update: my employee is combative and rude

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who directed a lab where one employee was rude and combative? Here’s the update.

Thanks so much for answering my letter! Your answer and also the many comments were very helpful in helping me to realize that Icarus’ behavior was unacceptable and that I needed to stop puzzling over her behavior and take action to deal with the situation.

I started by asking detailed questions of my other lab workers and students, and I found out that Icarus had been terrorizing many of them, and also threatening them if they complained to me. Icarus had also been blocking them from ordering reagents or doing certain experiments that she didn’t agree with, or for people she didn’t like, and in general making it impossible for many people in my lab to do their work.

I was so appalled…! For some reason, I thought she was only being rude to me, and that I must have offended her somehow; I didn’t think that she might also be acting awful to the students and others in the lab.

Instead of having yet another ineffective private meeting with Icarus, I wanted the other people in the lab to know that I was going to stop her actions against them. So I did something I would never usually do – I had a fairly loud and very firm conversation with Icarus in the lab itself (ie, I bawled her out in no uncertain terms), where others could easily overhear. No one was within eyesight at the time, but of course I knew some people were listening around the corners – but that was fine, I wanted everyone to know what had happened.

After that, Icarus was slightly more polite and cooperative to me in person for several months. But her behavior was still terrible behind the scenes. For example, she began trying to separate my lab workers into those who supported her or not. She also tried co-opt some of my other lab workers to fight battles with me on her behalf – I had so many junior students (!?) meeting with me and pushing me to accept Icarus’ point of view on something, even when they didn’t understand anything about it.

I was just about to try to contact HR to start the process of getting Icarus fired (an extremely difficult process at my institution), when Icarus told me she was going to be quitting and moving to another state! Shortly thereafter, she moved away. The lab has been much calmer since then, and Icarus’ replacement is working out extremely well.

In an odd twist, Icarus ended up applying for work at the lab of a professor whom I knew because we had been in graduate school together! Of course, he called me up to ask about Icarus’ application. I was completely honest with him. However, he decided to hire Icarus anyway. He reasoned that the benefits to his research program might outweigh potential problems, and he could always fire her if things get bad, etc. I haven’t heard an update from Icarus’ new employer so far, but I’m sure I will hear all about it eventually…..! Scientists tend to gossip a lot, and the field isn’t that large.

{ 149 comments… read them below }

    1. D'Arcy*

      The scientific/academic community can be ridiculously stubborn about adopting an attitude of “social behavior doesn’t matter, only results”, while refusing to see that social behavior *affects* results. It’s something of a side effect of the way the technical culture aggressively denigrates the importance of social skills (and conversely, insists that inappropriate social behavior and/or lack of social skills should be ignored).

      1. TexasThunder*

        It’s not just academia… a lot of people can feel “They’ll be different with me.” despite a a complete lack of evidence this will be the case.
        I recently had my employer propose hiring a guy who had lied on his resume. Their position was they could always fire him if he lied again.
        Then it turned out he had lied about something else in the hiring process. You’d think that would have ended it. But no.
        They kept going with their gut vs evidence.

        The only reason they didn’t hire him because I demolished the guy in an interview and subsequently demonstrated a lot of anger in the team meeting about the fact that I was being asked to work with him. He seemed completely untrustworthy and it really bothered me that nobody else could see it (I didn’t want to be like Cassandra, cursed not to be believed)

        I discussed it with my shrink afterwards, as I was worried I might have overreacted. My shrink started laughing, and said he really shouldn’t diagnose someone without meeting them but my account of the interview made it sound like the guy was exhibiting textbook sociopathic behavior.

        1. StellaBella*

          Good for you for being so firm and making sure they saw these issues. I have never (that I know of) seen anyone lie on a resume or in an interview but I have definitely worked with and for a few people who lied on the regular – and gaslit staff too. So I am glad for you that you got it stopped and listened to your gut.

          On the update: OP – interesting to tackle things in the way you mention, to yell at Icarus and make sure people heard. I don’t know if I would have done this in this manner, but I am glad in the end that she quit your lab.

          A lab tech not ‘allowing’ people to order needed reagents and other items for experiments she did not agree with – nope! First offence: written up and discussed with the person who was running the experiment, with Icarus there, too, in a meeting…’This is what has happened and here are the records showing that it was blocked. It will not happen again, right, Icarus – we now have checks in place to verify all needed items are to be ordered and double checked by (another person)?’ and if it happened again on the bullying, second strike and then fired. But that is only if the institution had strong rules on this and good HR.

          1. TexasThunder*

            Thanks, but I didn’t go by my gut… I had evidence he had lied on his resume, and I felt the approach management used to check whether was trustworthy was woefully inadequate.
            I argued that rather than confront him with lies and give him a chance to make up an explanation, we should ask him about potentially unflattering things where he did not know we already knew the facts.
            The odd thing we had a bunch of people in the office who had worked in the intelligence services, but my management team wanted to go by their (untrained) gut feeling.

        2. Reality.Bites*

          Did they never consider the possibility that the lie they would fire him for might be one that causes a lot of damage to your employer? Or that it might not be discovered at all?

          1. TexasThunder*

            I had a weird discussion with my boss where he asked how much harm the guy could actually do.
            I said he could lie to a customer about how our product worked, lie about me or another team member. I argued that when he screwed up as everyone does from time to time, his go-to would be to cover it up.
            I didn’t want us to hire this guy because of failure of imagination on my manager’s part.
            By a curious coincidence, he subsequently hired someone who lied about him to cover for her own incompetence. He admitted afterwards that he could now see why hiring someone dishonest could actually be a problem

        3. Observer*

          What your therapist did was quite unprofessional. Which is a perfect example of why professionalism is not always the most important thing. Because in that moment, it seems to me, you didn’t need the professional services of a therapist nor “validation”, but clear and unambiguous evidence that this guy was bad news. And your therapist’s unfiltered negative reaction gave that to you.

          1. TexasThunder*

            Yeah, at this stage it was a done deal.
            My therapist has observed that I have very black and white thinking on moral issues, am very difficult to manipulate, and don’t really have a problem saying no.
            Seeing as the company would rather keep me happy than hire him, kind of a perfect storm for the prospective employee.

      2. Mistresstina*

        Ugh the tech and startup industries where I live chronically overlook terrible behavior from people who provide results. There are entire companies built by and around ridiculously awful people.

        1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

          Tech can be plainly negligent when they’re desperate to fill empty positions. In some cases I’ve seen people checking references before firing someone (it’s the other way, folks!)

        2. Queen Anon*

          Sadly common in the legal field as well. If an attorney can bring in good money, he or she can pretty much behave how they like. One firm where I worked had an attorney who went through six assistants in six months (2 quit without even a day’s notice) before they finally called a former assistant and offered her a buttload of money to come back. The attorney was verbally abusive and would yell and scream at her assistants in public on a regular basis and her peers both inside and outside the firm hated working with her. But she brought in more money than anyone so…. I think most firms of any size have someone similar working there.

          1. only acting normal*

            I really truly believe that these awful people negatively affect the productivity of everyone around them, and that’s part of the reason they appear so profitable in comparison (not denying some can be good at their job too).
            Plus hiring and rehiring all those assistants *cost money* which may have looked small potatoes compared to the toxic one’s billing numbers, but the secondary (£$€) effects on others in the firm were *definitely* there, even if it’s harder to quantify in reduced profit terms.

            1. Nanani*

              This so much.

              I also suspect that awful people steal credit and have an artificially inflated level of “productivity” in many cases.

            2. pope suburban*

              They 100% do. They create higher turnover, which affects others’ productivity as they pick up the slack and/or deal with training new people regularly. They alienate good employees who will move to workplaces where they will not be abused. They discourage people from doing all kinds of things that could be helpful, either because these people fear retaliation or because they have manipulated the work/information flow to cut people out. They also may impact the business’s reputation with others, which can cost them clients and contracts. It’s never, ever worth it to tolerate this kind of thing.

