Lab Mess–Everybody Does All of This Once in a While


A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about complaints about creating a mess within one’s work area:

“The entire lab has come to me to complain about you.” This was what my supervisor told me. I completely accept that I am absent-minded and may forget to keep things in their proper place. Truthfully (10 times in 10 months). But so does all my colleagues. It’s a laboratory! Sometimes people are in a hurry to finish their experiments, and it’s already really late and things are forgotten to be replaced. I have even seen the lab technicians (who apparently have gotten together to speak about me) have done things absent-mindedly. 

As for my real work, with my experiments it is up to date, my hypothesis is good, and I even sometimes work on Sundays. So I can safely say that I am an average hardworking person.

But not only did my supervisor say that my colleagues have come to complain to him about me, but he also told me that he was willing to “punish” me for a period of time but “the people who had gotten together ” just wanted me to correct my actions instead.

I am  confused and angry. I accept that yes I forget, and therefore, yes sometimes people will find things misplaced. But this to no instance has jeopardized mine or any other individual’s experiments.

So therefore, does my actions qualify for a punishment to the extent of a suspension for 2 weeks (which was not passed because my colleagues just wanted me to be corrected).

To be more honest these (below) are what I had done:

1. I left an avocado in the office that started to go bad ( it caught fungus) and I had forgotten about it.

2. I left a box containing ice and few cell tubes overnight which instead had to be discarded the previous evening.

3. I sometimes forget tubes inside the workbenches.

4. I once threw gel into the sink and forgot to clean the sink.

5. I sometimes ask the same questions twice which bugs people.

6. I once touched a vial without gloves and our laboratory is S2.

7. I took additional media to stock up but instead was told not to (apparently it’s stealing media).

All these actions were accomplished within a period of 10 months.

But I don’t understand, everybody does all of this once in a while (I notice it but I never kept a note of it…it happens), except for the avocado and the gel. But is it so severe that they have to go behind my back and talk solely about me to my supervisor? And is it so bad that I have to be punished? Please tell me …
Signed–Confused and Angry

Dear Confused and Angry:

Congrats, you have provided ample information for us to understand why your colleagues, supervisor, and you are displeased with what’s happened within your research lab these past ten months. Hopefully colleagues’ complaints to the supervisor and your own self-assessment will motivate a lab-wide plan for more careful use of equipment, adherence to research protocol, and collaboration for all of you. Complaints and confrontation should result in more than blame and punishment. They should prompt candid investigation of what performance has caused your laboratory to not be of the stringent standards required. 

Your question indicates you want more than for the Workplace Doctors to side with you–to reinforce your anger at those who made complaints behind your back. Therefore, I propose for your consideration several impressions derived from your description. You can weigh if these impressions are fair:

  1. You want to do what is right as a researcher (your working on Sundays and doing other things not required tell me that), and you want to do what has been assigned as your lab responsibility. If you are hired for special care of the lab, your colleagues might have assumed your supervisor should be the one to correct what you do wrong rather than they. The same might be the case if you and you colleagues are equal in authority. Your list of seven items in error (or are at least questionable) indicates you have thought about your performance. What you are most angry about is that your colleagues complained to you supervisor, and you also are angry that your supervisor expressed unhappiness about your performance.
  2. Proper research lab rules are not in place. You imply others in the lab sometimes do what is wrong, and you have not complained about that. However, if all your coworkers made the same number of mistakes as you did, would not the lab be in even more disarray? 
  3. Staff meetings are either few or they fail to collaboratively review what is wrong and fail to correct what should be.  
  4. Your supervisor has failed to monitor your lab and waited too long to confront you. Also he has not seen or corrected mistakes of others in the lab.

In light of these impressions, what is your best way of coping with your anger and developing a reasonably compatible working arrangement? In no special order, 

  • Put your anger to use by candidly speaking with at least one colleague. Be upfront about how disappointed you are that some colleagues (probably technicians) complained to the supervisor. Ask this individual if you are wrong to be angry and displeased they took their complaints to the supervisor and not to you. Probably such a conversation will lead to that individual saying they had told you and you didn’t take them seriously. You might also discuss what you would like to be the rule among colleagues when they see something wrong and how such understandings might become explicit.
  • Focus your anger on how you would manage the lab if you were supervisor. If you were supervisor, would confront someone like you earlier about things things you see as wrong? Would you be more aware of what is going on? Would you set forth the dos and don’ts for the research and lab? Would you have regular staff meetings to surface what’s good and what is not?  Now that you have thought through what you would do if you were supervisor, will you have the courage to raise these questions with this supervisor who said he wanted to discipline you? Or if you choose to return with your anger and remain silent, will that eat inside you sourig your relationship with him? Do you owe him an apology and will you pledge to be more mindful about what is good and not good within the lab? 

These two areas are more than enough for an agenda, that, if addressed, will prove effective in getting an answer to your question: is what happened so bad that I have to be punished? Lack of candid communication about behavior has caused the situation that has angered you. Candid communication can correct and prevent that from happening again. Productive and harmonious working relationships don’t just happen. They require concerted effort. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. I hope you make time to tell me if my response to you question makes sense and what you have the courage to do if anything. –William Gorden