Is your department toxic? A handy guide, with gifs

If animated gifs make things unreadable for you, click here for the gif-less version.

Your academic department can seem a bit like a family: you’re deeply connected, and they can be your best friends and biggest advocates, but also a tremendous source of stress. You’re forced to interact several times a year, so even if something goes wrong, you can’t necessarily avoid them. There’s often that one eccentric person who says the most outlandish stuff at holiday parties or meetings. And, like family, they pick you (for the most part); you don’t have a lot of choice in who you end up with.

The latter isn’t technically true, because you should be vetting a department when you interview, but a lot of the more toxic aspects of departmental culture can be hidden when you’re being recruited and everyone is putting their best face forward. Like an advisor or lab culture, the interconnected nature of academia means that departmental culture can make or break your experience if you’re not careful.

Collegiality is an under-appreciated side of what makes a good university. Job candidates often focus on location, or prestige, or resources (all good things!), but the simple question “are folks decent and good to work with?” is a hard question to ask, and to get an honest answer to. There are ways around this — I do think it’s good to ask, “what’s the department culture like,” or “is there anyone I should know about in advance?” when you interview. And if someone is unhappy (especially junior faculty who may be more sensitive to this), it’s surprisingly easy to get them talking. Which gets at the very core of why departmental collegiality is so important: if your department is not collegial, it’s isolating. It’s stressful. And it can seriously hamper departmental operations (think hiring, developing good mentoring programs or graduate curricula, teaching loads, etc.).

Faculty interactions aren’t always going to be cupcakes and rainbows, and conflict will inevitably arise. Anything true of a healthy relationship will also be true here. What’s important is not whether people argue or disagree, but how they do. So how can you tell the difference between a collegial and a toxic department? Here are some useful questions to ask, with handy animated gifs.

1) What is the department’s energy?


Unless you’re a black-velvet-draped Vampire LARPer, you can be positive at least some of the time.

A toxic department may be characterized by relentless negativity*. New ideas are shut down. People are bitter to the point of being hostile, and focus more on outlining problems than solutions. Ideas are met with jadedness, skepticism, sarcasm. In my experience, this attitude starts small, with a cadre of folks who hang out together (largely because other people eschew them for the emotional draining company). If you’re new, they may try to suck you in to their whirlpool of anger and unhappiness. Resist.



Is your department supporting you on your quest to be flawless?

In contrast, a collegial department laughs together in faculty meetings, celebrates accomplishments like tenure, has an active mentoring program, is welcoming to new faculty (people will ask you to coffee), shares space or equipment, is generous with their time and energy, has folks who bring  you lasagna when you break your arm and can’t cook, and welcomes new ideas or suggestions.

2) How does the department handle diversity?



Don’t be that dude.

In a toxic department, sexism, racism, or other bigoted behavior create a hostile environment. Suggestions about improving diversity are met with skepticism, resistance, or outright hostility. Micro- or macro-aggressions can turn a department toxic really quickly, because they can create bad feeling that cascades into other interactions. If you’re interviewing and the male colleagues who have taken you out are making sexist, transphobic remarks about a colleague colleague over dinner, maybe these are people you don’t want to work with (and the chair or university ombudsperson should probably know that). If you don’t discover this until you arrive, you’ve got a long slog ahead of you. A university ADVANCE program (if you have one), an ombudsperson, or diversity dean may help, but a university that doesn’t support diversity is often more worried about litigation than creating a healthy culture.


Does your department embrace diversity?

In contrast, a collegial department is open to improvement through workshops and training, and actively embraces diversity. It is welcoming to suggestions for improvement, recognizes areas it needs to improve, supports minority faculty and students, treats departmental staff well (class, gender, and racial inequality issues often play out in how the secretaries are treated), and has strong leadership that is receptive when you bring up problems. People will make mistakes, but colleagues will correct each other, and be open to correction.

3) How would you characterize the department’s social culture?



Apathy is often a sign of a deeper problem.

