in the future, to prevent this, is to have consequences ready. Sometimes people think that the only thing you can do is to fire someone, but you can:
      – remove them from plum assignments, or
      supervise them more closely, or
      cut back on the responsibility and autonomy they have.

      Sometimes you can cut their pay, or
      deny them extra assignments that would have boosted their pay.

      So, for the future, have a plan of what you can do to provide a negative response to their actions.

  26. Professor Ronny*

    I had a faculty member like this when I was a department chair and I went this behavior go on for too long. When I finally fired them, the entire atmosphere in the department took a huge turn for the positive. This person is dragging down your lab in ways you have not even noticed because that changes took place gradually over time like the frog in the slowly heating pan of water.

    It will not get better. This person cannot be salvaged. You are hurting your relationship with everyone in the lab. Fire him now and I promise you things will get better.

  27. Cordoba*

    I’ve seen this sort of dynamic when a lower-level employee is unusually good at their job and has obviously has more potential than their peers.

    The accurate self-assessment of “I’m the best lab tech in this lab” given encouragement and positive feedback can turn into a laughably inaccurate “I’m the best that there is in this field and nobody can teach me anything or contradict me”.

    Short-term I’ve seen it successfully dealt with by two methods:
    -Give them an assignment that they will almost certainly (safely) fail and come (safely) crashing down to earth
    -Give them more exposure to actual world-class experts in their field so they can actually see the difference firsthand between “best person on my small team” and “genuine master of the discipline”. I’ve watched an entry-level employee who thought they could walk on water try to (incorrectly) pontificate to a senior engineer about the details of a system that the senior engineer had herself designed and held the patents for. It was a good learning experience for the entry-level person to be taken to school in real-time about how much they didn’t know.

    Although it seems like Icarus is too far gone for either of these options.

    OP, as the one who sets the tone and direction for the lab are you comfortable being wrong or saying “I don’t know” in front of your subordinates when it’s appropriate and accurate? A big boss who doesn’t back down or acknowledge their own mistakes and limitations can cause the grunts underneath them to develop the same behaviors. From the letter this seems to be unlikely, but might be worth considering.

  28. Student*

    As a STEM PhD, I think there’s more here than you are letting on. Or, perhaps, aware of.

    I don’t know what’s going on in your specific lab, but I’ve seen this in quite a few labs. I don’t doubt that you’ve told us the truth. I doubt you’ve told us the full story, though.

    When I’ve seen this before, it’s usually because the Professor has outsourced her daily laboratory job responsibilities to Icarus, but Icarus doesn’t get much (if any) credit, doesn’t have the full authority to execute her responsibilities successfully, and/or doesn’t get the pay/title commensurate with her duties.

    Do you have a lab tech acting as an associate professor or post-doc for you? That’d be extremely frustrating for the lab tech, even if it was exciting in the short term. It’d basically be setting her up for long-term failure and burn-out.

    Does Icarus get full and appropriate credit on publications? Does Icarus go to professional conferences, and have an opportunity to earn a PhD if Icarus wants? Or is Icarus stuck managing a lab of PhD students, teaching them how to become PhDs, without any chance to earn the credential she helps others earn?

    Does Icarus write substantial portions of some of your grants? Do your grants make promises you can’t actually keep, and that’s what Icarus is objecting to? That’s deeply common in academia and grant-writing, and also deeply frustrating for the person who has to try to execute on the hyperbole.

    If you’ve delegated a lot of lab responsibilities to Icarus, but aren’t willing to trust her judgement on lab matters that are within her day-to-day envelope, then I can also understand her getting resentful. That’d be laying lots of responsibility on her, but undermining her whenever something non-trivial came up. It can also become meddlesome micro-managing. Professors who spend little time in the lab day-to-day can easily over-estimate their lab abilities and familiarity – I’ve seen it happen in as little as six months of no serious lab work. Then they’ll come in, wanting to buy some fancy gadget we don’t really need because the salesman gave a good pitch or because
    another professor has one, neglecting much-needed lab maintenance or supplies that are less glamorous.

    Have you picked up a student or post-doc in the last two years (since Icarus has started getting angry) that might be the root cause of Icarus’s anger? I’ve seen professors offload troublesome (creepy, dumb, aggressive, unstable) students on lower-level Icarus-type personnel often, without giving the Icarus-level person the authority to deal with them effectively and withholding permission to get rid of the actual troublemaker. Depending on how bad the student is and what, exactly, type of trouble they cause, I can see that being infuriating. One of my former PhD advisors insisted on keeping a post-doc who grabbed my crotch, and I remember that I was so intensely and constantly angry about it that I had to leave the group (and find a new PhD advisor) before I exploded at somebody over it.

    Regardless of the cause, your professional relationship has deteriorated badly. You probably need to let her go, and that will ultimately be better for both of you. You seem to hear that she’s angry, but don’t relay the bigger picture issues she’s angry about – you cite many individual, relatively small and different issues instead. There’s probably something very real that she’s angry about – I’ve tried to present a few common options – and I encourage you to try to figure out what that is, because it’ll likely happen again if you don’t. Please realize that being a Professor doesn’t inherently make you a good business/people manager. By your own account, since Icarus was a pretty good worker, you probably screwed up a manager issue here a while ago and let it stew too long before fixing it.

    1. Marie*

      “I doubt you’ve told us the full story, though.”

      This, thank you.
      As a physics PhD, something sounds weird and incomplete in this letter. I tried to explain it in an earlier comment but could not pinpoint it.
      People don’t change suddenly just because they are more confident.

      1. einahpets*

        Yes, this!!! I left grad school with a terminal masters, but I was around long enough to know that grants are typically never completed by work of one person solely. The part about ‘all personnel, including Icarus and me, are paid for through my grants that I obtain solely in my own name’ raised my hackles a little.

        Those grants were obtained through the work/research of the entire lab while proposing work that is going to be done by the entire lab / not just the PI. By work done by underpaid grad students, post-docs, undergrad interns, and the regular lab staff that may or may not be getting a salary comparable to what they’d be getting in industry. And at least at the university where I was at, we had a whole department that did the actual administration of applying for grants in the PIs name, once the PI/lab completed the science part, including the distribution/budgeting of funds, etc. Maybe I’m missing something based on the field/institution the OP is in.

        I’m not defending Icarus’ actions here, but the attitude that you are paying people out of a grant you’ve done all the work in obtaining by yourself? Thanks for reminding on one of the reasons I left academia!

        1. Luna*

          Excellent point! Many PIs tend to forget about all the work done by others that goes into their success.

    2. Snark*

      The thing with basically all of the factors you identify is that nobody has a gun to Icarus’ head. Want to be a PI or more than a lab manager? Go get the PhD – don’t disrespect and fly off the handle at the one who did the work to get the credential. Frustrated with your boss? Quit. Want your judgment trusted? Display good judgment, and trust the judgement of the person who pays you. Want full credit for research in the lab? Make sure your work is actually meriting of research credit.

      None of this justifies being a tyrant for two years.

      1. Caro in the UK*

        I don’t think Student was saying that any of this justifies Icarus’ behaviour. But part of the OP’s question was how she could avoid a similar situation in future. And a key part of stopping something happening again is understanding why it happened in the first place. Trying to understand someone’s behaviour is not the same as excusing it.

        1. Snark*

          That’s true, but I think a lot of Icarus’ frustration can be laid at the feet of her own unrealistic expectations of how much power she has and deserves here.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            I think that’s the point: If LW has offloaded that much work but Icarus is still viewed as not “deserving” any power . . . this is a situation that will repeat itself.

            1. Snark*

              Unfortunately, this is kind of the deal for a research associate/staff scientist in academia who’s not themselves a professor. They do a lot of the work and day-to-day of the lab, but they’re not the PI, and the PI is the one who ultimately sets lab policy and priorities.

              1. Alcott*

                Grant money doesn’t just come in to do *science*. There’s always a scope of work attached to the money and at the end of the day, the person whose name is on the award is the one who has to answer to funder if the work isn’t completed on time/pay that money back if it’s been used inappropriately.

