Three Techs

The considerable efforts of the academic side of the scientific team (the PI, postdocs, grad student and undergraduates) depend heavily on the efforts of a variety of technical staff in many types of biomedical research. I already discussed the value of the laboratory technician, meaning the individuals who are hired by the PI to work specifically for her within her lab. There are also a variety of institutional support technicians who work to provide needed skills and resources that are shared across many labs. Examples include scientific core facilities providing anything from specific high budget equipment to cost-effective routine assays. Other support may come from shops that manufacture custom lab equipment, animal care staff, human subjects medical support, information technology and graphic design experts.
I depend on several types of support staff in my work and find that, just as with techs in my own lab, good quality employees can be a critical difference in furthering the efficient, rapid and high quality progress of our work. So when I step back for a minute and notice that three of the most hard working, caring, responsible, smart, innovative and service-of-the-science-focused support techs that I have ever run across are no longer in the job anymore, well, I care. A lot.


This happened many years ago but I'm still a bit angry about it. Wait, what? Why angry? I mean, we're talking institutional employees here, things happen. People move around, seek better jobs or have personal issues, right? One of the points of having institutional units is so that they can provide a seamless service that doesn't depend on any one individual, ya? Sure. It's just that in this case, all three were African American men. You know, black.
These individuals did not leave their jobs because of issues having to do with their personal goals, no; they left because of having serious issues within the management structures of their support unit. Oh right, it was a single support unit. With a single ultimate head. And in all three cases the departure of the employee got ugly.
Did I mention how great these three techs were in the service of the research lab? They were excellent. One of them, perhaps I would categorize with other top-notch people in similar positions that I'd run across in my career. Two of them, however...I'm not sure I've seen their equal before or since. Now, it is true, that my focus on these cases was entirely selfish. They did a superlative job in support of the research science. Proactive. Trouble-shooting and problem-solving. In a way that is not, shall we say, universal among people working in all support units. Above and beyond the call of duty types of individuals. Of course, this is from the perspective of the research labs. Or perhaps even a limited subset (not just mine, but conceivably a bit limited) of the research labs. For all I know they were absolute nightmare cancer employees within their own units. But I doubt it. Their fellow techs had nice things to say about them, for the most part. Our research techs who interfaced with the support units didn't report anything skeevy about these guys. There are also a few other tidbits of behavior on the part of the upper echelons of this particular support unit that are supportive of a particular conclusion. Race was an issue.
Now, what does it mean to observe this? Is it calling someone out as a card carrying racist? No. No it is not. It is suggesting that someone might have some issues with bias which may be completely unconscious. Issues which are hard to even notice, nevermind prove, in such a setting. But when patterns emerge, well, people are going to draw certain conclusions. And beyond the loss of three specific and superior technicians, creating an impression of a biased unit (or ultimately an entire institution) is going to have an effect on those who seek to work for that institution. Word gets around. Many people at these levels of jobs get hired by word of mouth because someone they know already works there, alerts them to new job openings and provide a reference to their superiors. Well, one might as well apply to some other job if one thinks that career prospects in a given workplace might be affected, even the slightest, by your skin color.
As someone who wants the best available people working at my institution in support of my science, that potential and/or reality sucks. Hard. And this is just one of the reasons why it is entirely irrelevant whether the aforementioned head of the academic unit can be proved to be a conscious racist or not. It is totally beside the point. What is important is that perceptions of biased or racially unfriendly workplace practices not accrue to a support unit or a whole institution.
It strikes me that one of the many ways to combat such perceptions is to be fairly vocal and public about one's own desire for racial barriers of explicit or implicit nature not to impede the identification and participation of the best-of-the-best in the conduct of one's work. Again, it is about perception and not about proving beyond a legal standard of reasonable doubt that someone is or is not an intentional racist at heart. I can't do a thing about this latter but I damn sure can do something about the perceptions.
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Update 7/22/08: Lab Lemming on taking action against offensive jokes.

