On Lechery and Other Failings

Recently there has been some discussion about ‘what do professors do?’ in the press, with comments from fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry (and on my own blog here), with a major emphasis on leadership, mentoring, teaching and the desirability of not putting oneself first. Another key function, which intersects with those attributes but that was not highlighted, is writing references. For one’s students and postdocs this should be easy: one should know their strengths and weaknesses, have advised them how to improve the latter and be aware if they are likely to be able to overcome some flaw such as poor speaking ability, or overenthusiasm to the point of sloppiness. What is not so often talked about are the enquiries that are often made of senior academics about their colleagues in a much less formal way. If asked to write something down one can agonise over nuances of phrasing and be careful about what is omitted, even if hoping someone will read between the lines as to what is missing in the reference. But what should you do if you are asked for an off the cuff verbal response?

I was reminded of this recently when asked for my thoughts about a group of people whose names had been put forward for a senior advisory role. My first response to one of the names on this list, an eminent senior academic (though not a physicist) was ‘lecher’. Not a phrase I would want to utter in an unguarded moment even though I had had first hand experience of this chap’s behaviour. To be greeted, at a reception in a royal palace, with the comment ‘Oh I do like kissing games’ , followed up by attempting to act this out, means that I know what I’m talking about on this front. (He ignored my response that ‘I didn’t’.) It was clear from asking colleagues that his failings in this direction were well known but, as far as I could tell, not challenged despite – or perhaps because of – his seniority. So, when asked what I thought about this guy taking on a role in which lechery was unlikely to be a relevant criterion, it’s difficult to know how to respond. Maybe honesty would have been the best policy but in a semi-formal situation I preferred obfuscation, possibly the coward’s way out. Nevertheless it was obvious my body language conveyed I was unimpressed and the name was dropped.

This situation of being asked for an unwritten but honest opinion about colleagues at a comparable level is not so unusual, but I sometimes find myself worrying if my personal views are colouring my professional thoughts in ways that are themselves unprofessional. If someone has done bad science that is fine, then it’s easy to say that you feel they are too blinkered, or claiming too much or whatever your view may be. If someone is being considered for a headship of a department and you have seen them be dreadful committee chairs, falling into one of the less attractive character patterns I’ve described previously, it is no doubt reasonable to point out their failings in this direction. It is equally clear that, despite one’s firmly held conviction that someone is a paranoid, lying toad such words should never pass your lips. But what about if you are asked to comment on someone with whom you have had a long-standing run-in in vitriolic ways but without resolution? Even that can be dealt with straightforwardly by stating the case in a matter of fact way: ‘I don’t agree with Professor X and we have a substantial ongoing scientific disagreement,so I am probably the wrong person to ask’. But if someone has spent their life patronising you, carefully patting you on the head till you are fed to the teeth with it, even though you feel they are themselves just second rate? How do you describe them in ways that are honest without allowing personal annoyances to creep in? Or what about the person who is being considered for a senior leadership role but you feel is totally self-serving if brilliant? Their inability to support junior colleagues is relevant to their ability to lead, but your views may be coloured by the particular junior individuals who have moaned at you about said behaviour and not a truly representational cross-section of the individual’s behaviour. In that case – in which I have found myself – I feel one really must raise the issue, and the circumstances in which you know about it, to allow the institution to make formal enquiries or at least make their own mind up.

The trouble is, none of these sort of questions fall under normal HR rules. This isn’t a case of a search committee gathering letters of recommendation, this is the kind of thing that can occur at a much earlier stage, and you can start blackening someone’s name completely accidentally. Sitting next to an overseas professor once at a conference dinner, someone who is a good friend of mine, we were having a lively conversation when he snuck into the conversation a question about a professor we both knew. Being suitably lubricated with alcohol and talking, as I thought, to a friend, I told him my views. The next day he came clean this person was being looked at by an institution he was involved with. I was livid. I felt I had had been tricked into an openness I would never have expressed if formally asked my views, and I told the person that my views obtained under these circumstances should be disregarded. Of course, comments once heard cannot be forgotten, asking for them to be disregarded is unlikely to mean they are struck through mentally, although I was subsequently reassured other people’s views had coincided with mine. But imagine life where you couldn’t dissect colleagues over a glass of wine with a friend in case your remarks were going to be used in a more official capacity at a later date – it could become very boring!

I may feel my comments are always justified, whatever the circumstances, I hope I never make malicious or in some sense unsubstantiated remarks. But they may still be personal remarks about character rather than purely professional statements, and hence bound to be more subjective even if still highly relevant to many roles. But I can see another aspect to this issue. The men who say of women they aren’t, for instance, tough enough to cope with some role because they (quite possibly unconsciously) assume that women simply cannot do some task merely because they are a woman. The remark may be made with the best of intentions, perhaps protecting the sweet little woman, but…..the damage may be done on totally unreasonable grounds. Is that so different from what I personally feel justified in saying about individuals (of either sex)? I would like to think it is, but it may sometimes be hard to know where the line is being drawn.