              2. another scientist*

                It’s a cop-out to say “this is the way it is”. If the imbalance between responsibilities and influence is what drove Icarus to be impossible to work with (which is speculation at this point), then throwing up your hands at this situation will not work. It is actually possible for a PI to grant group members autonomy based on their experience and track record. I’ve seen it.

                1. Cordoba*

                  But that may actually be the fundamental nature of the job.

                  There are many jobs which could accurately be described as “responsibility with minimal authority”. Laboratory technician is often one of these jobs – a tech is responsible to execute tests correctly but has no real authority to decide which tests are done, control how the data is interpreted, or to determine the overall direction of the testing.

                  It is fair for a person to not want a job that involves responsibility with minimal authority; this sort of position can be frustrating and is not the right fit for everybody.

                  But the fact that a job of this nature exists within an organization is not itself a de facto indication of a problem that needs to be solved.

                2. Snark*

                  Sure. But there’s a difference between being granted autonomy and calling the shots, and if your ambition extends to calling the shots, that’s incompatible with the fundamental nature of being a research associate/staff scientist/lab tech or manager. You can’t be a PI if you don’t have the credentials, can’t pull in the grants, and aren’t a professor.

      2. lisalee*

        It definitely doesn’t excuse Icarus’s behavior, but I do think a lot of regular university staff get trapped in a cycle where they have too much experience to do anything else, have too little money/too many responsibilities to get a PhD, and very little serious professional support.

    3. Trout 'Waver*

      When professors abdicate everything to their lab managers, they don’t circle and back provide direct feedback as the OP has done. They just kinda ignore it. At least in my personal experience.

      1. Snark*

        And they’re not making active decisions about the lab’s priorities and staffing, generally.

    4. nonymous*

      > Or is Icarus stuck managing a lab of PhD students, teaching them how to become PhDs, without any chance to earn the credential she helps others earn?

      I want to point out that for every amazing/wonderful/joyful grad student that enters, there are 2-3 that are still figuring out adulting norms or just plain old creepy. This is part of normal development, especially considering the transition from undergrad to grad, age and cultural factors. Every lab manager I’ve known with has stories about rude grad student behavior. It ranges from true asshats to the mere grind of hand-holding semester after semester. Many times the lab manager is seen professionally as a support role, and compensated accordingly, when in fact they are the practical side of the grad student’s instruction.

      Teaching is a wonderfully exhausting profession in the best of times, but it can be even more trying if the salary doesn’t cover a “living wage”. I use the phrase in quotes, because it’s an issue of relative dollars. It’s disheartening to make 1/3 of the PI’s salary and maybe a 20% premium over grad students (some of whom still have mom & dad subsidizing lifestyle). At those disparities, it is a recipe for burnout to expect the lab manager to perform with “professional skills beyond the typical level of someone in her position.”

    5. oldbiddy*

      I’m a staff member in a STEM research group at a university. I have a PhD and do research, help out with grant writing, paper writing, mentoring the students, etc. My boss and I are around the same age. He is very good about giving me credit, getting me on grants as a co-PI, etc. It’s a pretty nice gig for me and my boss and I have a good working relationship.
      Having said that, with the wrong set of personalities, workload, pay, or lab personnel issues, I could absolutely see how the situation could be very unpleasant for Icarus.

    6. Nesprin*

      PhD Bioengineering here. Nothing would breed resentment like having responsibility but not control. My postdoc training (I’m self funded btw) is going off the wall because my PI views me as a low level tech who does what she says and I view myself as an independent scientist who occasionally asks for feedback on the directions I set. OP have you asked Icarus what she wants out of working in your lab? Does she have her own projects? Does she have her own funding? How much of her time is managerial vs. scientific? Do you have a clear policy about who gets authorship for what? All of these would sway whether her perceived insubordination is actually scientific independence.

      1. Snark*

        The distinction, of course, being that you actually ARE “an independent scientist who occasionally asks for feedback on the directions I set” with your own funding, and a near-peer of your PI….and Icarus is not. She’s not independent, she’s not self-funded, she’s not a peer, she doesn’t have a PhD. And so her expectations as to authorship, strategic decisionmaking, and the like need to be in line with that.

        1. One of the Sarahs*

          Yeah, I’m interested in why some people are jumping to “OP must be wrong, Icarus must be equivalent of a PostDoc, who is given all the responsibility and no control/know more about all the processes than OP/have to manage all these horrible people” etc etc. I guess it’s because people can project their own experiences onto Icarus, but it feels unfair to OP to ignore her actual description of her problem – and it doesn’t actually help answer her question.

          1. Natalie*

            One of her questions was why this is happening/how to prevent this in the future, and the suggestions have been clearly caveated as such. I’m not sure what else you can ask for there.

            1. Yorick*

              We can ask commenters to know and understand the job role of the person in question before they give advice.

    7. Glenn*

      Yes yes yes yes yes! Also a STEM PhD that worked for several faculty members that supported their labs with grants, I have seen this before a couple times. Mostly it was due to a personality clash and power struggle, and the PI was not blameless. I have some sympathy for Icarus because I think there is more to the story too. These situations are ripe for dysfunction, and my feeling is that Icarus is at BEC stage about something (or multiple things). Her behavior is extreme, though.

      I also dislike this notion that the PI is personally paying out of their own pocket for the lab tech. Yes, the tech’s salary is dependent on the PI’s work, and their grant writing does impact their job stability, but it’s not directly out of their own pocket. If Icarus is fired, the PI doesn’t get to keep their salary (unless this is a very unusual setup that I’ve never encountered before). This bothers me because one of my old bosses would hold the idea of “you’re here because of ME” over his employees’ heads. He would even reinforce my [immigrant/POC] coworker’s “indebtedness” to him while he was sexually harassing her by telling her that he was putting food in her baby’s mouth.

      Please note that I’m not suggesting at all that this is the case here, but adding an anecdotal data point because I find it irritating when the “I’m paying your salary out of my own pocket” idea is brought up.

      1. Luna*

        I absolutely agree- Icarus gets her salary in exchange for working, not as some kind of charity case. The PI wouldn’t be able to publish without staff, students and postdocs to carry out the day to day work.

      2. nonymous*

        >I also dislike this notion that the PI is personally paying out of their own pocket for the lab tech.

        I think there are PIs out there who come from a perspective that the salary portion of the grant is a zero sum game. That is, every dollar that goes to the tech is a dollar that can’t go to someone else – at the most egotistical the PI’s summer salary or to top off what the PI gets from the institution, but at minimum a subordinate who will advance the PI’s personal brand.

        1. Lara*

          “at minimum a subordinate who will advance the PI’s personal brand.”

          Or… do their job as instructed? I’ve never worked in academia so maybe my perceptions are off but I’m finding the defence of an employee who has *literally* refused to do the work they are employed for very odd.

    8. the_scientist*

      As someone who has also worked in labs, I think this is a very thorough analysis of a very in-your-face manifestation of a common issue in the lab environment. A good lab manager keeps a PI sane, and keeps a lab productive. They provide years, sometimes decades, of historical and institutional knowledge, and they are often the ones actually doing the technical training of grad students. By the time a PI is established enough to have a lab that is large enough to necessitate a manager, they are usually pretty hands off on the actual wet lab work, so they aren’t in the lab to really observe how staff interact with one another, and the lab manager is really the one doing the day-to-day work of keeping the lab running. However, they do tend to be notoriously under-recognized for the amount of work they do, and totally under-appreciated.