          2. Richard Hershberger*

            I heard about a solo practitioner who hired a new paralegal every year or two. His hiring spiel was to be completely upfront that he was a terrible person to work for, so he paid far, far above market rate, with the expectation that the employee would only be able to take it for a short time. I would be almost tempted to take that job on the theory that I would have complete freedom to push back. If he fired me, that would hardly be a blot on my resume within the area, as he was notorious.

            1. HM MM*

              Oh man – I used to do support work in finance (which seems to have a somewhat similar culture in that rainmakers can do whatever they want) and that’s the kind of person I did pretty well with. It’s hard to explain, but I think because I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they were unreasonable one I could disassociate pretty easily and keep my confidence up. It was the ones that thought they were great managers, and seemed nice on the surface, but that had completely unreasonable expectations that I struggled with. I’d agonize over whether it was me, was I really doing a bad job, which killed my confidence, which caused me to start making mistakes.

              I give credit to that practitioner for being self aware, upfront and compensating accordingly.

              1. Fikly*

                Not that much credit, he could also choose not to abuse people.

                In his head, his abuse is now ok because he’s compensating people for it, and abuse is never ok.

          3. Hats Are Great*

            Basically why I quit practicing law. My supervising partner called me into his office to SHRIEK at me, with lots of obscenities, for half an hour for not doing research on a case he had specifically forbidden me from touching, that I couldn’t access anyway because I wasn’t assigned to it in the case management software. (And the research that I had not done, that he had not asked me to do, on the case I was not allowed to see, was a stupid waste of time that was only tangentially related.) When he was finished shrieking at me, he went out into the open area and started throwing things at his secretary. I was like “Yep, nope, I’m done.” Fortunately this was very early in my career, before my husband and I had kids or a mortgage, so I was able to walk away without worrying about not having another job. (Today, I’d be stuck.)

            Later, when I was in an executive position with a large local organization, that same jerk CAME IN AND PITCHED TO ME AND MY TEAM and acted like he and I were best buddies.

            We did not hire his law firm.

        3. Observer*

          What’s stupid about that, though, is that you often don’t even get the results you want / need. Not letting people do the work they are supposed to be doing will eventually come back to bite the place, big time.

        4. Lora*

          The other side of that is, at least in science…if the person is unethical in one aspect of the job (refusing to let other people run experiments they don’t like), they’re likely to be unethical in other aspects of the job, such as data collection. OP, did you think that if your other lab people managed to run an experiment behind Icarus’s back and came up with results she also didn’t like, she wouldn’t sabotage the data collection? She already tried to sabotage the experiments getting done at all. Do you want to risk publishing irreproducible data and maybe have to retract papers because Icarus touched it and you can’t trust it anymore? No. People who are unethical in one aspect (blocking lab work from getting done) are unethical people. Get them out of your lab before they poison your integrity. As an academic, integrity should be everything.

        5. The Beagle Has Landed*

          Ugh, yes. Municipal government as well. Ancient civil service codes. Meanwhile, great staff get overlooked for promotions because they don’t precisely meet outdated education requirements for jobs that have changed with the times. Ask me how I know.

      3. small pig*

        I think this really depends on the field or perhaps even the individual workplace. I haven’t experienced this attitude whatsoever despite hearing it as a ‘trope’ a lot online. Not sure if it is different for biochem, genomics, and microbiology vs. other fields.

    2. Isabelle*

      Icarus most likely learned absolutely nothing from what happened at the previous job. Since she left before she was fired, she probably feels she was 100% in the right as she did not experience the consequences of her actions.

      I expect the new job will go like this:
      – there will be a honeymoon period where everything will be shiny and new and she will be well-behaved
      – after experiencing the normal frustrations that are a part of any job, Icarus will revert back to type and sabotage the new lab

        1. Kendra*

          Gross. That’s one of the few things I can think of that would make her previous behavior even more unacceptable!

          1. Dragoning*

            The original letter mentioned Icarus was much more accepting and impressed by one of OP’s male colleagues–it was part of the previous behavior.

        2. sometimeswhy*

          Yep. I’ve worked with one of those. Obsequious and charming (and manipulative) to men and all execs regardless of gender. Belligerent, combative, and threatening to women below C level.

          1. StellaBella*

            Same here. It was awkward that she was combative to all the women including the director yet, literally, in 2 separate meetings, would touch and hug the younger man she was sitting near (and shared an office with). I only overlapped with her for a month tho. Just gross behaviour and seems that Icarus had similar issues of deferring to men and seeing them differently than women.

    3. Important Moi*

      I would not be impressed with a reference who only offered negative feedback. They would come across as having an axe to grind. I would treat their opinion accordingly and wonder about their professional norms.

      Sometimes things don’t work. Icarus wasn’t in the right in this situation and moved on.

      1. Adric*

        Maybe not from a reference you didn’t know, but the OP had a previous relationship with the hiring manager. In a case like that I’d expect the straight dope without a lot of polite embellishment.

      2. Texan In Exile*

        There’s a difference between “I don’t like Icarus” and “Icarus blocked my team from ordering reagents or doing certain experiments that she didn’t agree with.” One is a feeling, one is fact. One might be wrong in this situation and right in another, one is always wrong.

        1. J.B.*

          And he was a particular dirtbag to any woman…I’m not sure what to say about someone other than bad news.

      3. Librarian of SHIELD*

        But some people’s tenure with an employer is, in fact, wholly negative. We had a short lived employee at a previous job who was almost always late, rude to both coworkers and customers, used work equipment for personal use, engaged in a multitude of other problematic behaviors, and was asked to leave before his probationary period ended. If I were to be called to give a reference, literally the only positive thing I could say about this guy is that his hair was very neat. Am I supposed to pull my punches or soften some of his horrific behavior because being honest looks like I “have an axe to grind,” and anyway maybe he’d be a really great employee somewhere else, but I have absolutely no evidence of that?

        1. JSPA*

          Short-lived is the key difference. You would not voluntarily keep someone 98% terrible for years, while teaching them extra skills above and beyond their job.

          “She worked here for 4 years and got extra training yet is nothing but terrible” is harder to believe than, “everybody ducked and covered while he passed through as a brief shit-storm.”

      4. J.B.*

        I once had a boss ask about the new employee on my team (I didn’t have supervisory responsibilities) and I said some things were good, some things weren’t getting done up to standard (a nicer way of saying they would be totally half a$$ed) and he constantly interrupted me when I was trying to train him. She told me that it was my problem because I talked too much and that I was a complainer. How one trains without talking I don’t really know. I am a small woman which definitely played into both their reactions.

        Later he was encouraged out due to repeated incompetence. If you ask for my opinion it is an honest one. If you choose to disbelieve me just let me remove myself from your employment thanks.

      5. Richard Hershberger*

        Who says the feedback was only negative? The original letter describes Icarus as having worked for her for many years and as very talented, with lots of skills. Then comes the “But…” part. I would expect the discussion as a reference included all this, which persuaded the guy to make the hire.

  1. Pseudoacademic*

    The original letter and the update sound totally bonkers…and yet I recognize almost every individual element from direct or indirect personal experience. As an incipient PI, Icarus is my nightmare come to life.

    I wouldn’t condone that semi-public dressing down. I’m guessing it’s partly a result of the very high bar for firing someone in that environment–a last ditch effort to bring Icarus into line without paperwork. But if she was actively insubordinate and hostile to the point of refusing to perform her job duties, and all those meetings with other lab members corroborated her threatening behavior, it seems reasonable to have started the firing process sooner rather than resort to this.

    I’m glad to see the occasional unambiguously academic research-related letters here!

    1. Fikly*

      I don’t think it was an effort to bring Icarus in line at all – it was staged so that it appeared as private as possible to Icarus while letting lab employees overhear it. I think it was done to let the employees who were also suffering from Icarus’ behavior know that LW was going to have their backs now, that Icarus’ behavior was unacceptable.