16 responses so far

  • neurolover says:

    "Again, it is about perception and not about proving beyond a legal standard of reasonable doubt that someone is or is not an intentional racist at heart."
    Yup, and it's what makes it so hard. Because, people (and the law, and those with an idealogical belief in people's fundamental ability to control every aspect of their behavior) make it impossible to bring up the issue of bias (in race or gender) without calling the person expressing the bias racist or sexist.
    I see this as a pretty deep philosophical issue, actually, and one that might relate to your own scientific conviction (I think) that addiction is not a matter of "will power." Neither is bias. But, those who believe that will can trump everything, think that they have the will to trump any instincts they might have towards bias. And, if they see statistical evidence of bias, their reaction is not to consider the possibility that they haven't trumped their preconceptions, but, instead to look for evidence supporting their bias. Which, of course, makes things much much worse, rather than better.
    (And, yes, I do associate this ideology, of will trumping everything, with a form of ideological conservativeness that conflicts with our ability to deal with humans as they are, rather than the way we will them to be).

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Part of this story is missing -- what were the tidbits and the patterns that led you to draw this conclusion?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    N-c, A lot of the story is missing and some minor details may have been changed slightly.
    What's your point? Looking to deny the possibility that there could be any racism or more pertinently, perception of same, anywhere anytime?

  • Zuska says:

    Because, people (and the law, and those with an idealogical belief in people's fundamental ability to control every aspect of their behavior) make it impossible to bring up the issue of bias (in race or gender) without calling the person expressing the bias racist or sexist.
    In my experience, the actual problem is slightly different: It is impossible to bring up an incident of unintentional bias or offensive without the offender concluding that you are in fact calling him or her a sexist or a racist. That is, merely pointing out to someone that they have given offense, however unintentionally - even if you explicitly say that you are not saying they are sexist/racist - evokes strong feelings of shame, embarrassment, anger, and denial. One of the ways in which the anger and denial work to help mitigate the shame and embarrassment is through the accusation that the person bringing up the issue has called you a racist/sexist. I am a good person! I am not a sexist/racist! You have called me one! (even though you didn't...) Therefore you must be WRONG! And since you are WRONG, I don't have to listen to you!
    It is a small percentage of people who are able to manage the (natural) feelings that arise when someone calls attention to the fact that we have unintentionally given offense or acted in a biased manner, and respond in a productive manner. It takes a hell of a lot of work on the part of the person who brings up the issue to help the person get to that point. It's exhausting.

  • Tony P says:

    Racism still rears its ugly head. I've seen it from several different perspectives.
    The first is with my SO who is black. I've seen people outright dismiss him simply because of his skin color. It disgusts me.
    The other was interesting too. When I assumed leadership of the I.T. unit at one job I had 3 direct reports, one of whom was black.
    Prior to starting the job I was told by the administration that the black person was the problem.
    What I found out and fairly quickly was that the 40 year old white woman was my biggest problem, and the biggest problem in the I.T. unit.
    The black girl was essentially just shoved aside, not allowed to touch anything, etc. I got her started as our webmaster but she took off with it from there. When it came time for training I allowed the older white woman to go once. When she didn't learn anything at the training from then on I sent my black employee.
    The black employee learned and retained what she'd learned. So I put her in charge of more and more like databases, and things of that nature and she took to it like a duck to water.
    Meanwhile I started marginalizing the shrew. Of the four of us in the unit, whenever the shrew called in sick it was like a vacation day. She made us that miserable.
    I recall one instance, the shrew had called out sick for two days. During those two days I was given a report on sick time taken by my staff and told that the shrew had the MOST sick time of anyone out of 275 staff.
    So when she called on the 2nd day to say she wouldn't be in the third day I asked her for a doctors note. I explained that I'd gotten the report and that just to protect herself she should bring one in the next day.
    I got to the office early the next day and she was there. I asked what she was doing there and she gets up and screams at me "You threatened me."
    After that it was all down hill. I wanted to fire her, administration wouldn't let me do it.

  • Tony P says:

    Forgot to mention, of my 3 staff the black woman is now the director of her own IT shop, and the one other male employee who was my network manager is now the IT director in my former shop, and the shrew still works there and I hear regularly from my former network manager about her latest antics and am asked for advice on how to deal with it.
    Without fail I always tell him, build up the documentation trail and fire her ass.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DM - Jump to conclusions much? I just wanted to actually, you know, hear the story.
    This type of post -- with events so utterly anonymized and redacted as to be vacuous -- is what drives me up a wall about certain other bloggers. The comments section then turns in to a peanut gallery of huzzahs and accusations of denialism, as this one has.
    I think you are a better blogger than that.

