ARE LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION THE ACE UNDER THE SLEEVE OF BULLY MENTORS? SURVIVING BULLYING IN HIGH EDUCATION
Letters of recommendation (LORs) are key in the process of hiring for academic and research job positions. Subjective perspectives and bias can jeopardise scientific careers. Celia Arroyo-López, member of the MCAA GEDI and Policy Working Groups, discusses abuses and misuses related to bully mentors and their targets.
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION AND RESEARCH
In the process of hiring for academic and research job positions, LORs provide supplementary information for the selection panel not directly obtained from the applicant’s curriculum vitae. Many selective processes rely on professional references, including LORs, by the applicants’ colleagues and/or supervisors for the identification and selection of suitable candidates. Therefore, getting good remarks and statements from referees8 often becomes an extra source of stress and anxiety for the applicants.
Academic LORs are completed by observers describing the professional achievements and abilities of the aspirants. The information assessed generally includes educational background, skills and experience (McCarthy & Goffin, 2001), as well as non-cognitive patterns like interpersonal communication skills and traits of your personality, thoughts, behaviours and attitudes (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman, & ter Weel, 2008). Theoretically, the information provided must be objective, factual, verifiable and “made in good faith” (McConnell, 1993; Wright & Ziegelstein, 2004). However, most evaluation processes rely on subjective performance evaluations that influence the accuracy and reliability of the LORs (Wright & Ziegelstein, 2004).
USES, ABUSES AND MISUSES
Thus, applicants do not only need good qualifications, professional and personal skills, and a great number of high-impact publications. They also need to be liked by the colleagues and supervisors who will act as their referees. Referees who like their targets describe them more positively. However, those who do not like their targets are more eager and motivated to provide information about the negative aspects of the target (Leising, Erbs, & Fritz, 2010). LORs represent, then, an important source of bias based on gender/LGTBQ/race/disability (Dutt, Pfaff, Bernstein, Dillard, & Block, 2016; Lin et al., 2019; Schmader, Whitehead, & Wysocki, 2007; Trix & Psenka, 2003). Lenience bias occurs when individuals are rated above their real aptitudes. On the contrary, under strictness bias, individuals are unfairly low or negatively rated (Angelovski, Brandts, & Sola, 2016). These considerations might justify the perception of the academic hiring process as opaque with no clear public, fair and equitable criteria of evaluation (Aamodt, 1999; Fernandes et al., 2020).
Getting good LORs is essential in the establishment and perdurance of our scientific careers. However, as far as I know, little has been publicly said about the misuses and wrongdoings associated with them.
8 I use the term “referee” to indicate a person who writes a LOR or provides references for an applicant. Thus, in this text, the term does not refer to the evaluators of articles in the publication system, although in some cases abusive behaviour could be carried out within this system too.
THE ACE UNDER THE SLEEVE: “I WILL GIVE YOU A BAD CREDIT AND REFERENCES”
Despite the possibility of taking legal action against authors of defamatory and intentionally misrepresenting letters (Aamodt, 1999), the truth is that it rarely happens; especially when one is at a very early stage of their career, or one lacks enough funds for the litigation. Libellous letters are not rare within the research system, especially when letters are confidential (Wright & Ziegelstein, 2004), resulting in harming and jeopardising the applicant’s reputation and career. It is not uncommon either to hear how abusive supervisors use LORs to intimidate their students or to retaliate against victims of labour abuse, harassment, bullying or mobbing, in most of the cases supported by the legitimisation of bully-type behaviours in the name of academic freedom (Keashly, 2019).
Under abusive supervisors and superiors, either one behaves “properly”, or one will receive bad references. In extreme cases, they may even get a refusal to write a LOR. Within an abusive system, those who do not behave “properly” are considered insubordinate and troublemakers. Reporting fraud, labour abuse, bullying, mobbing or any type of discrimination can bring bad consequences to victims, survivors or witnesses in the form of bad LORs, or the total absences of them. Even just claiming for a proper salary may be cause for abusive behaviour from superiors.