      However, I agree it’s a result of the high bar for firing, because if the LW had the power to just fire Icarus, the public dressing down wouldn’t be needed.

      1. Dragoning*

        Well, it wasn’t unacceptable, was it? After the semi-public dressing down, Icarus continued to work there and do as she pleased. And now the rest of the lab knows OP might do that to them.

        I think it was a bad decision all around.

        1. JSPA*

          If there are laws or institutional rules about talking with one employee’s disciplinary status with other employees, the “loud dressing down” can be the only way to let people know that you’re (finally) dealing with the situation.

          I mean, someone’s a flake? “It’s being dealt with, but may take a while to resolve” is probably good enough. But someone terrorizing people and putting their entire future career in their field in jeopardy (which, to be clear, is what refusing to purchase materials and reagents for lab members means)?

          That’s a whole ‘nother level. Frankly, if I were OP, I might have asked the lab members who had suffered the treatment to submit signed statements to that effect, to hustle along the firing. Though frankly, a system that relies on “invisibly ask one gatekeeper to order, with no transparent documentation visible to all” isn’t a great method for handling lab ordering, even if you don’t have an Icarus problem.

          1. Dragoning*

            If I overheard that, I would be reassured with nothing. So what if you yell at her? If nothing changes, nothing changes and my work life still sucks and she’s still getting away with it. And now I’m scared I will also be yelled at.

            Letting me overhear you yell at her does not let me know the problem is being addressed, because yelling at someone is not addressing the problem.

          2. Cedrus Libani*

            I was the order-taker for a big lab. It’s a pretty normal setup; there’s a lot of small consumables that are required for routine lab work, and the PI has better things to do than keep an inventory of all the different gloves, pipettes, etc, so the most junior technician gets stuck with the job. Since I was going to be placing orders, and then putting the stuff away when it arrived, might as well send the one-off requests through me too.

            If I was pulling an Icarus, I’d expect people to complain to my boss. (Which did happen, once. Apparently the lab’s only step-stool was dangerously broken…as the tallest person in the lab, I hadn’t noticed.) That didn’t happen here, which makes me wonder if OP is spending enough time nosing around in the day-to-day operations of her lab. Yeah, I know; everyone’s busy, and nobody likes a micro-manager. But labs aren’t a machine that takes in grant money and spits out manuscripts. Labs are like a garden; you’ve got to tend your garden, getting your hands dirty on a regular basis, or the weeds and the bugs will take over. Would OP know if a lab member was straight-up lying about their results? That’s a thing that happens, and can torpedo a PI’s career if not caught.

            1. JSPA*

              Agreed! But I’ve seen the “stick a post-it on gatekeeper’s chair or send her an email” go wrong in too many ways, leading to delays, recriminations, quiet anxiety over perceived favoritism, frustration over incomplete order information, with each person sure that the dropped ball was someone else’s fault, people defaulting to what they’d done in their previous lab…

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        You can let other staff know you’re dealing with a problematic employee without resorting to problematic behavior yourself. I feel sympathetic toward the OP, and I get that she was feeling pretty desperate at that point, but I think the public dressing down was the wrong decision. If it were me, I would have thanked staff for sharing their experiences with me, assured them that I took Icarus’s behavior very seriously and would be taking the necessary steps to address it, and started whatever paperwork was required to get the termination ball rolling.

        1. JSPA*

          Lab science eats its young. If you don’t publish fast enough and well enough (whether as a grad student or post doc), you don’t get additional bites at the apple. The pay is minimal, the time is limited, and your career path (or at least, those paths that run through academe) strongly favor people who break from the gate hard and fast.

        2. J.B.*

          Yes. A private this is unacceptable combined with *moving Icarus out of the way to harm others* while completing the process would have been more appropriate. Think scuttiest of the scutwork. In order to do that someone on staff would have to be in the know (to handle the ordering stuff) but that is better than open lab talk.

    2. Violet Fox*

      At least where I work, firing people is basically impossible, to the point that if people will eventually leave on their own or their contracts will run out, it’s actually better to wait things out.

      In the general case, having employment protections is a good thing, and not being able to be fired for no reason is a good thing, but at the same time, not being able to get rid of anyone at all is really bad, and it is actually incredibly harmful to the other people around that they end up having to work with toxic (in the case of the letter), or others not fucntional people.

  2. Heidi*

    If Icarus has no problem with antagonizing the PI, there’s no reason to expect that she would hold back with more junior lab members. I feel bad that they got caught in the middle of this bizarre toxicity. Hopefully they realize that this type of behavior early is not how it’s supposed to be.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      When people show you who they are, it’s okay to believe them.

      Unfortunately, OP fell into a pretty common trap. “Oh this person has issues with me, but they aren’t having issues with anyone else.”
      People believe this stuff for a variety of reasons. It’s good to recognize this as a trap and look around to see what else is going on.
      A general rule of thumb is that if a person convinces themselves that “it’s OKAY” to treat one person like crap, they have convinced themselves that it is okay to treat others like crap , also.

      A good response to a person like this is to ask ourselves, “Okay. You think it’s alright to talk to me like this. What ELSE are you doing? Who else are you insulting/stepping on/whatever?” Rudeness like this does not just happen in isolation. Other things are going on.

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        “A general rule of thumb is that if a person convinces themselves that it’s OKAY to treat one person like crap, they have convinced themselves that it is okay to treat others like crap , also.”

        I hereby nominate this to be added to the list of AAM inspired sayings that deserve to be embroidered on a pillow!

        This is one of those things that sounds SO obvious when plainly stated, but is woefully easy to overlook when in the throes of dealing with such a person–as this OP learned the hard way.

  3. Edwina*

    OP, I’m glad Icarus is gone. As a former academician I am very familiar with the tendency to try to give younger people chances, to work with them, to teach them, as it were. But in this situation, this constituted more of a business arrangement, not a classroom. (You yourself phrased it as saying you were akin to being a CEO of a business.) It’s not just your business that was affected, your work, your research, your grants, and your own position at the University–Icarus was also affecting, negatively, every other person who was working there.

    In the future, if and when this situation crops again–and it’s perfectly likely to- I’d really encourage you to understand this aspect–that you’re a manager of subordinates, not a teacher–and be much, much more proactive, and ultimately more professional about it.

    That is: when you have some one who is so flagrantly refusing to conform to clearly set out rules and protocols, that you meet with them to give them appropriate warnings, appropriate guidelines, appropriate measures to correct their behavior. Another meeting to warn them they are on probation. And a final meeting, to fire them. All these other actions, trying to stave off the simple need to fire someone — earnestly trying to understand, bewilderment, certainty that she will surely improve and waiting for that, trying to help, and now, polling your subordinates, and especially this last, peculiar tactic, shouting at her but making sure everyone could hear–are very passive, demonstrably ineffective, and worse, they send a message to your subordinates, not of kindness and caring and even curiosity (which is in our nature as academicians, and I’m sure your motives), but of weakness and ineptitude, making the situation unstable and leading to losing their trust.

    You can be firm and still be kind. You can be clear and set clear boundaries and enforce them and still be caring. But it’s very important to be a manager here, not a teacher. Not just for you–but for the others. And please know I speak as someone who struggled with exactly this problem for many years, and was only finally able to make meaningful changes when I realized what a destabilizing message it was sending to my employees.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Praise in public, criticize in private. There were other ways to show your subordinates you were doing something about Icarus besides shouting at her in public. All Icarus took from that was she was embarassed in front of those she was trying to control. All your subordinates took from that was that if they make a mistake they will be publicly humiliated too.

      You made it easier for Icarus to create groups in the lab. Those who felt she was unfairly treated and those who wanted to stay the hell out of this mess.

      Your subordinates needed to know you were doing something by letting them know the behavior was unacceptable and taking steps to REMOVE THE PERSON WHO WAS BLOCKING THEIR WORK. Yelling at her did nothing because she was still in a position to block their work. Plus it guaranteed your subordinates were never going to tell you about more problems because they saw all it got was a public embarassment that was difficult for them to hear too.