  • neurolover says:

    Zuska:
    Your reinterpretation of my statement is indeed what I actually meant. What I'm looking for (in many cases, some, of course, are more egregious, and should carry blame with them) is a "no fault" form of pointing out bias that argues for systemic fixes, rather than the casting of blame on the individual.
    Tony, BTW, "marginalizing the shrew" (applied to a white woman -- is anyone other than a woman called a shrew?) and "black girl" (would we say white boy to refer to an employee?) (an exception can be made if she actually was a child) are all examples of words that exhibit bias.
    And, in line with my other comments, I want to point that out assuming that you want to know that a black woman or a white woman might take offesne, so that you can modify your words and language rather than because I want to accuse you of being an -ist.

  • bill says:

    Completely frivolous off-topic aside: I can't believe you didn't title this post "The Joy of Techs".

  • DrugMonkey says:

    N-c, I know what you mean but I'm under many of the same constraints as other pseud bloggers. I am flattered that you put me in with bloggers like YFS and FSP, though! I'm not in that league.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    "It strikes me that one of the many ways to combat such perceptions is to be fairly vocal and public about one's own desire for racial barriers of explicit or implicit nature not to impede the identification and participation of the best-of-the-best in the conduct of one's work."
    Perhaps, but there are many better methods.
    You say these were three fabulous institutional techs who left due to management issues. Of the three, how many did you recruit into your own lab? How many did you take on as PhD students? How many did you set up great jobs at peer institutions where they wouldn't have to deal with such crap.
    Talk is cheap. Do you also walk the walk?

  • neurolover says:

    Talk is cheap when it has no consequences. Unfortunately, calling people on bias is usually not consequence-free. Talking here, on a semi-anonymous blog, is pretty cheap (though not worthless). I can only hope DrugMonkey is being a gadfly at home, too.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Talk is cheap. Do you also walk the walk?
    Yes. I do*. But as many observe (and certain assclowns regularly demonstrate), talk about one's cred IS cheap.
    So my question to you is what difference would it make? Does the validity of my comment in the OP hinge on how I personally reacted to the situations? How the institute or other investigators reacted?
    Of the three, how many did you recruit into your own lab? How many did you take on as PhD students? How many did you set up great jobs at peer institutions where they wouldn't have to deal with such crap.

    For the rest of the audience, there was supposed to be a general point at heart of this anecdote. Many of the type of support staff I am talking about would not have any interest in PhD studies in a given laboratory. We might very well be talking about a graphics artist or information technology specialist (that'd be the computer support folks). The notion of many institutional core-support units is that they do general stuff that the labs don't (or are even not supposed to) do for themselves. It is not always the case that superior staff in one of these units are in any sense ready to be assimilated into an individual laboratory's hierarchy.
    Funding vagarities do not always allow a PI to capitalize on a plum staff opportunity that arises because of a focal personnel blowup (whether that be institutional support units, another laboratory or random off-the-street).
    And finally, LL, did I actually say that I was a PI when this stuff was going down? I don't think I said that...
    __
    *I made my opinions known to some who had power to intervene when after some time I became convinced of the evidence. You may safely assume that my tone was not much different from here- I can't know if someone I don't know fairly well is in fact a racist...but I don't care about that, I care about acts and perceptions
    Last I checked some interesting upper-echelon staffing changes meant that it would be very hard for anyone to sustain a perception that there was no sympathy (with significant power) for relevant suspect classes in that unit.
    Since I was a relative peon, I conclude that there were additional sources of input or interpretation of the situation that supported my direction on perception-of-bias thing.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    OK then, on a more productive tack, what is the best way to fight institutional bigotry from the bottom of an institution that shows no inclination to change?

  • neurolover says:

    Lab Lemming --- that's a good question. I think one big thing is to actually to actually talk. To raise the issue of bias as a possible driving force for decisions being made. That forces people to think about it. And, those conversations come best from the people who see the bias but are not the recipients of it.

  • pffud says:

    The threats of nasty PR and lawsuits are helpful. Use with care and be subtle

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