Abusive behaviour is not new in academia. It is a well-known trend generally ignored amongst faculties, peers, academic staff, students and colleagues in what Keashly and Neuman call the “power of peers”. The power of peers occurs when despite knowing the existence of misconduct, the (mis)conduct is actively ignored, resulting in its continuation and maintenance (Keashly, 2019) and causing substantial damages to the victims, and ultimately to the whole research system’s quality and integrity.
BRINGING LIGHT TO OBSCURITY
After dealing with labour abuses, bullying, and mobbing in academia, with no efficient support, I decided to come out and to initiate a campaign to bring to light the common cases of abuses we suffer in academic environments and the reasons why they are under-reported. As part of my healing process, I launched a small-scale anonymous survey to collect preliminary data; neither funds nor institutional support were used. Carried out between April and June 2020, the survey collected 53 responses (data not published yet). The survey was distributed using email lists and social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Slack and LinkedIn. While the great majority of respondents wanted to remain anonymous, some of them said they would be willing to go public. According to the survey’s results, abuses in academia are under-reported because victims and survivors are afraid of being considered “troublemakers”. More specifically, 75 % of respondents considered themselves victims of harassment in academia and 39.6 % witnessed it at some point in their careers. When asked why, based on their own experience, they think harassment/ bullying/mobbing is generally under-reported, and what were the victims’ main fears, the majority of those surveyed mentioned the end of their scientific careers (81.1 %). 62.3 % were worried about having bad LORs or being blacklisted. Also, not being believed or being too psychologically and emotionally affected to be able to report their situation were repeated responses (60,38 %). Likewise, fearing the termination of contracts (52.8 %), being badmouthed (47.2 %), and a lack of trust in the institutions and/or in academia’s human resources management (47.2 %) were frequent responses too. Curiously, some of them were concerned about protecting the bully and the institution from bad publicity (37.7 %). Lastly, a fear of a visa expiration or being deported was also noted (26.4 %). A visa-dependent person is more vulnerable. If one’s visa status is determined by the length of their contract or host programme, dealing with an abusive supervisor might be more complicated.
In general, it is interesting to notice that the main concerns of victims or witnesses are supervisor- or mentor- dependent, and not associated with their careers, skills or abilities. However, it is also interesting to note that, despite the lack of institutional and social support, victims and survivors are still willing to talk and share their own experiences. It is a communal catharsis, and the beginning of a healing process.
In summary, a poor LOR, or the lack of it, might jeopardise the opportunities of getting a job in academia, despite one’s scientific record. So, if our referees do not like us, or if we do not “behave properly”, we are more likely to get a bad LOR. This may hint at the existence of clear bias in academic LORs. We are meant to be strong and competitive within this extremely demanding environment; however, still little is considered about the real labour conditions. Are LORs a tool for the maintenance of the glass ceiling? I think so. In my experience, the fact of reporting discrimination and abuses has brought me defamatory LORs. Research in the era of COVID-19 and Open Science now has the opportunity to evaluate the problems concerning science, scientists and research, and to propose changes and improvements for a better science and a better future for new generations of scientists. Luckily, there is some hope for change, thanks also to the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA). The MCAA is one of the first (and sadly still few) organisations that are openly discussing bullying in academia. Hopefully, its work will be soon followed by other organisations.
MCAA GEDI AND POLICY WORKING GROUPS
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8. F. Lin, S. K. Oh, L. K. Gordon, S. L. Pineles, J. B. Rosenberg and I. Tsui (2019), Gender-based differences in letters of recommendation written for ophthalmology residency applicants. BMC Medical Education, 19, 476.
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12. F. Trix and C. Psenka (2003), Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society, 14(2), 191-220.
13. S. M. Wright and R. C. Ziegelstein (2004), Writing more informative letters of reference. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 19, 588-593.