The most awesome Hermitage asked in a recent post
Ignoring the fact that knowing who to even complain to, and to what purpose, is not always clear, how bad does something have to be before you are compelled to take a stand? Should the criteria be severity, or simply how easy something is to prove? Should you always do the right thing, or should your career come first?
I wrote a long comment that sort of turned into a mini-post. I'll reproduce it here. My answer was written assuming that what was being complained about was harassment or discrimination. One main point I wanted to get across is this: DO NOT WAIT until you have been harassed or discriminated against to try to figure out what you should do when you have been harassed or discriminated against. Read and educate yourself about your school or workplace's relevant policies and procedures, understand how things would officially be handled and what that would imply for you. Go talk to someone at the office of diversity or the equal opportunity office (where a complaint might be likely to be handled). If your university has a women's studies department, ask them for resources to help you understand the situation women in science face in academia and how to respond to harassment and discrimination (tell them you don't need to read high theory, you need practical stuff about dealing with douchebags). An informed woman scientist is one who is less likely to be harassed, and more likely to be able to aid a colleague who is dealing with a problem.
Okay, here's the rest of what I wrote over at Hermitage's place. I encourage you to go read her post and the comments there, too.
1. Educate yourself about sexual harassment and discrimination BEFORE it happens to you. Believe it or not, this step alone will diminish the likelihood of your being harassed and/or discriminated against. Perpetrators are good at picking victims who don't know how to respond, don't know what their rights are, don't have strong self confidence, etc.
2. If/when it happens, DOCUMENT everything thoroughly. Date, time, place, who else if anyone was there, what he said/did, what you said/did, keep copies of emails or notes sent or given to you, keep any offensive drawings or other crap stuffed into your mailbox or workspace (or take pics of it there, then save). Keep all this documentation in a notebook that you DO NOT USE FOR ANYTHING ELSE.
3. After first offending incident, write a short note to the perpetrator. "Dear Douchebag: On such and such a day, you did/said x. It made me feel y. I would prefer that you not do/say x again. Thank you. Signed, Much More Fantastic Scientist Than You Will Ever Be cc: File" This will take care of 90% of Douchebags.
4. If Douchebag persists, write second letter, cc to your PI, department head, or university personnel assigned to deal with stuff like this. Give them a heads up that you are sending them a letter. Tell them you don't want to take any action at this time. You just want to send them a copy of the letter to document that the incident occurred and that you responded to it by asking Douchebag to jump off a bridge, I mean, stop behaving in this manner. In this second letter, refer to the first letter. "I wrote to you on DATE, about incident x, asking you not to do it again. On OTHER DATE, you did XityX . I am writing now to remind you of my earlier letter and to again ask you to refrain from this type of behavior blah blah, cc Important Person.
5. If Douchebag still persists then you may need to go even further and ask Important Person to intervene on your behalf. Keep in mind that if IP is your PI, PI may be (should be) required to report to an official university person that possible sexual harassment is taking place and an official investigation will likely be opened. It is not absolutely a guarantee that the perpetrator will be punished (for example, depending upon what they did/are doing, they may be asked to apologize, or make amends, and to refrain from further bad behavior, and/or to sit through some educational classes). Still, the investigation will be stressful for everyone involved. This sort of thing is NOT career-ruining if your Important Person is understanding and truly on your side. If Douchebag is himself a Big Swinging Dick it is of course a bit trickier, but here I have seen the letter writing strategy have good rates of success. They move on to someone else.
6. It is not your job to heal academia of sexism and discrimination. This job is too big for you, it is structural, and there are people highly placed above you who should be dealing with it. Remember, if you get to the point where you have to sue - and it happens, you may - even if you win you lose. What you want is for the bad behavior to stop, the Douchebag to leave you alone, and you to be able to go on quietly with your work. Someone else can fix the World and Heal Sexism.
Now, what if the thing you need or want to complain about is something else - some shady goings-on in the lab? Maybe a little something unethical in animal treatment, or data collection or manipulation, etc. If it's not the PI who's responsible for the shady goings on, is it relatively straightforward to go to her/him about a lab mate? If so, I would still document - put it in writing before going to talk to the PI, give the PI the written bit, and then document the meeting with the PI afterward and send the PI a copy of your summary of your meeting with PI. But I would be extremely gentle and not cast judgment, just raise questions. Maybe PI is pushing Labmate to be unethical, you don't know. There is so much pressure in research today that people can do unethical things and convince themselves that they are not really stepping over the line, or not that much, or that it doesn't really matter in this particular case...in other words, they can sin without intent, or with only half-conscious intent. To really shed some light on this question I'd want to talk to an ethicist...Dr. Stemwedel????