Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Bizarre Behavior

I once was faced with a serious situation involving a mentally unbalanced lab worker.  I was co-supervising (along with my husband who was the PI) a young lab technician (whom I'll call "Ted") who began displaying erratic behavior.  Ted would fail to show up for work, later claiming to be sick.  He misplaced lab supplies and equipment and started accusing others of hiding these items from him.  However, he never did anything really alarming in our presence; he was very quiet and appeared to be quite harmless.  We never recognized just how disturbed he was during this period.  Just as we were contemplating not renewing his contract because of his unexplained absences, Ted suddenly quit.  We later learned from graduate students about more bizarre behavior; they did not tell us about it at the time and were apparently trying to "protect" him from being fired.

Ted was ultimately committed to a psychiatric institution with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.  He escaped from the institution and went to Washington, DC where he spent about a year trying to get in to see various members of Congress.  We later learned that he was telling people my husband was an international spy who was controlling his mind (Ted at first thought it was the graduate students in our lab, but later decided that it had to be the PI).

After having no luck in DC, he came back to our city and began stalking my husband.  Ted managed to talk to several professors and administrators at our university regarding his suspicions about my husband.  I was by this time uneasy, because Ted was quite smart and had been a chemistry major (think bombs, poison).  I knew it was just a matter of time before he decided that if he eliminated the person controlling his mind (my husband), his problems would be solved.

His parents in the meantime were frantically trying to have him picked up and re-institutionalized.  We would let them know when he showed up, but by the time anyone arrived, he had slipped away.  He continued to elude the local deputy sheriffs who were searching for him.  After a while, he went back to DC.

Unfortunately, the story has an unhappy ending.  Ted was living on the street in DC, where someone stabbed and killed him.

My husband and I were both quite young, just out of graduate school when this happened.  We had never been faced with a mentally unbalanced associate before.  Now, if someone in my lab showed a sudden change in personality or exhibited behavior that frightened other employees, I would be more proactive in getting help.

Here are some recommendations from the experts for PIs in such a situation:

1.  Conduct a discreet interview with the employee and treat the discussion as confidential.  The purpose of the interview is for you to determine if there is a problem and if the employee is still capable of carrying out their job duties.  If other employees have complained about specific behavior, bring this up in the context of concern about the work environment and meeting project deadlines (I would avoid saying that co-workers have complained and instead say something like, "I've noticed that you seem to be upset about something...are late turning in work....have come in late on several occasions....etc.").

2.  Have questions written out beforehand and keep notes during the interview.

3.  Refrain from any diagnosis or discussion of "mental health"; if the employee expresses problems of that nature, encourage them to seek help (perhaps refer them to an employee assistance program, if available).  Explain that your purpose is to help them get help if they want it (don't try to force it on them though).

4.  If the situation warrants, turn it over to HR (perhaps coordinate your actions with them).  I've found that it's always safer to talk with someone in HR to let them know that there is a potential problem and what your plan of action is going to be.  Note that discussing the situation with HR does not constitute defamation, which involves false statements.  It is your responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for all your employees, and you must take action if the workplace is disrupted by an employee's actions.

5. If the complaining employees are female, you might be dealing with a sexual harassment charge. As the PI and supervisor, it is your responsibility to take action in such cases.  Failure to do so could be costly for you and your institution.  Also keep in mind that it is the perception of harassment on the part of the victim that is the key issue, not your viewpoint.  It does not matter if you are certain there is no harassment.  If the victim(s) perceive any actions as being sexual harassment, then you must take steps to investigate. 

6.  In most situations, it is illegal to take action against an employee based solely on their mental or emotional condition (real or perceived).  However, if their behavior affects the employer's operation, then you have reason to take action.

7.  If the employee makes overt threats of harm to him/herself or to others, contact local law enforcement immediately.

The above recommendations are based in part on comments by G. Frederick Compton, Jr., JD, Partner, Roetzel & Andress Law Firm--originally published at

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