      It might be hard to fire someone at your institution but the MINUTE that Icarus started telling you how to run your lab was when you should have started that process. Alison told you when you originally wrote in to fire this person. But you didn’t. And the problem got worse until Icarus just … left.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      The other piece of this is that sometimes good teachers have to give a student a zero on an assignment. Even if OP was approaching the relationship with Icarus as teacher/student, sometimes there are students who need that hard line if they’re going to open themselves up to a learning experience.

      1. Alice's Rabbit*

        The best thing a teacher can do for a student is to give them the grades they deserve. A or F, or anything in between.
        Same with a boss. Be clear about your expectations, be available for questions and support, and be honest with your feedback. And fire employees like this!

  4. GiantPanda*

    OP, one more thing.
    Your other lab workers and students should have talked to you about these problems long ago. Please check the general atmosphere in your lab, your approachability, office hours and availability etc.

    1. Betty*

      +1 that this is really concerning. I wonder if it’s something that could be tackled when new people are hired – make sure the OP onboards them personally and lets them know what to do if they ever have any problems. I can well imagine that Icarus herself might have done some of the training and the rot might have set in early.

    2. Violet Fox*

      I’m a sysadmin at a university.

      I hang out with our phd students a lot, and some of the masters students. They genuinely feel like their education and long term prospects are in danger if they complain, that if they complain there might be retaliation. No matter how much those of us who know how things work (including me) try to convince them that nothing will change, and nothing will get better unless they complain, and file formal complaints, they just do not feel safe doing so. Some I talked to talked about reporting when they finish their studies but not before.

      We do have an anonymous reporting line but pretty much no one uses it.

      They talk to me because I’ve done a lot of work to make sure I’m someone that people can talk to, and that my office is always an opening and welcoming place, but I’m also outside of the power structure they are in.

      1. Little Pig*

        This is absolutely true. I’m finishing my PhD now, and have serious concerns about my advisor that I am keeping to myself until after I pass my defense. I would love to do it sooner, but I don’t trust the administration to keep it anonymized. I did go to the ombudsman (who has different rules around who she can tell), and she just had a lot of accuse-y questions about why I didn’t handle things differently and why I didn’t do this or that. Well lady, you can only “constructively discuss” your PI’s advising style a couple times before you start to become a problem in their eyes.

        If my university cared, they would proactively check in with students about how their lab is doing. They would provide training for professors about how to be a good advisor. They don’t do any of these things, and so nothing gets addressed unless a student like me puts their career on the line to be the whistleblower. And frankly that says a lot about the university’s priorities.

        1. Violet Fox*

          What would make you feel comfortable reporting?

          Even if the administration does actually protect students who report problems, it is between hard and impossible for the students to know in advance what happens and how that process works. At least where I work, they don’t tell anyone how it works, and I only found out about the reporting line when #metoo became a thing even though it has been there apparently for a long as I’ve worked there (which is a while).

          In the case of where I work, we know a lot of what is going on but legally we cannot actually do much until the people it is actually happening to report, because anything else is just considered hearsay.

          Honestly training for professors at all would be a good thing, not just how to be a supervisor, but also how to be a manger in general, and in some cases how to be a person. How to teach as well.

          Why I hear about things is because I actually check in with people on a human just “how are you doing” sort of level and because honestly I can do my job a lot better if I have some idea of how people actually work and what sort of resources their research needs.

          1. SW*

            I’m not sure much can be done to make grad students feel more comfortable reporting without deep structural changes being put in place. Like you have one person primarily in charge of your pay, your duties, and whether you get a degree at all. There’s very, very little oversight by heads of the department or other university leadership. Results and getting grant money are the only things that matters and academia prizes extreme autonomy. And what can be done once the person has tenure? Plus other professors tend to shy away from taking other professors’ grad students, preferring to to take on new grads with less baggage instead of a person with a demonstrated willingness to rock the boat.
            For example a friend was owed 6 months of unpaid wages but the university just paid him out of a different fund rather than confront the professor and risk my friend not passing his dissertation defense.
            There’s lots of reasons why the grad student union at the ivy I work at is almost entirely humanities students, but some of it is the toxic environment in I’m not sure much can be done to make grad students feel more comfortable reporting without deep structural changes being put in place. Like you have one person primarily in charge of your pay, your duties, and whether you get a degree at all. There’s very, very little oversight by heads of the department or other university leadership. Results and getting grant money are the only things that matters and academia prizes extreme autonomy. And what can be done once the person has tenure? Plus other professors tend to shy away from taking other professors’ grad students, preferring to to take on new grads with less baggage instead of a person with a demonstrated willingness to rock the boat.
            For example a friend was owed 6 months of unpaid wages but the university just paid him out of a different fund rather than confront the professor and risk my friend not passing his dissertation defense.
            There’s lots of reasons why the grad student union at the ivy I work at is almost entirely humanities students, but some of it is the toxic environment in science labs and the constant supply of people willing to put up with the hazing in exchange for the possibility of getting a tenured professor job. science labs and the constant supply of people willing to put up with the hazing in exchange for the possibility of getting a tenured professor job.

            1. Violet Fox*

              One thing where I work is that at least Phd defense committees are always made up of people the person didn’t work with, usually from outside of our university, and a lot of our masters thesis sensors are external as well. It’s not enough, but at least it is something.

              Structural change is.. hard.. impossible… Truthfully a lot of the problem is not even the professors but the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that most institutions seem to run on.

              1. Violet Fox*

                All of this being said, if you end up in a good spot or a good department/group it can be one of the best experiences there is. There are reasons, aside from Stockholm syndrome, why some of us actually stay. For me it’s the mix of getting to work with parts of my field that are the most interesting to me, without having a lot of the typical restrictions and lack of respect IT tends to have in the private sector. On top of that, most of my department is generally functional, well my university standards.

                For the most part I set my own hours, and as long as everyone gets the tools they need to do their research/their jobs, my team and I get to solve things how we want to rather then being told how to. Granted we do have a few restrictions, but those are things more like legal frameworks for student privacy, research data, etc but the restrictions are very much a *good* thing.

      2. Sara without an H*

        Sadly, much too true. The way doctoral training is currently structured gives way too much power to the candidate’s advisor, a problem exacerbated by the current tight job market. Grad students feel they have to put up with Dr. Voldemort’s abuse in the hope that he will, eventually, get them a job.

        1. Violet Fox*

          On top of that academic jobs are few and far between, with a lot of very qualified people fighting for the tiny amount of open positions, that usually have pretty strict criteria, and often are looking for people in a specific narrow field of focus. Getting a lot of these jobs is just dumb luck that the thing for your field/qualifications is open when you’re looking. On top of that, people travel a lot, are guest researchers a lot, collaborate everywhere in the field so to some degree everyone knows everyones and someone with a reputation as a trouble maker might not ever even get the chance to start.

      3. Massmatt*

        That people have problems and say they cannot raise them for fear of retaliation is a sign of a terrible organization.

        It’s possible the students are wrong and if they reported the problems they would be acted on and they would face no negative consequences; in other words the organization is sound and these students just don’t understand/believe that.

        It’s also possible that their fears are very well grounded, that if they rock the boat in any way their careers will suffer, grants disappear, thesis savaged during defense, etc.

        I am curious if you have dug into WHY students feel this way, is there a particular case they cite? Do you know of any cases where someone HAS rocked the boat in a serious way? What happened to them? If the answer is something like “oh, yeah, she isn’t here anymore” or “he just couldn’t get enough grant money” or “she decided this wasn’t for her after her thesis was rejected a second time” then you have your answer.