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14 Responses to On Lechery and Other Failings

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    Interesting comments, Athene, and as usual you bring up tricky issues that fall into gray areas and can’t necessarily be resolved in terms of general principles. Meaning, what one one say in way of advice? It depends on each and every individual circumstance? And then if someone with your experience and sensitivity has difficulty sometimes sorting out how to respond, then what about the rest of us?

    From my own more limited experience, I have felt that the ‘straight-shooter’ approach is overall usually preferred, although it may well have gotten me into trouble in some cases. However, I (perhaps naively) feel that if one garners a reputation for something, after awhile there is a little credit attributed. So someone who is known for solid science will sometimes get a break on certain counts due to his/her reputation with peers. I think the same probably is true for issues such as those that you note: if you are known as someone who says what you think, people will be less likely to expect responses that are tailored with subtle omissions–and at the same time, you will still be respected for your honest responses.

    It seems to me that this is just as much inherently related to our own character as anything else. Your anecdote about a colleague and friend gaining information during an informal chat, and you later feeling ‘taken advantage of’ suggests to me that despite your senior position, you have still managed to maintain a very trusting nature. Good for you! For whatever reasons and life experiences that I have gone through, I find myself much more suspicious in nature–and unless truly in contact with one of a handful of people who are true close friends–I would probably be more likely to consider the reasons why someone would ask such questions about a fellow colleague. Given my ‘direct style,’ at the same time I would not be upset by that and would still be likely to give the same honest type of answer that you did–but not regret it afterwards.

    The bottom line–you are better cut out for science than politics! And that’s a compliment.

  2. stephenemoss says:

    Interesting post, and interesting that you make the distinction between “personal remarks about character and purely professional statements”. The thing is, character does become especially important in the context of many senior appointments, since the competence of an individual to e.g., be head of department, carries with it a range of responsibilities that cannot be simply aligned with publication track record or grant income. Character is of course extremely difficult to assess, and will inevitably be judged on the basis of personal remarks. This doesn’t sit comfortably in the modern world where individuals are depersonified, metricised and quantified, but I think should not be devalued as a result. I suspect your off-the-cuff remarks, despite being obtained somewhat covertly, probably said more about the individual concerned than could be gleaned through any amount of formal appraisal.

  3. Rachel says:

    Universities and companies do inevitably have informal networks and personal relations do affect work. What always struck me about Cambridge and also some companies I’ve worked in is how certain organisations essentially have a structure that makes these informal networks different for men and women and also demographics. When conversations and contributions are sought over a formal hall table at 7pm or a competitive lunch time squash league / 5-a-side or friday night after work drinks, cliches and networks form, conversations are had and those who have small children to put to bed, elderly parents to care for or can’t afford to live in Cambridge get slightly sidelined. The fact the conversations discussed all seem to have been semi-social might be telling (and they weren’t talking about you because you were there – which may be half the battle). Everyday work often offers little opportunity for chat or ideas bouncing.

    Anyway I have to say AtheneD was critical to getting my MSci HREM project done – not as a role model – but because she bought the Cav. library the only flipping decent microscopy textbooks they had…. thx 🙂

  4. I do take your point about feeling ambushed, but at the same time the lechery accusation strikes me as interesting and important. I assume that, in terms of statistical probability, that the senior accademic who asked this was male. This I find somewhat reassuring, if my assumption is correct. I’ve also blogged about this issue at http://clairewarwick.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html. I am genuinely intrested to know what, as senior women, we can do about this.

  5. Sarah Burge says:

    I do think that personal behaviour (such as lechery) and professional behaviour are inseparably intertwined. Too many senior academics get away with unacceptable behaviour because “oh, they’re brilliant/have lots of grants/have 7 Science papers in the past 3 years” as if that’s some kind of excuse for rudeness, boorishness or what have you. If we put up with it, it’s a passive acceptance that, actually, it’s okay. And I’m glad that Athene, you pointed out to this chap that his comments were unacceptable.

    If they’re so smart, common decencies shouldn’t be beyond them. I’ve seen the havoc that can be wreaked by inappropriate personalities, and for me it’s a key factor in choosing who I work with – and now I have my own team, in choosing who works for me. I don’t want my work to be associated with people who come with such baggage as a reputation for rude behaviour. Science is full of smart people with good manners – I’d far rather work with them.

    As an aside, I’m Irish, and I think as a whole we tend to be rather more outspoken than the English. It took me a long while to realise that it doesn’t seem the done thing here to volunteer your frank opinion about people as a matter of course! I’ve learnt to moderate myself but, like Steve, I still prefer to be frank if I’m asked outright.

  6. maggi says:

    Athene, if the person is a brilliant scientist but has significant personality or ethical issues, perhaps that’s exactly what you should say. In particular if someone is to lead a team, be head of department, principal of college etc, their personal skills and ethical behaviour is a vital part of their success at the job.

  7. ‘Lechery’ is just a sex-specific form of bullying. I see no problem with objecting to somebody being in a senior position because they are a bully and are therefore an extremely poor leader.

    It isn ‘t less reprehensible because it’s “only” being done to women.

  8. Mike says:

    I think it’s important to add that anyone in the position of assessing a candidate would be acting in a less than professional manner if they were to solicit “informal references” at an inappropriate time, based on incomplete information given to the “referee”.