Sometimes a toxic culture reveals itself not with hostility, but with apathy. An apathetic or poorly unified department routinely doesn’t show up to seminars, coffee chats, happy hours, or defenses — or doesn’t even have a structure to bring people together (or only focuses on after-hours events that exclude faculty with kids, for example). Or, when people do get together, they just gossip about other members of the department. Gossip happens in every department, but if the only goal is schadenfreude or to belittle your colleagues, all you’re going to do is undermine trust and create bad feeling. ***


You can do both. I promise.

Collegial departments, in contrast, have a diverse range of opportunities for faculty, staff, postdocs, and students to come together to share ideas, celebrate accomplishments, and honor one another. There’s a strong support for attending seminar even when it’s outside your field Faculty aren’t all necessarily BFFs, but may gather for lunch or coffee to exchange ideas or talk shop. I know I’ll get pushback on this, because not everyone likes happy hours, seminars, or taking breaks, but I firmly believe that these are a sign of a strong department. ****

4) What are the departmental politics like?


If this is what faculty meetings are like, you may have a problem.

A toxic department has clear factions. They often form because of disciplinary divides (the applied versus “pure” earth scientists, or the molecular versus whole organismal biologists, the literature versus compositional English professors, etc.). These fissures can undermine a department, creating disciplinary but also practical splits about how to allocate funds, who to hire, etc. Hiring is especially tricky — failed searches are often (but not always) a clue that there’s some factional split and the department can’t rally.***** In a toxic department, disagreements routinely turn into fights, and these can be personal and nasty. This is often the result of weak departmental leadership; a chair’s job is to balance personal forces in the department and prevent factions from developing.

thumbs up

Compromise comes from mutual trust.

In contrast, a collegial department has disagreements, which may even be heated, but these are resolved personably in the end. Once a decision is made, the department rallies — especially for a job search outcome. Faculty are respectful of those outside their discipline, and are able to see what the department needs as a whole, rather than merely advocating for what they personally want. Compromises are made, and people don’t hold grudges. Everyone feels that they can speak up in a meeting and they will be heard and respected.

In an ideal world, you’d be able to spot a toxic department before you took a job, but that’s now always possible. If you’re in a toxic department, you have a few options: 1) look for other jobs. This may seem extreme, but if you’re genuinely unhappy, this is a good reason to keep an eye out.** 2) Wait it out. Often, the toxic elements in a department are senior faculty, who will gradually phase out. You can work to create a more positive culture — a departmental happy hour or a junior faculty support lunch — which will be in place when the toxic elements depart. Or, you can talk to your chair. I was struggling with a combative, sexist emeritus professor, so I talked to departmental leadership, and they asked this person to take a back seat in discussions. It worked. 3) Ask your chair, dean, or an ombudsperson to organize a departmental workshop with an outside third party like Sustained Dialog.

Is your department toxic or collegial? How did it get that way? How has it affected you? What have you done to make your department better?

* Yes, there will always be an element of this, especially if your university is going through tough times. Stress, anger, or sadness are all perfectly valid responses. But negativity shouldn’t be a defining element of your personality or your departmental culture.

** But remember not to be too negative about your current position when you’re applying. Hiring committees are on the lookout for people who are going to make good colleagues, so if you come across as someone who will tip that balance by trash-talking your current department, that actually reflects more poorly on you.

***This is really hard to combat: you can say “I am not comfortable with this conversation; please don’t talk to me about our colleagues,” but that’s not going to endear you to the gossiper.

**** This is based on my own experience. And I don’t buy the argument that people don’t have time for this stuff, or that it takes critical time away from the bench. Every single “powerhouse” department I’ve visited or been a member of have all had multiple, well-attended social events.

***** Or, if someone is actually brought on, there can be resentment. A female friend in a mostly-male department was told “half of us didn’t want you” when she was hired. That’s a big bowl of NOPE right there.



21 thoughts on “Is your department toxic? A handy guide, with gifs

  1. You just described the department in which I was a postdoc…every single point.

    This reminds me of just how incredibly thankful I am to now be a junior faculty in a department that actually accepts and encourages everyone.