    3. Academic Addie*

      Amen to this. I have a lab onboarding website that describes both technical (how to backup data, documenting data and code, etc), economics (how to get reimbursements if they spend personal money on something, when to ask to purchase something, summer pay), and social stuff (code of conduct things that aren’t covered by the university code of conduct, how to report, how they can get help if they feel like I’m being a problem). I wrote it all out in the glorious honeymoon between accepting my job offer and starting, and I update it every now and again. I even had a grad student once tell me that seeing all the documentation and knowing how things will work helped her make the choice to join my lab rather than a different one. OP, it is really worth it to just close your damn door for two days and write out expectations clearly. Especially since it sounds like your lab is much larger than mine, which enabled Icarus to run around sowing confusion, feeding her perspectives to junior people, and using them as pawns. It will help.

    4. Moose*

      100%. I would think about how and whether employees come to you with problems or questions. The public dressing-down might not have helped with this. I totally understand your thought process on why that would help, but I’d worry it would have the opposite effect–employees and students worried that they’d be shouted at publicly for performance problems, especially since they can’t know the background with Icarus/how often you’d spoken to her before.

  5. Taking The Long Way Round*

    Ooof, I don’t agree with having a loud conversation with her in ‘public’, where others could hear. The better action would have been to fire her, no?

    Also, the fact she was rehired by someone you know despite the fact you were open about her reputation… That’s bananas.

    Academia, hey?!

    1. MistOrMister*

      I didn’t really like that public dressing down either. Frankly, I feel like OP should have started termination proceedings immediately after getting Alison’s advice. And then I think something like discussing with the rest of the staff, either in a meeting or one on one as needed, that she is aware of the problems with Icarus and is working to handle them would have gone over better. Sure, in theory everyone wants to hear a problem coworker get reamed out by the boss. But in actuality…if I see you do that with coworker x, I now have to assume you’ll do it if you have a problem with me as well. And that would make me very uncomfortable.

      I do wonder if the other professor will hav more luck because he’s a man. Although everything Icarus did was so bonkers that I can’t imagine they will be able to restrain themselves from being a holy terror no matter where they work/who they work for!

  6. M. from P.*

    Glad to hear the toxic employee left but disappointed that she was hired by the other professor even though he had been warned.
    I may well be the employee won’t try this crap with him but still, I would not want to hire someone who made my colleague’s life miserable.
    I remember an interesting TED talk by Adam Grant about givers and takers. In his research, he found out that it’s more important for a company or team to weed out toxic people (takers) than it is to hire more givers. In fact, he said one taker can poison the entire team to the point it won’t matter how many superstars you hire otherwise.

    1. un-pleased*

      I am leaving a place that has exactly this problem, with bonus aspects of the problems in the OP. It has trashed a place I love, and which will never recover, because there is no will to get rid of the bad actor. I mean, it’s definitely a lesson in how one person can have a tremendous impact on the world. There is no amount of compensatory good hires who can balance out this person’s effects.

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Hey, be kinder to the OP, who knows best. And from what I read here, it looks like there was no chance to put in practice Alison’s advice.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        There was time not used. Alison’s advice was an unequivocal ‘fire her now.’ OP waited several months after an open-air scolding before deciding to contact HR to start the process.
        Just the public yelling session could have made OP seem unreasonable enough that a good charmer or manipulator could spin that into new position.
        However…Icarus is described as having no higher degree. I am working on that premise. If we were to learn she’s were actually all-but-thesis, and the projects she’s trying to get in are ones she was told she could do at the job for her thesis, my opinion would shift radically.

    2. Betty*

      I think manipulative and crappy is an overreaction. I do disagree with how the OP handled it – I think they should have taken Alison’s advice to start termination proceedings (or at least give Icarus a formal warning that she was on probation for X months) immediately and not tried to make her change yet again. The private-public dressing down was also a peculiar choice. Alison is all about calmly and directly communicating with people, and I’m not clear why the OP didn’t just take the opportunity during those private conversations with other lab workers to say “This concerns me and I am going to take action to deal with it. Please come and talk to me if anything like this happens again”. But “crappy and manipulative” makes the OP sound like a really mean person, not an ineffective manager.

      1. LDN Layabout*

        It’s hard because we do need to be kind to LWs but I can’t disagree with manipulative and crappy as a descriptor.

        As an employee, if I witnessed something like this, my first thought is never going to be ‘Oh good, Icarus is being dealt with’ it’s going to be ‘oh God, I hope I never have to face that from LW.’

        1. Dragoning*

          Same. OP thinks they were being a strong manager, but in actuality they probably lost standing in their students’ eyes.

          1. Massmatt*

            Exactly. If I overheard this fight (which is what it sounds like, versus a conversation) I would think “This PI screams and yells at her employees instead of managing them. I might be next. If Icarus is so terrible, why is she still here?”

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OTH, sometimes grandstanding is the only way to handle a problem like this. But I think that using this method more than a couple times over one’s working life, is NOT excusable. Once in a great while a person may have to slam their foot down hard because there are people who ONLY understand a very strong reaction. But those people are very, very rare, hence my thought that a manager does this maybe once or twice in their life, it that much.

      Breaking OP’s situation apart:
      This had been going on for a while.

      The problem was deeply rooted and embedded by the time OP realized how big the problem was.

      Additional wrinkle, OP was not really sure just how extensive the employee’s damage went. She did not know how big a battle she was fighting, she only knew she had a big battle. She had to have a means of letting people know not to tolerate the BS.

      Now here is why I think that this can be an exception for OP and not the norm- OP can break this into segments and find different things she can do at different intervals so situations do not escalate like this one did. Yes, like an autopsy, review the whole story and make changes to her management style.

      This type of thing is my nightmare when I supervise people. The mental image of me being in a similar situation as OP totally motivated me to talk with people as the problems came up. Don’t let crap go unchecked, deal with stuff while it is new/small.
      In working this through, I realized that the other part of the problem is I did not see a lot of stuff that went on. And that can be a tough nut to crack. Fortunately, people are a lot more transparent than they realize. And I quickly figured out that if someone felt free to give ME a ration of garbage, then there was a good possibility that they were doing worse to their peers/subordinates. There are other clues along the way, also.

      OP, now that you see the behaviors you can vow to jump in much earlier and prevent many problems. And in turn, prevent putting yourself in a place where grandstanding seems like your best/only option.

    4. Casper Lives*

      I agree with you. Apparently academia is a wild beast where no one can be fired and no one knows how to manage or gets training. Man I’m glad my bosses are calm, good managers who have conversations in private on evaluations.

  7. Violet Fox*

    For everyone that doesn’t work in academica, please keep this in mind: Fireing people in academica can be between incredibly hard to pretty much impossible. This is just not a realistic option in a lot of cases.

    1. BethDH*

      Also it’s easy to see OP’s primary job as being a manager, but that’s really not going to be the view from within academia. OP is a manager, of course, but that’s not really the skill set OP was hired to have, and probably not one they were ever trained in or even one they’ve necessarily seen done well. I much of academia at this level, management is an afterthought and if people are trained in any sort of leadership, it is as teachers/mentors.

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        Yes to both comments above me. This is a major reason I have never considered — not even for a second — academia as an ambition. Not even when I was in high school and didn’t yet know the extents bad behaviour could get to.

      2. Sara without an H*

        Yes, the OP was presumably hired for her scientific credentials. Management experience was probably not even listed on the job posting.

    2. Cookie Captain*

      That is true. However, I have seen poor performance/attitude addressed in an academic environment about as harshly as you can get without firing, and it’s much stricter than LW’s attempts with Icarus. We’re talking “here are your new responsibilities, they no longer involves talking with lab assistants in any way; you’re actually going to work independently in this other room. I’m sorry if you find that boring.”

      And then giving someone work that keeps them away from everybody, even if it’s filing/proofreading/etc. It sometimes means basically losing an employee’s productivity while still paying them, but IMO it’s worth it, and will usually chase them off.

      I think LW was still too concerned with her results to sacrifice some of their productivity in favor of keeping her lab assistants from being mistreated.