      In the brief year that I worked as a lab manager, here is what I learned:
      – some naive/clueless students treat you essentially as a servant- do this experiment for me! breed these mice for me! Uh, no. I will help you if you need an extra set of hands (and you give me enough notice), and I will teach you the techniques if you don’t know how to do them, but my job is to perform experiments for the PI, not you, and your job is to learn the skills while you’re here.
      – you fall into a weird place where people may not take your critiques of their research as seriously as you’d hope, because you don’t have an advanced degree– and academia is a place where having the right set of letters after your name really, really matters
      – you can be shafted from professional development opportunities like conferences because there’s no specific funding for you to attend them- students get first dibs, and any postdocs/PhD students are usually named on the grant and are the first author of papers/posters/presentations, so they get to present the research.
      – Not to say that this describes the OP, but many PIs are very poor people managers. It’s not like you get any management training in your PhD or Postdoc; you just kind of have to learn as you go, and the personality type of most researchers may not lend itself to strong management skills or a lot of interest in management.
      – depending on the specific lab, there may not be much time or opportunity for lab managers to be involved in writing papers or designing/planning experiments, which can be frustrating for people who have those ambitions.

      Not that any of these things excuse Icarus’s behaviour (and I think she still needs to go) but this will be something the OP needs to watch out for in the future. The reality is that there are no ways to move up from the role of lab manager (at least in academia) without pursuing a PhD and becoming a PI in your own right. That realization can really sour some ambitious individuals on the work, especially combined with the resentment of day-to-day underappreciation, etc.

      All of these things are the reason I only did it for a year or so and then got out.

    9. AnonAcademic*

      Thank you for writing this. I have been in situations working with an Icarus who really was arrogant, abrasive, rude, and insubordinate to everyone. I have also been treated as the Icarus because I was trying to draw my bosses’ attention to major violations of university policy, research ethics, and statistical best practices, and they didn’t want to hear it. I think another question to add to your list is, does Icarus have difficulty working with most other people or just the letter writer? The only reason I know I wasn’t really the problem is that I talked to administrators, ethics experts, and statisticians who confirming my concerns were valid and I have never had a poor working relationship with any of my other half dozen supervisors before or since.

      1. Glenn*

        “I was trying to draw my bosses’ attention to major violations of university policy, research ethics, and statistical best practices“


        (Again, NOT projecting this on the OP’s situation, just saying this happens way more than people think it does.)

      2. AnonPostdoc*


        I’ve got a great relationship with my current supervisor, and I refuse to do stuff for him all the time, because it’s bad science, bad stats, literally impossible, or, in one recent case, straight-up illegal. It’s division of labor; he has the experience to do big-picture stuff (for example: help me get grants!), and I have the expertise to do the day-to-day research that gets both our names into big fancy journals.

        Also, when it comes to students and postdocs: at the end of the day, it’s their research, not the PI’s. I get it that techs are different, but between that comment and the belief that the OP’s grant is somehow “her money”, I too am wondering if there is another side to this story. I mean, sure, it’s clearly not working out between the OP and Icarus, if Icarus is a tech and the OP is this upset than the OP should absolutely fire Icarus and refuse to tolerate behavior like this in the future. But it is interesting how many nerves this letter has touched, on all sides…

    10. DoctorCactus*

      Student- this is a great and thoughtful response and really nicely articulates some of the common difficulties in labs. I think it brings up some great points of consideration re: how can I prevent this from happening again?

      However, just as a decent member of the human race, her behavior is wildly disrespectful regardless of underlying frustrations.

    11. Academic Addie*

      ” I doubt you’ve told us the full story, though.”

      On the flip side, I, and almost every female PI I know, have had some sort of insubordination issue with either students or staff. In the case of the staffer I had to fire, he was great – listened, worked hard, met deadlines, even proposed some new ideas (not expected of his position, but not unwelcome). As soon as he perceived that his training was complete, he started blowing off meetings (including one notable occasion where he told me he was ill for a standing Monday 8 am, then was tagged in pictures on Facebook doing cocaine in a bar bathroom), declining to turn in work, and challenging me on things while failing to do any of the work to understand the science he was challenging me on.

      You’ve given the LW a lot of good stuff to think about. But some times these problems really do fall back to some simple things. LW, do the legwork of thinking hard about what’s proposed here (while, of course, doing the paperwork to fire this jerk), but remember that you’re the expert at running your lab. We can all suggest ideas, but you’re the only one with the eyewitness account.

    12. J. F.*

      I’ve also worked with people who developed delusions of grandeur and competence well beyond the scope of their knowledge and abilities – in particular, a master’s-level tech! – and the PI didn’t fire her. For sure this PI has mis-handled the situation, but someone who thinks they know more about getting grants than the person actually getting grants? That person is suffering from a serious misconception.

  29. Midge*

    Ok, so I’m going to be a bit of a contrarian here. I completely agree that Icarus’ behavior has been over the line. Especially the part where she gives a male faculty member’s opinion more weight than yours. Ugh!

    BUT, is it possible that some of the things she wants to do differently are good ideas? In my personal experience (so this may not apply to you at all!), faculty move slower than staff when it comes to staying up to date on process stuff, and maybe don’t always have their finger on the pulse of organizational procedure and management the way they do research. So it could be worth reflecting on the critical feedback she’s been giving to see if there’s anything she may have a point about.

    That being said, I hope you’re able to get her out of the lab soon. I imagine she’s having a pretty bad effect on morale.

    1. Captain S*

      Eh, I sort of think it doesn’t matter if her ideas are good. Even if the OP is a miserably entrenched slow-moving white tower academic, nothing justifies the kind of hostility and open insubordination described here; it’s unprofessional no matter the context.

      In general, everyone can benefit from taking a step back and re-evaluate if something they’re doing is the right thing or not, but I don’t think that changes the advice to let Icarus go ASAP at all.

      1. Snark*

        I agree. Also, just because an idea is good doesn’t mean it’s in keeping with the lab’s strategic research direction, and/or a priority under current funding streams, and/or practicable given current resources and scheduling. When I was a grad student, I got all hot and bothered about how pyrosequencing was the next hot shit in environmental microbiology and damn we should roll that in right now! But it wasn’t mature enough, cost too much, and wasn’t going to return the kind of results we needed for the projects we were working on right then, even if it was the hot new process.

        1. Lindsay J*

          Yes, I’m coming from this from the business side, not academic. But I’ve seen this happen a lot, especially from people who are up-and-coming superstars, because those are the types of people who tend to come in with lots of ideas.

          Some of the ideas are things I may even agree with.

          But the reality is, is that while they would make things better, either the ROI is not high enough to get buy-in from upper management. Or the cost is just too damn high for the organization. So continuing to plug along at the slightly less optimal but much cheaper way is just the way things are going to have to go.

          Or, they are ideas that sound great on paper, but they’ve been tried sometime in the last decade, and we found out that the reality didn’t match the idea.

          It becomes rough to manage the emotions and attitudes of the people coming in with these ideas, because they can tend to become frustrated or burnt out quickly because they feel that they’re not being listened to. But we are listening to them. We just can’t make huge acquisitions via magic and it’s just not in the budget, (and will never be in the budget because saving 1 minute of an entry level employee’s time once a week [so saving $16.66 a year] isn’t worth the $40,000 investment and is never going to be) or they aren’t listening to us when we say, “I know that sounds like a great idea. We thought so, too. But then we tried it and it turned out that X, Y, and Z became huge issues, and we had to go back to doing it this way.”

      2. Midge*

        The OP wanted to know how to avoid this kind of situation in the future. So if her actions are contributing to Icarus’ over the top behavior, then it should matter quite a bit.

    2. Indie*

      If she doesn’t understand it’s the boss’s own neck to risk how she chooses, how good can her idea be?

  30. Maria*

    What strange behaviour being displayed by Icarus. I’m already curious about a future update about this situation.

  31. animaniactoo*

    Honestly, my response here would be “Icarus, you seem to think you know how to do all of this better than I do. I suggest that you look into setting up your own lab and running it, where you are free to run it as you wish and as you think best. In the meantime, this lab is MY lab, and you are free to disagree, you are free to POLITELY raise a point and question whether something else might be useful or better, but that’s it. It is not acceptable for you to keep challenging my decisions as the director of this lab, and it needs to stop. Immediately.”

    But at this point, I think you’re beyond this and Icarus has gotten to the point where she would actively try and sabotage your work if you keep her on. So if you can’t fire her immediately because there’s some process or the other that you have to go through? Keep a sharp eye out for that.

