Advice

Talking About a Toxic Environment

Should you tell administrators and colleagues why you are leaving?

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

February 26, 2014

Say you are leaving your faculty job because of a hostile work environment. When your supervisors and colleagues ask why you are quitting, should you explain? Name names?

I wrote about that issue in January on my blog, trying to gather advice for the very real case of a female faculty member who, after years of being bullied and badly treated at a major university, had received an outside offer and taken it. Suddenly, the same people who had shown no interest in her work life for years were asking questions about why she was leaving for another university.

The phrase "hostile work environment" covers a lot of ground—including everything from severe harassment to unfair treatment to subtle forms of disrespect. Given the debate generated on my blog post, I wanted to revisit the topic in more depth. My focus here is on work environments that feature unacceptable behavior on the part of colleagues, administrators, or others, but not physical threats or harm.

I realize that, however difficult this situation is for the person quitting, it’s even more challenging for someone who, for various reasons, remains in a toxic environment. But the person leaving might be able to aid the one staying put. The departure of a faculty member for another university may be an opportunity to illuminate a toxic environment and get the attention of administrators and others. So with that in mind, let’s consider what is at stake.

Should you tell why you are leaving? Only if you’re asked? Or should you volunteer the information?

Being asked may make it easier to tell your story. It may increase the chances that the information will be taken seriously and used to make positive changes for others. However, talking about your reasons for leaving may not be an easy thing to do, especially if you have been in a toxic environment for a while and just want to leave it behind as soon as possible.

I wouldn’t blame the departing professor for skeptically thinking (or saying), "Now you’re asking me?" Surely some of these administrators and colleagues who are suddenly so curious had some idea of what was going on and did nothing. And even if they didn’t know that you in particular were being badly treated, if there were similar incidents involving other faculty members—as was the case at the university discussed in my blog post—I can see why the exiting professor would be cynical about being asked for details now, when it is too late. Nevertheless, if administrators are asking, perhaps you should tell them what happened.

And if they don’t ask? That is a more difficult predicament. If you feel you have some important points to make and you can summarize the key issues in a succinct and compelling way, it is worth providing the information on your own initiative. Perhaps someone with the power to change a toxic environment will be receptive to your story.

Should you name names? You’ve decided to talk about this toxic environment with your supervisors. Now the question becomes: Should you describe the problems only in a general way? Simply saying, "my work environment was hostile" is vague. But if that’s all you feel comfortable saying then an administrator who is so inclined can do some digging to figure out what happened.

I think it is fine to name names if you do so in a straightforward, convincing way, with specific examples of problematic interactions and events. Ideally, you could also offer some documentation.

In the original post debated on my blog, some commenters worried that a departing professor who named names would be "tarnished" or seen as a "troublemaker" for "mudslinging"—doing more harm to herself than good for others. If you are concerned about that, test the waters by giving a general answer about the real reason you are leaving, and get a sense for whether it would be welcome (and wise) to provide more information.

Your career plans may also be a consideration at this point. Are you staying in academe? Will you have tenure at your new job? Will those "named" have any future role in your career? Will they, for example, write reviews of your work, letters of recommendation, or other evaluations? Your fear of repercussions may be well founded, complicating an already difficult decision about how much to say.

An additional fear for members of underrepresented groups, including women in some academic disciplines, is that their complaints will be taken as evidence that hiring people "like them" causes problems for an institution. For example, if a woman complains about a toxic environment, some might assume she was the problem, and, therefore, that women tend to cause problems. It is not difficult to see why a female professor who has worked in that sort of environment would hesitate to explain why she was leaving.

In the best-case scenario, whether you give only a vague explanation or spill all the ghastly details, concerned administrators and others will be brought face-to-face with the problem and can determine whether to investigate and deal with it.

What needs to change? Is the toxic environment the result of a few unpleasant people, or is it embedded in the very structure of the place? I would guess that in most cases, the answer is both. Even if only one person is primarily responsible for creating a hostile workplace, there may be an institutional culture that does not allow such problems to be recognized and resolved effectively.

I know of one case in which an early-career faculty member was bullied (for lack of a better term) by a senior professor who was good friends with the department chair. The young female scholar could not turn to the chair for help, and other senior professors expressed sympathy but did nothing. It apparently didn’t occur to her that she could talk to someone beyond the department about the situation, and she thought her only option was to leave.

In a case like that, I can think of several necessary changes: (1) Increase awareness among faculty members and other employees about the resources available for safe reporting of such mistreatment, and (2) instill a culture that would make such bullying unacceptable. One way to do that: Appoint new department heads and other administrators who consider such behavior problematic and will do something about it.

From time to time I hear critics say that early-career academics seem to need a lot of "hand-holding" and should not be so sensitive. In my experience, however, most of the people who feel that their work environment is toxic and want out are, in fact, very tough individuals who have put up with a lot and just want to focus on the work that they love (and were hired to do) without the interference and disrespect of people in their own department.

It’s too bad that some people have to leave their academic homes to find a respectful place to work, but perhaps by revealing that reality, the place will change for the better.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.