      1. Sara without an H*

        Your example is interesting, in that it accepts the fact that actual firing will be difficult/impossible. You might call it firing-in-place.

        Btw, I’ve seen this technique used to sideline faculty members with tenure.

    3. Academic Addie*

      It can be, but this was a lab manager. Those are typically soft-money positions, and don’t have the protections a tenured faculty member would. When I was doing my PhD, some of the lab managers hung out with s a bit, and there was one faculty member who notoriously fired people right when they gave notice or requested long-term sick or maternity leave (actually, there were two or three faculty who did that last thing). For a field that often gets painted as “liberal”, there are very few labor protections for anyone who isn’t tenured or some sort of highly-paid and presumably very valuable administrator.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        Whoa – firing someone who’s requesting maternity leave is illegal in the US, isn’t it? Those protections are federal, not by state or industry.

        1. Academic Addie*

          Of course it’s illegal. The problem with illegal is that you need to prove it somehow. And that’s hard to do after losing your not-great salary with a baby on the way.

        2. Blackcat*

          Not necessarily, actually!
          Certain federally funded grants used to be 100% clear they could not be used to subsidize maternity/medical leave and that taking such leave ended a contract… and contracts were required to be in semester or year units, so you could not hire a short term replacement. May still be the case. It is certainly the case that doing something like taking maternity leave forfeits your place in a program. Up until very recently, that was the case with the NSF Post-doc fellowship.
          This is one of those “the federal government can exempt itself from laws” sort of things, and certain types of funding fall under that. Also, grad students are generally not eligible for FMLA, so while the university can’t kick them out, any leave would be unfunded and they do not have to be offered funding in subsequent semesters.

    4. Dr. Pepper*

      Exactly. If Icarus was classified staff or similar, she would pretty much have to commit a felony to be fired. This actually happened in my department. A classified staff member was so terrible at their job and screwed so many things up (and lied about it!) that you’d think they would have been fired. Nope. Couldn’t fire them without a crazy lengthy process that might not even work. Things got so bad that this person was literally guilty of a felony, and on that note, the department gave them the option of resigning immediately or the department would press charges. The person resigned and the department head did a bunch of damage control and basically covered everything up.

      The damage this person was allowed to do was incredible. Academia can be a strange place.

    5. Massmatt*

      This might be true but the problem here is the LW didn’t seem to take any of the necessary steps after YEARS os bad behavior, even when it became clear the problem employee was bullying others in the lab.

      If it takes a stack of paperwork and 10 meetings with HR and a university lawyer to fire someone, and the employee is terrible, then get started! If Icarus hadn’t decided to leave she would still be there, damaging this lab!

      Remember this was a lab technician, not a faculty member. It might be a simple a conversation as “I didn’t get funding for your position, sorry. Your position is over at the end of the month”.

      1. JSPA*

        Lab techs can be as or more protected (depending on institutional policy) than (especially) soft-money faculty; potentially even the soft money faculty employing them.

      2. Observer*

        And even when they realized that there was a problem they didn’t do too much – ONE conversation in public and wait and see. There are additional things they could and should have done. And they should have started the firing process right away, as well, since that’s a very long drawn process.

        It’s not like Icarus would have gotten fired even if she had totally cleaned up her act.

    6. Casper Lives*

      Why? A lot of people are saying that, but not explaining what makes it impossible. Is it that managers and HR refuse to do that part of their job? 2 professors, 1 support staff, and 1 manager was fired or let go when I was a student worker in college. Not impossible there.

      1. Blackcat*

        It really depends on the institution. At the place I am presently employed by, absent “Gross misconduct” (basically doing something criminal *on the job*), it would probably take about 6 months to fire me.

  8. Lynca*

    The OP probably doesn’t want to hear this but the staged public dressing down was not a great plan. I don’t think you’re a bad person for doing it! I get exactly why you did it. I’m in a STEM field and spent time in labs. It’s not a rigidly formal office environment.

    It’s just that doing this in public does not send a very clear message to others about how you’re handling the problem. Having a direct, private, and documented conversation with Icarus about expectations and consequences would have been better. Then having a direct conversation as a group with the lab workers about any issues they had with Icarus would have been next. I get what a hassle that would be, but it would be harder for people to misinterpret what you want.

    Doing things like that in public is subject to a lot of interpretation especially if they hear about it second hand from others. It’s basically Telephone. Which I know is how some labs operate. It’s not necessarily a good way, imo. People could double down on Icarus’ opinion that she’s right and you’re wrong (which is part of what happened post dressing down), people would now be more afraid to come forward because they think you might dress them down, and things like that.

    I’m glad it worked out in the end and you have the opportunity to build from this experience.

    1. Maya Elena*

      I don’t think one incident is enough to put fear of reprisal into the hearts of everyone else: I think you have to have a habit of screaming and being unreasonable before people start walking on eggshells around you if they never had to before.

      1. Lynca*

        I didn’t want to get too far into it, but I’ve been a lab tech in more than one lab where the MO was to have a very performative dressing down by the PI/Lab Manager (sometimes in public). The expected result was that the person would stop what they were doing and then people would “know” that it was handled.

        I have never seen that fully work and generally people continued on doing what they were doing. There are better ways of handling it. There can be a lot of dysfunction in labs that gets overlooked because it’s academia/non-formal work environment/etc. That doesn’t make it a good practice, imo and one of the reasons I didn’t want to work in a lab long term.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      Controlling the message is an important part of discipline. OP assumed the message would be clear to people she fully expected to eavesdrop. Except, without following up directly with them to make sure, she allowed control of the message to be left to chance, either the students’ various interpretations or Icarus’ version.

      If it were a one off, it’s less likely that others would live in fear of a public dressing down happening to them. But it’s unlikely to have had any positive outcomes other than briefly putting Icarus on notice (and even then Icarus continued to act badly).

      Firing in place would have been the smartest strategy if outright firing wasn’t an option. People like Icarus need to have zero power or authority over anything.

      My money is on Icarus being a model employee for the new prof for at least a while (probably long enough to make the new prof discount OP’s reference) because new lab + male boss, but it sounds like once she gets comfortable enough she’ll push boundaries.

  9. WellRed*

    I went back to the original letter. Icarus is a lab worker, so no tenure, hasn’t got an advanced degree, presumably doesn’t bring in research dollars. So I am genuinely curious why it could be hard to fire someone like this? Or is it more, “oh, well it’s always so hard to fire in academia, etc” that it’s just assumed impossible so why try?

    1. Achoo!*

      A lot of HRs in academia are extremely lawsuit adverse and refuse to allow anyone to be fired out of fear of being sued. Also, if it’s a public university, staff are state employees and that can be more secure than tenure.

      It’s pretty common for poor workers to be shuffled from position to position in an effort to get them to quit.

    2. The Francher Kid*

      Came here to say this. I worked for years in a research lab and we unfortunately had an Icarus. Despite the required steps being followed, despite loads of documentation, despite her committing two infractions that were listed as serious enough to warrant immediate termination, HR kept insisting there was a way to fix the problem. The only thing that did was Icarus finding a job in another department on campus and moving, leaving behind a giant mess and two compromised research grants. And yes, part of the problem here was that the PI ignored multiple complaints from me and another lab member for months.

    3. WellRed*

      As a follow up, are state or University employees more likely to threaten lawsuit than any other industry? And why are these HRs so adverse? I guess it’s all so institutionalized as to feel impossible to change.

      1. Lynca*

        I can speak to my own state- you can get fired quickly for some big things like theft for instance. I know of workers being walked off the job the day the issue was discovered.

        As for being more likely to sue? I don’t expect that’s the case. I know for my agency it’s really more that they don’t want there to be a question of whether the performance based termination wasn’t for cause. It’s a very long process and there are people that feel it’s insurmountable. It’s not, and honestly most of the time when someone gets to the point they need a PIP? They leave.

      2. Adric*

        First of all, IANAL, so if anyone is, feel free to correct me.