    1. Khlovia*

      Yah. Like, if at all possible, move her into a different position/circumstance/role/room where she can’t do much damage. Probably isn’t possible, though. (File clerking in a building across campus would be ideal….)

  32. Nita*

    Oh, Icarus is flying way to high. This is trouble.

    OP, the list of problems you’ve had with her seems to have crossed from ordinary disagreement territory into “this person is doing you more harm then good” territory. The requests to go to the male colleague to “resolve” disputes (in her mind, that means: take her side) are the most disturbing development to me. Next thing you know, she will start going to him behind your back – it’s still your lab, but this is not going to have it running smoothly. Maybe he’ll realize what’s going on and give you a heads-up, but she could well tell him that you sent her to get his take on something. And then she’ll do things his way, and only inform you after the fact, and it’s OK, because another Ph.D. (and a man, mind you!!!) told her that’s the way to do it.

  33. Steve*

    It must suck for Icarus to have skills beyond what is expected to do. What was op thinking she wod do with them, if they were not goimg to be used at her job? It is probably right to fire her. Bit it sounds like the job requirements were not letting her do what you taught her and that must have been frustrating to her. Was op clear that what she taught above job requirements would not be allowed? Maybe that is one thing she should do different in future. Idk i am just suggesting a different way of looking at things.

    1. Captain S*

      I don’t see a real indication that OP taught Icarus skills that Icarus is unable to use in her position – just that the skills are above and beyond what someone in that position would normally have. I imagine OP thought Icarus could use those skills in the lab – hence the promotion.

      It just doesn’t matter if Icarus was frustrated or bored in the job – that cannot justify open hostility towards your boss or thinking you know more than a literal expert in the field.

      1. Steve*

        I agree that the conduct should not be allowed. I read the post as saying icarus had changed. Before she was a good employee who was rewarded with extra training and now she is resentful that she is not regarded how she wants. Something changed. I think it is a fair question to ask if icarus was aware she was not going to be regarded as higher up and right to show her views.

        Again, idk, i am just wonderingwhat her side of the story would be.

    2. LBK*

      That’s kinda just a thing that happens with jobs, though – it’s part of why people get new jobs. You take what you learned at your current job and you move on to the next step. Most roles aren’t designed to expand infinitely as the person holding them gains more skills, they’re designed to fill a specific purpose and you can only extend them so far beyond that purpose.

      It’s great for the receptionist if she goes and gets her accounting degree, but I still need someone to answer the phone. If she wants to do accounting, go be an accountant and I’ll hire someone else to answer the phone. Same thing here – if Icarus has extended beyond what this role can offer, go get a new role. Don’t just start acting like a jackass.

      I understand in academia there’s a credentials element to this that makes it especially hard, but if she can’t or won’t get the education she needs…well, she needs to figure out how to accept the point she’s at. Again, don’t just start being a jackass, which accomplishes nothing.

      1. Steve*

        The poster student and the people in that thread gave a better description of what i was thinking with examples from lab experiences.

  34. Curious Cat*

    I can only imagine Icarus’ behavior is also setting a bad example for the students working in the lab & they may believe her behavior is acceptable! Definitely agree with Alison’s advice here – Icarus sounds toxic and a lost cause. Firing her might be the last lesson you can teach her.

  35. Teapot librarian*

    What if your Icarus is a government employee? You can’t just fire her, so how would you write a PIP to address the issues in this letter? Or would you use progressive discipline?

    1. Professor Ronny*

      Post clearly states that the OP is paying this person using grant money so not a government employee.

      1. Sunny*

        State university employees are still state government employees even if they are paid by a grant. The only benefit being grant funded gives the PI re: firing is if the funding were to be lost, then it’s a legitimate grounds for firing. Otherwise, she’ll have to jump through all the normal HR hoops when firing state employees.

      2. McWhadden*

        That’s not true everywhere. Lots of government employees (and public university employees) are funded through grants but are still government employees.

        I once had a grant funded position with a District Attorney’s office, for instance.

    2. Eye of Sauron*

      Disclaimer: I’ve never had to do this particular brand of PIP and it’s been a really long time since I’ve had an employee on one, so take my words with a grain of salt. Not in government, but my private sector company would make me (as they should!) go through the PIP process in all but the most extreme cases. I guess for us the PIP is the progressive discipline, we don’t really do the warning system anymore. But you are expected to have coached an employee prior to putting them on a PIP.

      I believe my company’s PIPs had a section to document the current undesirable behavior with specific examples.

      Then I would outline the behaviors that I don’t want to see: eye rolling, arguments, refusals, raised voices, complaints, sarcasm, cursing, etc.

      And last the time frame for successfully completing the PIP. 30 to 60 days for example.

      1. Teapot librarian*

        Thanks. I’m having some trouble with “how to measure results” for things like “employee takes responsibility for his actions” and “employee does not insinuate that the manager is inept.” Our PIP form is all about what is desired, not what is undesired that is motivating the PIP. But “employee doesn’t act like an a******” is difficult to phrase in the positive :-)

        1. Eye of Sauron*

          Yeah, I would probably twist the behaviors that I don’t want to see into behaviors that I do want to see.

          “To be successful under this plan the employee shall engage in respectful conversation without The employee shall without complaint or disagreement accept direction from superiors. The employee shall not display either verbal or nonverbal hostility in the workplace.. and so on”

          I totally get you, I’d struggle with the fact that I was having to tell someone specifically how not to be a jerk.

          1. Eye of Sauron*

            weird… I added extra words. The quote part should be this:

            “To be successful under this plan the employee shall engage in respectful conversation. The employee shall without complaint or disagreement accept direction from superiors. The employee shall not display either verbal or nonverbal hostility in the workplace.. and so on”

            1. Teapot librarian*

              One of my issues with my Icarus is lack of attention to detail, but I can forgive your extra words :-)

  36. Elizabeth West*

    One of the problems with cutting people slack over and over is that — while it can feel like you’re being kind and accommodating, giving the person chance after chance — you train them to believe that they don’t need to take you seriously when you tell them “this isn’t okay and I need you to change it.”

    Nailed it. Fire her, now.
    Also, this is really great life advice.

  37. AMT*

    If the firing does happen, I wonder if it might be a good idea to get her out the same day instead of giving her notice. I have no idea how sensitive these experiments are, but my paranoid side fears that she might sabotage stuff or destroy equipment on her way out.

    1. BRR*

      Typically when people are fired they need to leave immediately after gathering their belongings. As you mentioned, due to the nature of the job I don’t think this would be an exception.

  38. Mikasa Ackerman*

    I like to cover up Alison’s answer while I’m reading to try and see if my opinion will match hers. The whole time I was thinking, “Fire her!” Then, I read Alison’s first sentence. So satisfying.

  39. Nicole*

    OP, I hope you fire her. It seems like you have been more than willing to work with her and get these issues resolved, and she’s having none of it. I’d get her out before she starts sabotaging your lab work or worse.

  40. Justin*

    Want to give props to the OP for choosing such a great name for the person in her story. Let’s get more mythic names in there! :)

    But yeah, wow, she’s gotten too close to the sun and you need to send her back to earth. Away from you and your lab.

  41. Katie McG*

    Agree with the points above.

    You should also start to create a computer back up to all of the files in your computer that Icarus cannot access. You want to be careful that she doesn’t sabotage your data or your experiments, which would be easy to do. Keep a clean copy of all of your files so you have data sets that are likely not damaged. Also once she is fired, change the locks on all of your lab doors. Change passwords. Change remote access to your files. I agree with AMT, you don’t want to be paranoid but this person could really destroy your work if she has nothing to lose.

  42. Anonymous Educator*

    I’m guessing Icarus thinks only hard skills matter.

    But soft skills matter, too. That’s not just in academia. That’s in workplaces in general.

    Does she think we haven’t all been in places where we thought we knew better than our bosses? If you want to effectively make change as an employee, you earn the respect of your boss, avoid being combative, and pick what hills you’re willing to die on.

