Toxic work environments – including lab environments – are bad for everyone. They are utterly destructive to those involved, to the rest of the lab, and to the PI. We have discussed toxic mentors, problematic advisors, and mentoring styles, with the goal of understanding how to identify toxic situations and how to survive and get out intact. These situations are especially despicable due to power imbalances between PI and trainee.
But what happens when it’s not the mentor but a trainee that is the major source of problems in the lab? . This is a very different issue from toxic PIs – there isn’t the same kind of power imbalance, and there is much more protection for the PI than there is for trainees. Nevertheless, a problematic individual in the lab can cause massive amounts of stress for both the PI and the other trainees in the lab. We don’t often talk about “toxic” trainees, or even “difficult” trainees, or trainees that are making everything more difficult for everyone. Perhaps we should.
To be clear, I’m not talking about normal life-issues such as a relationship breakup, a family situation, a mental health issue. Anything that causes stress. Experiments failing over and over again. Unhappiness simply from being in the lab – whether that’s doing research, the specific research, or a personality conflict within the lab. It could be due to a personality conflict with the PI themselves. These things happen all the time, they are hard, they are often transient, and they rarely cause serious problems for other people in the lab.
I’m talking about the rare cases when something/someone spirals out of control and, despite attempts at interventions, has an ongiong negative impact on the other trainees in the lab, the research, and you as the PI. What would you do if one of your trainees came to you and described a situation in which they felt that one of the other trainees was causing major problems? That they, or others in the lab, felt unsafe with this person nearby? That they were concerned that research was not being done appropriately or others’ work was being sabotaged? Or even that they were disruptive and making everyone miserable? What if there are different stories being told to different people in the lab, keeping everyone off balance? Or academic misconduct? What if over the course of a couple of months, several other people in the lab had commented on the bad behavior of one person, and this corroborated your own observations?
When do you decide that a situation is “too much”?
What would you do?
More to the point, what CAN you do?
On the face of it, having a trainee in the lab that is causing problems seems like a simple issue to fix: the PI can intervene in some way to disarm the problem, call on other people in the department/program to help, and if necessary remove the individual from the lab. But few things are this simple. What happens if you talk to the person, develop a strategy for moving forward, and… nothing changes? No-one really wants to push a trainee out just because they are having a difficult time, but at some point problems can become untenable. And (appropriately) there are safeguards for both students and employees to ensure fair process. In most institutions, you cannot terminate a post-doc or employee’s contract (after the probation period) without a lot of detailed documentation. Similarly, most programs cannot kick a student out of a lab without long running documentation and intervention by other faculty in the program.
Beyond what is possible, there is also fear of the rumor mill. If I remove a trainee from my lab for documented and egregious behavior, what is to stop rumors spreading about my unfair treatment of the student in question? Every program I have been a part of – whether as a student, post-doc, or faculty member – there has been a story on the grapevine about vindictive PI that was meaner than necessary to a student who ended up leaving the program. Sometimes this is the real story. More often it’s a much more complicated, longer running and frustrating story than that – a story that the student body cannot know due to privacy issues. There have also been (less frequent) stories about trainees that have terrorized others in the lab, and the PI was unwilling or unable to do anything. Again, the story is always more complicated.
In the end, regardless of the outcome, the PI usually survives, maybe not without scars, but what about other trainees in the lab? What about potential students who took one look at the lab and ran away? What about that lingering sense of guilt that perhaps there was something that one should have done, or could have done, to head off the situation before it spiraled out of control? And how can “next time” be prevented/avoided?
I’m also curious as to how many people have experienced someone in the lab (either as your peer or as your trainee) that was destructive? How did you deal with it? What support did you get? What support was available to the people in your lab? How would you do it differently next time?