Friday, February 19, 2010

When Documentation Fails

I've been following the Bill Reader case with interest for the last few weeks. (For the record, I don't know him, and I don't know anyone at Ohio University.)

I read it differently than most folks in internet-land. The question of the proper weight to give to considerations of 'collegiality' in tenure deliberations is a thorny one, and not where I'll focus here. I'll just note that one person's strategic vitriol is another person's hostile work environment, and that administrators who don't keep an eye out for the latter aren't doing their jobs.

Here I'll focus on the issue of documentation.

As I understand it, the university is claiming that Reader has a long history of toxic interactions. Reader is saying that nothing has ever been documented, so the university must be trumping it up.

To which I say, not necessarily. Documentation doesn't always work.

Documentation works poorly when the issue is long-simmering and cumulative. Any single comment can be explained away as hyperbolic, as heat-of-the-moment, or as a simple misunderstanding, and sometimes that's accurate. But harassment often takes the form of sustained patterns of comments or behavior, no one of which in itself necessarily rises to the level of actionable. If I wrote up everybody who ever made a hostile comment, I wouldn't get much else done, and I'd foster paranoia. Among other things, that means that there's typically a breaking point at which the recipient/target decides that a line has been crossed. The accused, at this point, invariably claims that he had no idea anything was wrong. When he challenges the evidence -- they always do -- much of it has been lost to the sands of time. The breaking point may not look like much in isolation, but it didn't occur in isolation. There's a disconnect between the fantasy of the law and the reality of human behavior.

Documentation also fails when people are so intimidated that they're afraid to sign anything. I can't tell you -- literally -- how many conversations I've had with faculty or staff in which someone makes serious complaints about somebody else's conduct, but refuses to write any of it down. They don't want to get "dragged into anything." From my perspective, this is worse than useless. I "know," but I don't. I don't have anything that the accused could even rebut. And the one who told me often walks away thinking that my lack of follow-through is a sign of a sinister agenda, rather than of a basic epistemological flaw. ("The Administration knows about it, but doesn't do anything.") I can't take anyone to task based on hearsay.

Documentation also frequently fails to convey context. Some comments carry meanings in one setting that they don't in another. In isolation, on paper, they may not look like much; in the moment, they were deliberately devastating. I've seen some very savvy bullies who know how to work that system.

Then there are the process fighters.

Although you wouldn't know it from the management textbooks, documenting offenses isn't as easy as simply documenting them. In this climate, every single step gets challenged. It's not unusual to be threatened with grievances and lawsuits simply for putting a memo in a personnel file. At that point, it's easy to default to verbal warnings, at which point someone can claim, as Reader has, that nothing has been documented.

Whether any of this applies in the Reader case, or if he's an innocent victim of mobbing and/or a toxic culture and/or an administrative vendetta, I simply don't know. I find each of those scenarios plausible, at least from this distance. Given the apparent lack of a good paper trail, I assume that he'll eventually win the legal battle. From this side of the desk, I'll just say that effective paper trails are far harder -- and less under one's control -- than most people assume. It's just not that simple.