    1. PB*

      Yes. Icarus reminds me of a former coworker who thought her hard skills were brilliant, when in fact they were average and slightly out of date. But because she thought her hard skills were so good, she could get away with treating everyone like garbage. I guess she was partly right, since my crappy former employer never fired her. It did come back to bite her when she applied for a promotion, and she had a terrible time scraping up three references. She even told one person, after they refused, that they “only had to talk about how good she was at her job.”

      She didn’t get passed the phone screen stage.

    2. Cordoba*

      I bet most of us have been in places where we *did* know our own job better than our bosses did.

      Step 1 in that situation is to demonstrate to the boss that you’re an expert in your job, make good decisions generally, and can be a team player who doesn’t have to get your way all the time.

      Step 2 is they then trust your expertise and rely on you as the go-to resource for those things where you know more than they do.

  43. Wombat*

    I’ve seen quite a bit of lab dysfunction over the years (I’m a postdoc and I’ve worked in research labs since 2001), and this situation sounds particularly bad. There are a lot of interesting ways for lab dynamics to go bad, and some of the most common are failing to recognize where the power actually is within a lab, which is (fundamentally) what this sounds like it is. Quite a few other commenters have it bang to rights: the PI writes the grants, which means that, in terms of lab research direction, their word is law. This isn’t because most PIs want to be tinpot dictators (far from it), but because they have to report, to their funding agencies, what they (and their lab) have done to accomplish the aims of their grant. Every PI I’ve worked for has expected their lab members to thrash out the science collectively, because that’s how you do science, but at the end of the day, it’s the PI’s lab, and the PI gets to set what amounts to lab policy.

    From what the letter writer described, it’s absolutely a case of “fire Icarus ASAP” because it’s an absolute guarantee that they are poisoning the well in the lab, and have been a sea anchor on the lab’s productivity, general happiness and functionality for at least the last two years. Yes, longtime research staff often are the repository of serious continuity of knowledge (they’re often around longer than grad students), but that really can’t be an impediment to firing them when they’re poisoning the lab environment.

    1. Khlovia*

      Yes, once they have morphed into the repository of serious continuity of toxicity, it’s time to remember that nobody is irreplaceable.

  44. Katie McG*

    Not to make you totally paranoid but is it possible this person has actually poisoned your data, particularly on experiments they did not want to run? Did you get the outcomes you expected? Have you double checked the results against raw data? A person like this might intentionally wreck experimental outcomes if they are resentful. Ideally you would have multiple people involved with the data to double check it but sometimes experiments dont work that way.

    1. yasmara*

      I hope this isn’t true because what a nightmare, but @Katie McG, you are absolutely right, the OP needs to start investigating this immediately.

  45. Bikirl*

    I commend OP for her patience and trying to understand Icarus. If Icarus was willing to acknowledge what she is doing and feeling, and seek help, I think there is a glimmer of hope in this situation. The book Conquer Your Inner Critical Voice by Robert Firestone, et al., which has a section on careers, helped me greatly in understanding sabotaging behaviors.

  46. blackcat*

    Grad student here: If she’s this bad to her boss, I am sure she treats your grad students like shit, too.
    You and they deserve better. Your grad students deserve a functional work environment. Fire her.

  47. ImmunoMaven*

    I skimmed so I’m hoping I’m not just repeating anyone, but I am currently a postdoc in a lab at a large, very well-funded research university/hospital. I agree that this person needs to be fired, perhaps for her own good as well, but also there might be some lab dynamics that are at play that you are not seeing. It’s probably too late to save this one, but it might be good to take a long look at your lab and see if there is anything more going on.
    But my one bit of (I think) important advice is that if you do fire her immediately, be careful. If she has access to your data or manages an animal colony for you, she may be the only person with that knowledge and could seriously mess things up IF she is really angry/delusional enough to want to. Make sure that stuff is in a safe place and you have backups of any raw data. And good luck!

  48. Rachel Green*

    It sounds to me like Icarus thought the promotion entitled her to more authority and decision making responsibility, since she started acting this way right after the promotion. But, like Alison said, regardless of the “why” she needs to be fired. She sounds really emotionally immature (getting “white hot mad” when things don’t go her way). I have a friend who is very similar to Icarus. She has been unable to hold a job for more than a couple of years because she reaches a point where nothing is handled the way she thinks it should be handled, she gets really combative, blames it all on a “toxic” workplace or incompetent coworkers, then moves on to a different job before they have a chance to fire her. I’m pretty sure it will never occur to her that she’s the one who’s toxic.

  49. Sigh*

    Uhm if you had mentioned that you were a government lab I’d be like oh hey, this situation is practically if not completely identical to one I’ve experienced. It was fascinating. Since they were government it was even harder to properly discipline and as far as I know the Icarus of this office (who was male, btw), is in a different building doing something he hates now because they couldn’t fire him easily…but no one wanted to deal with him, either.

    One thing the person in your position didn’t realize was how badly he was treating the graduate students and fellow lab workers as a result of his crappy attitude. If he’s being this awful to you, he’s likely taking it out on people she’s supposed to supervise or assist.

    Working in a lab can make you feel looked down upon. You’ve got PIs with super degrees being toads, or people who aren’t at that level trying to bump their self perception up through snobbery, and these people often don’t give orders nicely. You do a lot of work that you don’t get credit or authorship for (and you know you won’t, but sometimes it feels like you should get some public recognition after 100 hours of tedious, finger breaking work!), and sometimes people don’t even mention you as a “thank you” even when you’ve done all the primary data processing…

    but there are also amazing situations (like the one I’m in now) where I’m respected, where even the most senior person speaks respectfully to me, and where I’ve been offered authorship (last, but still), because they realize I’m vital to the task and free them up for writing and thinking. It sounds like you run similarly, and Icarus should realize they’ve messed up a really great situation. They’ll realize it soon after they’re job hunting.

    Also, PhD envy is a real thing. So is master’s envy. I’ve worked as a graduate student assistant with full time staff members who just…hated that I was able to be in tertiary education and constantly made assumptions about me and my circumstances and life goals that were hurtful and wrong. Meanwhile, they’re making union wages, with wonderful health insurance, with job security and full time work. Like, I’d love to be you, and I have been you, but I made this decision to do this and it doesn’t say ANYTHING about why you chose not to do this. But they feel it does, and it turns into a pissing contest over “degree versus experience.”

    Wow. Sorry. Had a lot to say on this apparently…

    1. Indie*

      “It turns into a pissing contest over “degree versus experience”

      Being super working class and the first person in my family to get a degree, I never thought I’d be pegged as ‘privileged’. Cue a lot of ‘it’s clearly not enough for self important people to just be happy’ bullying from a gap year colleague. Like your colleagues she wanted the payoff but simply didnt want to give up her well paid full time job to study. You can’t have it both ways.

    2. LadyKelvin*

      Degree envy, its such a thing. I have a PhD, one of my good friends has a master’s. She’s constantly coming to me saying “well, would they say that to a PhD? Then they shouldn’t say it to me.” When they give her more guidance, criticism, etc on a project she’s doing the lab work on. I am trying to be a good friend but also say, well no! You wouldn’t say that to a PhD, but it is a perfectly valid thing to say to/ask of a master’s level researcher. You can’t say that you have no desire to go get your PhD and then get mad when you are not treated like you have a PhD.

  50. Jaybeetee*

    My first guess, as others have surmised, is that when Icarus received her promotion she assumed that put her on a more equal level with OP and that she had license to be combative in this manner. In which case, the best way OP can prevent a repeat of this is to make it clear to the next person holding that position what the hierarchy is, and call out overstepping early on.

    A more distant possibility might be that an increased workload increased her anxiety, and this is the result (I used to work with a young woman with an untreated anxiety disorder, and she could get *very* combative when she started getting worked up about something. And like Icarus, she seemed to get into real battles with her direct supervisor (a guy – she and I are both women, and gender dynamics didn’t seem to be a thing in this case). I was a supervisor on the same level as hers, and for some reason one sentence from me would quell her on a topic she’d spent an hour fighting about with him. She left after a couple of months, thankfully, so we never had to really dig into her behaviour).