    If one were to give a non-professional opinion under informal circumstances (as I understand your description above), one certainly shouldn’t feel guilty upon discovering that there was more to the circumstances than were apparent. That’s much easier said than done though.

  9. Steve – many people have implied I’m not cut out for politics! I think the danger of straight talking is when you throw out remarks that aren’t in the least relevant because you feel strongly. I probably tend to err on the cautious side as a result, at least until specifics arise or I’m pressed.

    Absolutely character does come into senior roles, which is why I made the remark I did about the self-serving individual. That I did feel needed to be spelled out to the organisation enquiring. But how one judges someone does depend on one’s own character. There are people who I feel antagonistic about whom I’m assured by other people are delightful. Maybe I’m a bad judge of character, or maybe it’s just that whatever strengths they have jar with me. Or, more tellingly, maybe they’re someone whom I once felt didn’t ‘appreciate’ me/ my science in some way and that has left a bad memory: for instance, those people who doze through my seminars as in the last pos!

    You’re absolutely right about informal networks which may be in danger of excluding people, though I doubt Cambridge is (much) worse than other places in this regard. But that is a different sort of problem from the one-on-one questioning I was alluding to in this post. This is much more ad hoc and less systemic. However, there is no doubt who gets asked such questions depends on who is ‘known’ to the questioner, which undoubtedly could also lead to other sorts of exclusion. Thanks for the thanks, by the way!

    I’m with you all the way about inappropriate behaviour, as I wrote about previously. I think these are tricky situations, and hard to come out of with dignity. Complaining at other times to other people – or indeed spelling out that someone is a lecher etc – may work, but can also backfire. It is undoubtedly easier as one is more senior, but is still immensely tricky, and often avoiding people is the only way to go. This goes for Maggi’s comments too. Unfortunately too often people trying to hire people can still look the other way about people’s bad behaviour in my experience.

  10. cromercrox says:

    In journalism there is, in principle at least, a simple distinction here, between comments made ‘on the record’, and ‘off the record’. The facts on the ground, though, when dealing with journalists (and I should know, because I are one, but I have been on both sides of the fence here) are that in any encounter with a journalist, or indeed with anyone seeking any information whatsoever, no matter in what situation, and especially when lubricated, everything is ‘on the record’ even if either or both parties agree that it isn’t. And, these days, walls have ears. Remember the recent case when an off-the-record conversation between Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama was picked up and reported – about Binyamin Netanyahu? Enormous consequences might follow from the reporting of what was a private conversation in which two people were talking frankly but informally about a third. Whereof you shouldn’t speak, therefore you should be silent.

  11. Claire – Sorry to be so slow responding, due to travel making it harder to access your blog. You’re absolutely right and I was rather hinting at this: senior staff need to feel able to confront/complain about the sort of behaviour your blog covers. But too often it’s one person’s word against another,or a defense of ‘I meant no harm’ that makes it so hard to deal with. I wrote about this sort of thing previously, and I have no real plan to stop people in their tracks. I think zero tolerance ought to be the way to go, but it is difficult to translate into practice. I am quite sure the senior: junior balance does come into it but, as some of the things I described here and previously, are essentially current, being a senior woman is not sufficient to make you immune from bad behaviour of all kinds. Anyone else got ideas?

  12. Sharon Saunders says:

    I come into this discussion from a slightly different but related angle. To me the postings here are alluding to a wider question of how can we support and guide each other to navigate our way around the ‘shadow’ system of an organisation without tipping over the proverbial apple cart in the ‘legitimate’ system of the organisation? So I guess speaking out (albeit in a blog forum) is a starting point because at least there is public acknowledgement of what is actually hapening in the ‘shadow’ system and others can connect into that experience and think about how they might respond or indeed have responded themselves….

  13. Rachel says:

    I disagree, the one-on-one questioning doesn’t happen via a phone call or email to the office (whilst mentally “on the job”) – phone call out of the blue you’re in the mindset “this is work”. Those fuzzy networks where there’s an implied friendship/social network, a social context (dinner/drinkies) that’s where you let your guard down but also where there are bonds of trust, where the social-professional boundaries blur. I think as a university Cambridge does have a slightly stranger network than most universities. Virtual offices and teams where you might not see you team mates for 5 years (as I haven’t) are in someways less fuzzy, everythings via email so you often double check and think “I’m putting this in writing”. If I get a CV – I google, I facebook, I LinkedIn, I Flickr, Usenet never dies – throws up the weirdest links of people to sound out (mostly they never know why). I rely on those informal networks to throw up unspoken truths – perhaps the unofficial comment you’d have never have spoken was a truth to be outed? Perhaps the solution is to draw a very hard between work and friends?

    • I should state that the conversations/situations I describe actually did not refer to internal Cambridge, whether it has strange set of networks or not. One referred to an overseas organisation, one to a non-academic one. Within Cambridge with internal questioners I would know much more what to expect. It is the random, unexpected verbal questions that are more disturbing. And undoubtedly the very fact that the questions are verbal not written is relevant. Everyone knows people will be more honest/open/(or of course malicious) in the spoken word compared with the written one..

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