        I was under the impression that States could decline lawsuits under the principle of Sovereign Immunity. If so, they should be able to tell a disgruntled employee to go pound sand.

        I assume there are other non-lawsuit proceedings to get through, but in general States and State Universities should have a pretty strong hand.

    4. Dr. Pepper*

      Universities have classified staff, which is a job classification that is similar to tenure. They have incredible job security and it’s incredibly difficult to fire fire them. These positions are often for core responsibilities that would suffer from high turnover. There’s many other staff levels that can indeed be fired immediately and for no reason, but classified staff are different. At least that’s how it worked at the universities I’ve been at.

      1. Violet Fox*

        Where I am pretty much everyone with a lab support or technical/administrative sort of job is classified that way. On top of that we are considered public sector because public university, and we are also a lot more unionized than the private sector.

    5. Claire*

      It could be Icarus is a union member and therefore the OP had to follow a strict set of guidelines to fire them.

      (I once worked for a university, where I was a lead software developer and supervisor to another developer, and we were both members of the university’s union for all the non-teaching professionals. The process for firing someone is very strictly laid out. I know this because the first task I was given was to start a paper trail for the other dev.)

    6. Academic Addie*

      I’m also somewhat confused by this. Lab managers are typically paid off of grants (and this is what OP describes in her initial post), and usually have very little job security. That’s by design – if a lab head budgets wrong and there’s no more money for the lab manager salary, the university typically doesn’t pick up their salary. So universities like to be able to let them go immediately with no process. That’s different than a grad student or something, where the lab head might pay stipend + tuition for some proportion of the student’s career, but that student is backed by the department (and can teach for pay if the grant funding runs out) with their insurance and fringe backed through whatever mechanisms the department uses. So they have some protection if the funding goes away.

      My guess is the OP wasn’t expecting a renewal of the funds that pay Icarus, and figured they could just run out the clock on their employment.

      1. JSPA*

        Not having a grant renewed is basically a layoff situation; not the same thing as a right to fire. Institutions (or states) further can and often do have laws that give primacy to funding staff in a named position over providing student stipends (which can, but may not be picked up by other funding agencies).

        The use of the name “Icarus” suggests to me that OP was carelessly complicit in allowing someone to amass protections and (at least the appearance of) “favorite child” favor, as well as the natural power intrinsic to the job. This led to them acting first as the “power behind the throne,” and then over-reach further into trying to co-govern. Add the ability to maneuver undetected, created by whatever ordering process OP set up (but did not look over) and…that’s a recipe for disaster.

        OP, some ordering system (even if it’s just a white board including a daily snapshot, or a shared spreadsheet) that includes date requested, by whom, price, approval needed (Y/N), date ordered and comments is pretty much the minimum for a lab to function smoothly and transparently. And you need to cast an occasional eye on it, including dates requested, and whether or not there are delays.

        The rest of your lab also needs to see what’s normal. Otherwise, one person agonizes over an extra $20 for the XS gloves that actually fit them or a few primers, while someone else is putting in a request for $1000 because they want a set of purple pipetmen because navy blue is boring and people keep borrowing.

        1. Academic Addie*

          Oh, that’s fascinating. I’ve worked at universities in four states, and in all of them, grant-funded positions, such as lab techs, managers, and postdocs would not have their salaries picked up by the university, particularly over a grad student. Some of them had slush funds that could be used to pay staff and postdocs if a grant was held up due to a shutdown or something. My own salary was covered for one month in the Trump shutdowns by one of these funds.

          How do they stop PIs from abusing this? For example, under budgeting their lab manager by three months, then making the university pick up the tab when the money runs out?

          1. JSPA*

            Not saying that the lab tech would be covered if a grant ran out / no renewal / other grant didn’t pan out! No money = no job, comparable to (or handled as) a layoff. If the money is really gone-gone, then it’s gone, and the tech goes.

            I’m saying that if there IS grant money available, never mind that the funding from the job posting came from your own grant–you often can’t just up and fire the tech. And you also can’t fudge the situation to make the money be “gone,” by putting it elsewhere.

            The hiring goes through the university; they list the position. The P.I. is to some degree comparable to a hiring manager, with the university (or perhaps the School or a Department) as the employer.

            So even if the PI wants to (say) prioritize covering part of the funding for a grad student who’s going off some other grant and doesn’t have a reasonable T.A. option that semester…or get by without a manager by foisting some of the ordering off on the department office and giving limited ordering authority to the PostDocs…they can’t just Make It So.

            1. Academic Addie*

              Huh, that’s interesting about the prioritizing. Maybe my field is just really weird, but when I write a grant, I have a line item for each type of personnel. We can’t “prioritize” staff over each other. For example, on one grant I have a scientific programmer and a grad student. If I only have 50k left, I can’t decide to allocate it to one staff member or the other – I have to spend the right proportions per the grant to each staff member. It might be possible to go back to the granting officer and make the argument that I should be able to reallocate the funds, but that’s dicey and can impact future grant success.

              But the flipside of that type of control is also that when it comes to non-grads, the university itself exercises little control over hiring and firing for grant funded positions. The university won’t compel me to continue paying someone who isn’t working out. All they need from me if I fire someone is a letter for the person’s file stating why they were terminated. I can’t imagine a situation where this needed to happen, but I don’t need to wait until the contract is up and decline to renew, or wait until the end of the semester. I can tell a non-student staff member to get out that day. And that absolutely varies by institution – I quit one postdoc when I got an independent fellowship. It was a split postdoc between public institutions in different states. One institution just let me write an email saying I quit, the other needed a full resignation letter to avoid doing the exit mediation. They required that because I had been a postdoc for one full academic year, which meant I was no longer “at will”. Graduate students often have more protections, since they are hired by the department, who guarantees their stipend if I am no longer willing or able to. At every institution I’ve been at, graduate students have a contract specifying how many years of support they get, if it’s year-round, and other things like how often they have to TA. The department usually does some math on how many students they can accept, given how many TA slots there are, how many faculty have grant lines, and projected budgets. I don’t have to explain anything to anyone if I want to expel a student from my lab, but I would have to wait until the end of the semester. Barring misconduct, the booted student will be allowed to search for a new lab, and usually put on a TA while they do that. If they can’t find one, well …

        2. Academic Addie*

          Oh, that’s fascinating. I’ve worked at universities in four states, and in all of them, grant-funded positions would not have their salaries picked up by the university, particularly over a grad student. Some of them had slush funds that could be used to pay staff and postdocs if a grant was held up due to a shutdown or something. My own salary was covered for one month in the Trump shutdowns by one of these funds.

          How do they stop PIs from abusing this? For example, under budgeting their lab manager by three months, then making the university pick up the tab when the money runs out?

  10. Maya Elena*

    Good riddance! What was the other colleague thinking?
    Re: the public dressing down – disagree with everyone. Perhaps you waited too long to address Icarus’ behavior, but the dressing down showed your lab that you mean business and I don’t know how you could have done that more effectively; and some shamelss people unfortunately need that, especially if they aren’t invested in propriety and niceness, and know that you are and use it against you.

    1. Dragoning*

      But it /doesn’t/ show that OP “means business.” You can’t yell at someone, say their behavior is unacceptable, and continue to accept it. That’s putting words over actions, and in reality that just isn’t convincing to most people, especially in a situation where Icarus is negatively affecting the people in question.

    2. WellRed*

      I think a firm, quick firing would have been more effective. Instead, OP let her emotions get the best of her, which as women we shouldn’t be seen as doing and then let the behavior continue. That said, I don’t feel sorry for any embarrassment on Icarus’ part.

  11. tinybutfierce*

    I honestly can’t understand why the OP waited so long to even try beginning the process of getting Icarus fired, especially given they knew it was a difficult process. Why not get that started ASAP after all the issues Icarus had, especially after finding out they’d been equally awful to the other workers?