    A final idea is, like OP guessed at one point, she went through a personal crisis around the time of the promotion that has affected her personality (same exJob as the anxious report, there was another guy who was generally pretty cool and genial. I left the job and came back a few years later – he was still there, but had frankly turned into an ornery bastard that bullied other colleagues. I eventually learned he’d been divorced in the interim and it had just…messed him up).

    But at any rate, the “why” doesn’t really matter. If you want to be super generous, give Icarus one more warning where you make it clear that she either cleans up her act, or cleans out her desk. But by now, of course you don’t even really need to do that.

  51. HigherEd on Toast*

    “One of the problems with cutting people slack over and over is that — while it can feel like you’re being kind and accommodating, giving the person chance after chance — you train them to believe that they don’t need to take you seriously when you tell them “this isn’t okay and I need you to change it.””

    I’m in academia although not in charge of a lab, and man oh man have I ever seen this happen with students. Even telling them that “Okay, you cannot pass the class if you don’t turn in this assignment” has no impact if I’ve previously cut them slack for family problems or transportation problems or something like that. It just becomes, “Well, I had [same problem as before], so I can’t turn in this assignment.” I end up wishing that I’d enforced the rules about absences or late work or whatever I was cutting them slack on in the first place. I also tend to have the most problems with rudeness and complaints out of those students.

    I feel for you, OP, and I think it’s definitely time to let Icarus go.

    1. PB*

      I remember having this conversation with a student: “Your paper doesn’t have a thesis. This a major problem. If you don’t rewrite the paper, you will fail.” They did not. I failed them. They were shocked.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      Even telling them that “Okay, you cannot pass the class if you don’t turn in this assignment” has no impact if I’ve previously cut them slack for family problems or transportation problems or something like that.

      Slight digression: When I used to teach, I had a demerit system. I told my students they had five days late they could be on their papers all semester. So they could have one paper five days late or five papers one day late each… or whatever combination they wanted. It could be for legitimate reasons or just because they were lazy. I didn’t care what it was. But once you used up your demerits, that’s it—you started getting markdowns on late papers.

      This system gave me the benefit of not having to hear and vet excuses as valid/invalid, and it gave my students the benefit of being able to shuffle around things and prioritize… or to just be lazy once in a while (but not all the time).

    3. TootsNYC*

      I have a friend who teaches grade school.

      She got a 5th-grade class one year, and she was telling me, “I am an absolute hard-nose in the beginning of the year. I’m am SO rigid. If they don’t fill out their homework notebook exactly right, I’m on it. If they shift out of the lunch line by even 2 inches, I’m right over there telling them to get back in line.
      “Because I’ve found that if I’m really strict in the beginning, then later in the year I can let up, and they don’t get out of hand. But if I’m not on them in the beginning, in a couple of months the lunch line is all over the hallway and they don’t listen when I tell them to get back in line.”

    4. AnonEMoose*

      I also work in education, and this is so, so true. I’ve literally said to my boss, on more than one occasion, “Why are they so surprised when we do EXACTLY WHAT WE SAID WE WOULD DO??!!!”

      It’s not true of everyone. But some people seem to assume that one granted exception means that every request for an exception will be granted. And are then very, very upset when that doesn’t happen. I’m sure there’s a fascinating dissertation in that somewhere. But I have no desire for a doctoral degree. There seems to be a sense of entitlement involved, to some extent, but I’m sure that isn’t all of it. Then again, there’s a reason that the cliche “give an inch, they’ll take a mile” is a cliche.

  52. Lumen*

    “And she has said that she is more knowledgeable about the science and field and grants and the writing of scientific papers than I am (?!).”

    Cool story, Icarus. Go start your own lab and get your own grants and write your own papers and abuse the underling of your choice, then. I’m sure you’ll do GREAT.

    Now here are your walking papers, have a nice g-d life.

  53. char*

    Argh, I’m dealing with a coworker like this right now. My one hope is that, since he’s new (both to this job and probably also to the working world), maybe he can be trained out of it.

    I’m in a supervisory role over him, but he seems to think he’s the one calling the shots. I tell him to do X, he goes and does Y instead because he thinks Y is more important and X is boring. Since he’s new to the project, I explain things to him when he gets tripped up over something unintuitive, only to be told that he “disagrees” with my explanation. If he doesn’t like the answer he gets from me, he goes to someone else hoping for a different answer (twice now he’s directly contacted the client behind my back). Once when he was reprimanded, he apologized, but then literally later that same day complained to me about how unfair it was that he was reprimanded.

    I have serious concerns about his performance, but my manager insists that he’s great. Yeah, he’s pretty good at the job when he does it… but that means nothing if half the time he’s not doing what we need him to be doing!

    1. SoCalHR*

      Sounds like you need to nip this is the bud, otherwise you’ll be writing the same letter in a few months. If you’re going to have to convince your boss, start documenting everything. Good luck!

    2. TootsNYC*

      I would talk to your manager about what you can do in response to his insubordination (and he IS being insubordinate, to your boss who delegated the task-assignment to you, even if you aren’t officially his supervisor).

      Can you take interesting tasks away, can you require him to do the task in smaller steps, etc.

    3. Michaela Westen*

      When I was young and behaved like this, I was fired instantly. I bet I can guess what color he is for people to think he’s great and put up with this.

  54. whistle*

    OP, this one hits close to home for me. A couple of months ago I fired a long term employee with severe attitude issues. She was good at certain things that not everyone is good at, and I kept making excuses for her and working with her to affect change. I think part of it was like Alison said – I really wanted to “understand” her behavior, etc. Anyway, I finally fired her. She exploded with rage and said a bunch of horrible things to me. And then it was over. And I felt SO MUCH BETTER. I could not believe how much she had been weighing me down. After the termination, I found so many more things that would have been firable offenses in their own right. It was clearly the right decision and should have happened more than a year ago. Now, months later, I still have coworkers remark on how much happier I seem. And I now have an AWESOME team that does their work well without attitude issues.

    As to your actual question of how to prevent this from happening, I don’t think you can. I just think you can make the decision to end it more quickly if it does happen again.

  55. CityMouse*

    I have dealt with disrespectful fighting subordinates, and honestly, you were way too lenient. Constantly offering explanations gave her an opening to fight. I am not saying you never explain yourself, but sometimes it is appropriate to shut someone down, no questions. “We are doing X, we are not discussing this further.” Period.

    I had a guy I was training who fought and questioned me all the time. Eventually, I got harsh, telling him he was way out of line. And, for me, at least, it worked, he got the message, backed off, started listening, and his work quality improved.

    Now not everyone will.liaten and that sucks. But Icarus sounds like an exhausting black hole of time and effort. Get rid of her.

  56. Polymer Phil*

    Academia is a strange world where none of the usual rules about workplace behavior (or behavior in general) apply. Things like sexual harassment or just plain obnoxious, unprofessional behavior that would get someone fired in a corporate workplace are pretty much accepted, and university HR departments don’t have the power of their counterparts in the private sector.

    I can think of many, many horror stories from grad school that would never fly at a company.

    1. Igg*

      And the way PI writes here I think he knows EXACTLY why student is upset. And he is misleading in his comments about getting fired over budgets and grants. Red red flag.

  57. Triple Anon*

    I had a thought about how to prevent it. One thing that stood out to me was that OP and Icarus seem to be disagreeing repeatedly but the cause for the overall change in behavior hasn’t been discussed. At least based on what’s in the letter.

    This might not be a personality change. Maybe there was a key moment when she disagreed with you about something important or something happened that changed her ideas about the lab’s hierarchy or how it should function. This obviously doesn’t excuse combative behavior. That’s completely out of line. But it would have been helpful to have a conversation with her about the change when it occurred. “Your performance was great. Now there are issues. What’s going on? Did something happen?”

    In fact, I would try to have that conversation before firing her. Definitely fire her. But first, dig deeper and see if there is more to this than you’re aware of. That way if there are related issues in the lab, those things can be addressed as well.