  2. Note: These things are unique to academia. Most all of these issues are equally applicable to many different kinds of workplaces. (Though indeed they are spot-on, in general!)
    Also, I’ve seen situations where the department itself is collegial, but set against a more toxified overall university/college administration, which is where the negativity, anti-diversity, anti-socialization, and/or heavy factional politics, etc. lies.

    • I’m guessing you mean “these things are not unique to academia.” Having worked both in and out of academia, I agree. But this is an academic blog, so that was my focus. 🙂

    • Yes, “all of these issues are equally applicable to many different kinds of workplaces.” But a major difference between toxic workplaces inside and outside of academia is tenure and the difficulty of leaving and landing a position elsewhere once tenured. There might be an ebb and flow of voting strength among factions with new hires and retirements, but the conflicts persist.

    • I’m sorry to hear that. I’m looking into embedding a .pdf or alternate option for those who aren’t into the .gifs.

      • you are very kind to your readers – much kinder than I would be. If I don’t like something I see, I just skip down the page (or, online, I don’t click to open it). I wouldn’t ask the writer to change it, just for me; and I wouldn’t change something I wrote just for the whim of the reader.

  3. The problem is, human nature is the same everywhere and even the most convivial department may have some creepy people in it. And even if we find ourselves in a generally toxic place, sometimes it is not practical or possible to change our workplace. In these cases, how do people cope? How do people perhaps create a micro-environment in which they can work happily and productively, trying to avoid the politics and personalities? Can it be done? We will never have a perfect workplace.

  4. I think I landed myself in some hotwater (my department tested TOXIC on all four accounts). I did not see it coming, and it’d be very complicated to try to leave after only 8 months. My friends and family say it’d be helpful to find someone from the institution to talk to – but how to do you determine who you can trust in a gossipy institution? I mean before getting as formal as talking to the diversity dean…

    • Even when one does see it coming during the on campus interview, the job market is so bad in many disciplines that one often has no choice but to accept the offer.

  5. “Or, you can talk to your chair.” And when the chair is a major reason for the toxicity of the department, then what?

    • Poor department chairs are usually the main reason for toxic departments. Many chairs have such poor leadership skills the only way they can survive is to foment factions, and once established in a department that “divide and conquer” model is adopted by one chair after another. The only way out of that is an outside chair hire.

  6. Regarding the first point about collegiality – There may be a high degree of toxicity that is hiding behind some colleagues’ collegiality. Be cautious about colleagues who are eager to cross the personal-professional boundary, as there may be complicated but invisible drama. In other words, not all offers of coffee and mentoring come from a place of generosity. Some come from a place of professional control and others come from very unhealthy needs for personal validation, and it’s hard to tell the difference.

  7. I think that toxic department stem from a weak upper administration. Generally, most college admin people will not be willing to make change. In turn, this leaves the departments with little room to grow. Whatever positive energy was there will be consumed immediately making for a slow burn

    • I absolutely agree. It begins at the top and when there is no one to talk to because everyone is afraid, it affects a whole campus.

  8. I came to this article looking for help and it’s not always the “older” prof who brings negativity. I was told about 10 years ago that “we” need to get those old people to retire so we can have their jobs. Instead of working hard and bringing good energy and ideas, many if my colleagues focus on getting others “out of their way.” The ring leader has taken over and seemingly overnight, i became one of the oldest and the main target from above and below. I have at least another 5 years before I can retire and It is my decision, not theirs. The toxicity comes from our so-called “leader,” who, over the past couple of years, has worked to isolate me. I am not invited to (or even told about) their writing groups, division committees, , team teaching groups, t-shirt orders for the groups, (no, I take that back — our secretary came to me and asked if I wanted a t-shirt. I said that I really didnt know anything about the group and she said that i could at least support them. Of course I wanted to support them, so I ordered a t-shirt. One day, they were all wesring their t-shirts. I guess mine didnt come in.). My “Junior” tenured colleague makes no secret of the fact that she wants my job — but only because she wants Summer money. Its painful but I dont let on . Its like junior High . I am very strong and very professional and so good that the toxic “Leader” cant use evaluation to demote me. At my age, a Faculty job search isnt an option and I cant afford to retire just yet. So I am stuck. Just making the best of it but its really toxic.

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