    Also, I certainly understand the desire to give Icarus a public dressing down, I really don’t think that was the right move, and I can’t imagine the other employees being exactly thrilled about it, either. They’ve witnessed a peer be allowed to terrorize them *and their supervisor* for who knows how long, and the only way they say it addressed was for the offender to be given a deliberately non-private talking to that did… nothing. I honestly think the OP needs to spend some solid time working on their supervisory/management skills and rebuilding (professional!) relationships with the rest of their staff, because none of this, original letter or update, sounds like a great environment for anyone in it.

    1. BethDH*

      My guess, just based on having seen processes that sound similar: it’s not just a process that takes a long time to go through by the calendar; it also takes a lot of work and time for OP to accomplish when OP presumably has an overloaded schedule already. OP probably didn’t feel like they could take the time to do that when they thought it was “just” them that Icarus was interfering with.

    2. sheworkshardforthemoney*

      Yes, because if the OP digs deeper they will find their lab has a reputation for being a toxic place to work. The OP’s credibility for good impartial work is also taking a hit based on Icarus’s actively blocking work.

    3. MissDisplaced*

      I think its one of those quirks of academia in general, and research labs in particular?

      Probably Icarus is trained and familiar with the research grants and thus is difficult to replace. Couple that with an atmosphere where it is difficult to fire and you get these situations.

      There is no excusing her behavior, but I’d be curious to hear the side of Icarus to know if it was something about this university/lab the OP or just actions of a very disgruntled person.

      I worked with lab people at a former job, and unfortunately the lab managers who didn’t have the PhD’s all felt they were looked down on and mistreated (which they kind of were). If that’s the case, I fear Icarus will never be happy in this profession.

  12. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

    What I wonder, in situations like this, is why did the other professor bother calling OP to ask about Icarus? Is there *anything* that OP could have told him that would have made decide not to hire her?

    Of course, that assumes self-knowledge: the other professor may have believed that he’d take the reference into account, when in reality he was going to treat almost any negative reference as “well, she didn’t commit armed robbery” or “it’s okay, she didn’t get her previous employer sued for ADA violations.” (Either of those would be a good reason not to hire someone–but the bar should be higher than “not guilty of a violent felony.”)

    1. Thankful for AAM*

      The other prof was likely looking for info about technical skills, if those were not good, the other prof might have gone with a more skilled candidate.

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I bet Icarus trash-talked the OP and he was curious as to what OP would say in return. He knew the OP previously so he may have his own opinions on how she behaves and runs her lab and some of Icarus’ complaints rang true.

  13. OlympiasEpiriot*

    I can’t remember if I commented on the original letter, but, that one gave me hives. HIVES. I had a sudden flashback to undergrad and dealing with a couple of extremely problematic and entrenched lab employees who also had assisting us lowly worms during lab classes as part of their duties.

    SO glad to hear Icarus is gone. PLEASE never let that happen again. The fellow students and researchers do NOT need that stress.

  14. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’m not sure how I feel about this update. I think that the public dressing down was a judgment error and probably made things worse in the long run for the entire lab. It’s also disappointing that, yet again, it’s an update where the ‘solution’ was that the person who was behaving badly suffered no consequences and left of their own accord.

    Maybe I’m too optimistic or something, but I really want to believe that people who treat other people poorly will eventually have something happen that will make them see the error of their ways. Seeing people constantly getting away with being jerks is disheartening.

    1. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I hear ya. I tend to believe ‘what goes around, comes around,’ and it’s usually the way things work. I’ve managed, worked for, and worked with people like Icarus, and most of them had to deal with the fallout of their terrible behaviors. Can’t say they saw the error of their ways, but they were called out – sometimes publicly! – on their poor or abusive behaviors. That does my heart good.

      But I also know several that seem(ed) to be Teflon, so much so that I wondered if they had devastating information on The Powers That Be. Things only improved when the employee left, but I didn’t call it a solution as much as ‘bad management.’ I truly think this is the exception, but some days it’s harder to take comfort in that thought.

  15. Thankful for AAM*

    I can see the point lots of people are making about the problems with the public dressing down and the delay in starting the firing process. But I don’t think people really get the roadblocks in place. And I don’t think managers realize how much failing to take action (and not via a public dressing down), damages their own reputation!

    I work in a non-profit that is university adjacent or at least similar. If my boss wanted to fire someone at my level, he would have to have approval from: his own boss, the boss’s boss, then the overall manager. IF all 3 thought it was with the effort they would all have to do, they could go to the manager’s boss in the parent organization and then it would go to HR. They risk looking like poor managers to the levels above them so they have to balance the overall number of times they want to do this. And that is a lot of people who have to think it is worth STARTING the firing process. Friends who work in universities have more layers that all have to be willing to be part of the process.

    So it is a huge undertaking and I don’t see it happen often, even when things go badly wrong.

    1. Observer*

      All of this is true and none of it is relevant. What the OP describes was bed enough that they REALLY should have started the process as soon as they realized what was going on. It takes 2 years and 100 hours? Well, the sooner you start the clock ticking, the sooner it’s past. And the sooner you start taking the time to do the work, the sooner you will wind up not having to deal with the hidden waste of time caused by the bad employee.’

  16. animaniactoo*

    Wow. Okay, I get that you could not have easily fired Icarus. I even get the publicly private dressing down – as a one-off, possibly useful.

    However: OP, you lost the plot. You need to know how to setup control of your lab so that it is within your control. Things that you missed – and please note that I am only pointing them out because some of them should be instituted immediately, and others are useful for any future potential problem employees:

    • Documentation. Documentation. Documentation. From the moment you heard the feedback from the other lab workers. Start documenting at that moment. Because while you may not need it, at the point you were about to pick up the phone to HR – if you start documenting at that point, you lose several more months of having an out of control employee in your lab.

    • Directed ordering of supplies: All requests in writing to a designated person of your choice. Someone who is nether your combative employee nor cowed by your combative employee. Summary at the end of the week as to which requests were approved, which were denied, and why. This will be useful for the next step:

    • Check-ins. Regular check-ins, where you will be able to address denied requests, find out what experiments employees wish to be working on, are having issues working on. Even if they don’t complain but simply have an excuse for why it hasn’t happened – you will be able to spot the patterns of your authority and priorities being usurped and address it.

    • More effective than the dressing down: Make sure that each employee knows that if YOU have given them something to work on, and anyone else – anyone, not just Icarus – tries to take them off of it or prevent them from working on it, you need them to check in with you about their priority. Make it clear that if they DON’T do that, you will be extremely upset with them. This gives them the leverage to feel that they NEED to do it. No matter who tells them that they shouldn’t bother you with it.

    • When you hear or spot a pattern of something is going wrong: Show up in the lab more often. Go directly to the employee having an issue, and without referring to your knowledge that they are having an issue check in about the progress of what they’re working on. Stand there and work on it with them if you need to in order to get it done. This sounds like a lot of work – but it is short-term work. Because if people KNOW this is what will happen if things are not going your way, it is much less likely in the long-term that people will attempt to circumvent your authority and your priorities.

      1. animaniactoo*

        That’s the goal of instituting some of them immediately. LW’s original question was how could she have presented this problem from happening. This is a roadmap which might need some adjustment for her particular setup but will help her retain her authority without micromanaging what everybody is working on every minute of the day.

  17. Casper Lives*

    Wow. All I’m gleaming from this is that universities are terrible places to work, as any good employee can leave due awful employees staying forever.

    A lot of comments say it’s impossible to fire someone at a university. Why? Are these crappy universities with conflict adverse HR who do no work?

    When I was in college, 2 faculty were fired for sleeping with undergraduates. 1 had tenure. Still fired. Apparently it IS possible.

  18. SW*

    OP: I’m not sure that your colleague at another institution is actually a friend. I would also be cautious about working with someone in the future who so blatantly disregarded the input that he requested.

  19. Bluephone*

    Ah academia. Nothing about this is surprising, including the need to stage a yell fest that wasn’t going to accomplish anything anyway.

Comments are closed.