  58. Luckyone*

    Wow! Between the OP’s post and some of the comments, this has been an entertaining read. Thanks to the brilliant and talented folks I work with, I nearly forgot how egotistical, narcissistic and just plain weird academia seemed to me when I left that field. Office politics and bizarre hierarchical expectations/egos have always bewildered me, though.

    As the link to this post caught my eye (seeing something similar in corporate environment), I initially assessed this from the OP’s view. I really did try to form a logical or sane rationale for the staff member’s behavior (family, home, medical, mental or other issue to the staffer somehow feeling rightfully misled or angry), but due to the degree of disruption and such, I can’t. Could this be an angry, somehow disgruntled or depressed person?

    Personally, if a manger or CEO saw talent in me, mentored me and awarded me a promotion and raise, I would be respectful and grateful, not argumentative or thinking I knew more! Any differences of opinion would be handled professionally and respectfully.

    It makes me wonder about the attitudes people have these days, or delusions or maybe some belief of entitlement, or who knows what, since I see a similar lack of respect, arguing with senior staff, etc. in my office. I am planning on leaving my employer and likely field, due to witnessing or being involved in similar disruptions and arguments in my workplace. I see it as a counterproductive and slightly hostile when bright talented all-star Johnny huffs and puffs to the manager, then loudly and unprofessionally rants to Mary and Mark (in earshot of manager) who are also on the team, and ultimately a loud and heated verbal exchange, complete with colorful language ensues. Since I try to stay neutral, Johnny is a jerk towards me and makes working as a team awkward. I don’t have time for the drama, I have metrics to meet or a deadline and we all have a lot of pressure at work and stress in general already. It isn’t always my team, but it never ceases to confound me when I see two grown adults in the workplace go at it, attacking one another or claiming to know more.

    I’ve experienced the argumentative intern that had a reason why an assignment was a waste of time! (Duh, I know it is, but in corporate we do a lot of things for seemingly no reason, that are a complete waste of time, but we do it play by the rules, keep our jobs and benefit whomever dreamed up such a time wasting task. At least technology has afforded us the opportunity to waste time or cut through red tape all day so that we can take actual work home at night). This particular intern left due to the overhead fluorescent lighting or something and claimed to be returning to university for an advanced degree.

    I don’t know if I should be whipping out my mobile to video the altercations for some future YouTube project or be concerned about the mental stability of a coworker who is unable to contain his emotions.

    I do hope the OP was able to initiate Icarus’ involuntary departure. I also hope there is less distraction and less negativity in the workday for the lab staff afterwards. Icarus can come to corporate America, be welcomed and fit right in with one of the larger international companies. We get the egotistical and narcissistic types that weren’t bright enough for academia, lack useful skills, cause problems, and can’t work with others. We usually stick them in a management or rotational program, promote them if they can survive, and forever bury them in paperwork. When they become too obnoxious, we just ship them off to another office.

    I really wish that we didn’t have to deal with people like this in the workplace! I would much prefer hearing an intelligent debate to a raised voice saying “You are an ^$#%#% idiot. You don’t know what you are talking about”.

    I do hope people calm down, learn to control themselves, not get upset at every little thing, and not make assumptions or read between the lines to try to find something that may or may not be there. I realize we all perceive things differently and have unique life experiences that shape our thoughts and views on things, but I would like to think that we could all conform to accepted behaviors in the workplace at the minimum.

    1. Lissa*

      I don’t really know that it has much to do with “these days” or the specific environment. I mean, certain environments etc. can make these things manifest in particular ways, but as far as I can tell workplaces have *always* had drama and some people who are just going to be problems. And others who are bad fits or frustrated where they are but might shine elsewhere.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      I have post-traumatic stress from bad childhood, and when I was newer to the work force there were a couple of times when I was told I had changed from being good to being bad/having a bad attitude.
      At the time I didn’t understand why I was getting this feedback. I think it was a combination of being triggered so I felt threatened, and growing up with poor role models. I hadn’t learned yet how to behave at a job.
      It’s possible Icarus has something like this, although even back then if a manager had taken interest and helped me develop and gotten me a raise, I would have tried to show some appreciation. Was Icarus intimidated by her growing responsibilities? That’s the best reason I can think of for her behavior.
      Also American culture is generally controlling and disrespectful and many people feel entitlled to control those around them, and that leads to scenarios like Luckyone is describing. Sigh. We’d all be better off if there was more respect!

  59. Argh!*

    I inherited a person like this, who had filled in for some of my job duties while my position was vacant. I say *some* of my job duties, but apparently since the Dunning-Kruger effect was happening, he believed doing some of my job duties meant he could have applied for my position despite not meeting the educational and experiential requirements. He was very disrespectful and frequently said how they’d gotten along without me for some months. He defended the status quo when I wanted to change things, and was borderline insubordinate. I finally had a serious conversation, and reminded him that if he really wanted my job he should have gone back to school to earn the degree that I earned (many years ago), and that my boss apparently thought it was essential to have someone with my qualifications in my position because they advertised the position and hired me. (Sometimes the obvious just has to be stated)

    This person does indeed have more education than is required for the position, but not the education needed to do my job. Also, after several years he feels confident in his position (despite being a mediocre employee). In other words, he’s ready to move on, or perhaps should have moved on before I was hired.

    I can understand the frustration of feeling confident and competent yet being under the thumb of someone else, but them’s the breaks. Unfortunately, years of undeservedly satisfactory annual evaluations preceded my arrival (I’ve compared notes with my predecessor) because my boss just can’t deal with progressive discipline. My problem child’s only adverse consequences are being reminded by me in memo after memo that he doesn’t meet deadlines, doesn’t meet specs, is inadequate in communication, etc. But we did get past the early days when he questioned me on every little thing and was disrespectful. (Did I mention I’m female? This crap comes with the territory, in my experience)

    So… firing someone in a large organization without first following protocol on progressive discipline could be dicey. I know I can’t do it. At the very least, a performance improvement plan would demonstrate that LW has tried to rectify the situation. It’s possible that when faced with the prospect of unemployment, the problem employee will straighten out or find a job a step up somewhere else that requires those added years of experience she’s accrued with LW. Documenting attempts to address the problem and Icarus’s failure to achieve the standards set forth will be a good CYA move and help get HR on LW’s side (assuming grant-funded positions have to go through HR). Putting up with a bad attitude for two years and then suddenly deciding enough is enough could mean a wrongful termination lawsuit, which would add injury to insult.

    Good luck, LW! I hope to hear an update about this situation.

  60. Starling*

    This sounds terrible for everyone. I know that I hate quitting, so I usually stay in a job until after I’ve grown out of it and I’m a royal PITA during that time. (I’m actively trying not to be that person anymore, but I did recognize myself.) If Icarus is anything like me, it will be a great kindness to her to let her go so she can move on.

    That being said, the sciences and this lab business sound AWFUL. I had no idea. I’m a PhD candidate at an R1, and see my advisor once a week. She says nice things about my sole-authored paper (that she funded) and offers me grant money and/or conferences. Then I go back to my office and math around, zero drama. I just thought that was how grad school worked. This cutthroat small business thing… Yikes.

  61. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    “But at a certain point — and you’re long past that point — it doesn’t matter why someone is being disruptive and inappropriate. It only matters that they are, and that you can’t have that. “. This, a million times, here and in so many situations.

  62. nonegiven*

    >Fire Icarus. Like, this week.

    Into the sun.

    Tell her to go out and get her own grant.

  63. MLiz*

    As someone who has clashed with her professor A LOT and who has once lost her cool with a colleague (I’m not proud of it, even if there were reasons, and I have taken steps to insure that will Never Happen Again), you will do Icarus a favor if you fire them.

    Honestly. This can’t go on as it has, you’re completely in the right and she will not succeed if you let her keep doing it. Fire her and be very rigorous in your vetting process from now on.

    There’s only one thing I can say, and I’m not saying you’re doing it, but it bears saying: Treat your lab workers like adults and don’t be condescending. Offer solutions and help rather than throwing up your hands and letting them handle everything alone.

    It sounds like you’re already reasoning with people, so I’m not concerned! It’s just something I like iterating towards lab heads, because there are so many people leaving academic labs because of the treatment by those above them. Keep doing the good work!

  64. StellaBella*

    Dear OP, I fully agree with the discussing/documenting/performance improvement plan/firing steps discussed here and as advice from Alison.
    Can you please provide an update in a few months or weeks?
    In terms of adding my own 2pence to this discussion, I would say the following: first, set up a meeting with HR showing them the documented evidence that Icarus is doing all of the things you have stated, dates, times, events, emails, meetings, etc – all evidence on the table. Then have a meeting with HR and Icarus, to set out two things: she is being terminated, and with cause (insubordination, etc etc). Provide her with the bare minimum work certificate and some advice on how to behave in the future with other bosses and teams. Then open her position and state that one of the requirements is to work well with others and have demonstrated so by giving references.

  65. Lara*

    Rude, disruptive, disrespectful and sexist. Ugh. I hope transitioning her out is as easy as possible for you.

  66. Michaela Westen*

    I’m also curious about why Icarus changed like this. I think it would be a kindness if, when you let her go, tell her you don’t understand why her behavior changed so drastically. That might get her thinking and make her more aware of what she’s doing.

  67. Jenny Next*

    Coming late to the party . . . OP, I don’t approve of the way Icarus is acting out, but I agree with those who have said that she’s chafing because she has outgrown her job. She wants more responsibility, autonomy, and respect, but that’s not possible where she is.

    What you can do to prevent this from happening with your next lab manager:

    1.) During the interview process, be kindly but brutally honest that there is no career advancement in the position. If the only possibility for career advancement is for someone to get the Ph.D. and move on, say so up front. If a person can advance their career by moving to a bigger lab, prepare yourself for turnover. Some jobs just aren’t career positions, and this sounds like one of them.

    2.) Hire someone for whom the job is a stretch, and who very well may be happy doing the same thing for 10 years or more. A smart-enough person who is content with a bachelor’s degree, and who has a life outside of the job may in fact be happy in your lab, if the job pays well enough (or has good benefits).

    3.) On the topic of pay: at my university, staff members can basically never move away from the salary that they’re hired at; at best you stay even with inflation. (This is done by letting salary ranges erode against inflation, and not properly funding so-called “merit” increases. For unionized employees, it’s done by refusing to bargain step increases.) If this is the case at your university, then you should also let your potential hires know about this during the interview process — and hire them at the best pay level that HR will permit. Don’t buy what your university says the process is — find out what happens in reality. Consumer price index numbers can be found at the BLS website.

    4.) Restrict development opportunities to training that will help the person be better at their immediate job.

    5.) Make it clear to both the new lab manager and all new post-docs and grad students what the lab manager’s duties are. As mentioned above, there are always people who will try to foist their scut work off on the staff, and others who are just plain incompetent at what they are asked to do. (In my place of work, other professors also try to get free work out of staff.) If you want your lab person to do their work and/or prop them up, be up front that it’s part of the duties. If it’s not okay with you, give your person permission to refuse work from other people.

    6.) Again in the interview process, let the person know that you are always open to hearing their opinion if they think something about the job can be done better, but that once you make a decision, they need to implement it.

    This may sound a bit harsh, but it’s not meant to be sarcastic. You’re not doing highly educated / talented people a favor by putting them in a position that is beneath their potential, unless you have a way to move them on to better and more interesting things once they’ve learned all there is to learn.

    1. Lara*

      It’s not her responsibility to move her staff onto better and more interesting things though. Training them sure. But if Icarus wants a more interesting job that is more of a stretch, that’s on her to find.

      Also? “A smart-enough person who is content with a bachelors degree” – that was extremely patronising. Graduate education is a luxury that a lot of people can’t afford. This might blow your mind, but plenty of people with just a BA are smart and ambitious. They just don’t have hundreds of thousands spare.

      1. Jenny Next*

        I know there are lots of very smart and ambitious people without advanced degrees. In fact, there are lots of smart/ambitious people who don’t have degrees at all. But the thing is, they aren’t going to get far in academia, especially on the research side, where people with master’s degrees can be hired to do very low-level work, and there’s a good deal of snobbery by faculty toward people without the doctorate.

        The problem with the research side of academia is that it’s structured as an unrelated group of petty fiefdoms, mostly underfunded. In many of these positions, there’s no career path out. The OP needs someone who understands this and is okay with it. A person with an advanced degree is unlikely to really be okay with it, since as you said, they put a lot of time and money into the extra degree. A smart and ambitious person with a bachelor’s degree is also unlikely to be okay with it, because they are smart and ambitious.

        So you want someone whose ambition is confined to being known for doing a good job, who has enough smarts to do it well, and who is content to show up and do their job without thought of advancement. Because there is no advancement short of leaving.

        That was the point I was trying to make, not that there’s something wrong with people who don’t have post-graduate education.

      2. Igg*

        Depends on field. Math and sciences pay a stipend and tuition so cost is nothing and you get a paycheck.

  68. Igg*

    Tuning in a bit late. But this letter has a couple red flags. First, the PI already knows his lab exists like a fiefdom. Universities generally support the guy with the money and students or post docs do not go to HR bc there is generally no help. And yes I know that’s not 100 percent which is why I say generally. Now, first the PI says he helped student more and ‘beyond normal.’ That sounds a bit off. What does that mean? PI is careful never to provide any speculation on student’s motivation which also bugs me as if it’s a very closed door he doesn’t want us to look behind. Finally and for the kicker: why. Why? Did PI write that if he goes over budget he’ll face dusciokinary action or be fired? That’s absolute crap and I’m betting that he’s hoping the audience here doesn’t know better. It’s telling also. Did PI take some of students funding? Something she received hersrlf? I’ve had that happen to me by my former PI. Did pi promise something financial and not deliver? These things are implied in his little one-off about the money. PIs gave tenure they don’t get fired for ‘going overbudfet’ Or losing grants. Further, students are at the mercy of their PIs Bc if they don’t publish papers they have zip. PIs retain 99.9 percent of control over that. So even if student wanted to leave PI could be holding her hostage. Happens all the time. The PI already knows he can fire her and is looking for what here? There may be good reason for students feelings and it’s also a red flag he’s not specific as to behavior. Does she argue with his interpretations of her work? Does she speak out and disagree about the research? Bc that’s called healthy debate which some PIs would call bad but only the insecure ones. Before siding with PI we need more info.

  69. Jay*

    I read this letter with great interest as I recently had a similar experience. I too am a professor and am a woman who met with a group of young consultants. Initially, we had a great relationship, discussing possible areas for collaboration and getting on well via our work approach and shared interests. Several months in, the young male CEO of the consultancy had called me ‘so old’ in a work meeting; walked out of a cafe, leaving me to pay his bill on the basis that I was late (when I was indeed early); and again left me with his tab after asking me to a expensive lunch meeting. I was also called ‘creepy’ by him when I walked up behind him before our meeting and said hi! When I called him out on the bill issue, he initially indicated that it wasn’t anything. When I persisted, he suggested that he was being humorous, using ‘friendly hazing’. Needless to say, I had to ‘de-couple’ from any further proposed areas of collaboration. His young female employee also assumed a similar ‘sneering’ approach, most recently making a childish remark about my height, and suggesting that, without a PhD, she too could be a professor within a year or two but felt academic life was rather a waste of time.

    Like the poster, I should have shown them the door earlier but sought to do what I could to understand and ameliorate the situation, and help them in their fledgling business. On their part, was it professional jealousy? Ageism? Sexism? Some other basis for a superiority complex? Perhaps they interpreted assistance from me as somehow patronising. Who knows or cares – life’s too short to give it any more brain time and I totally agree with the Alison that you ‘get rid’ of such toxic people when you’ve given colleagues/others ample chances to reflect on and remedy bad behaviour.

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