part of Course 121 Navigating a Data Science Career

A leader in my organization did something I hate.

What do I do now?

Poor behavior by an organization’s leaders isn’t an uncommon scenario, nor is it a new one. Most of us will find ourselves in the situation at some point. What do we do when our academic institution/company/nonprofit does something unethical, illegal, or in really poor taste? How do we trade off the benefits of membership with the taint of association? This is an intensely personal question, and there’s no way I can answer it for you, but I can offer some starting points for considering your response.

It hurts

When this happens, the initial experience is one of pain. You may feel one or more of these:

Betrayal of trust. This type of behavior is not what you signed on for. Maybe you just wanted satisfying employment or to make the world a little better place. And maybe leaders have said lofty things about values and vision. Then this happened. It’s a bait-and-switch and you feel betrayed.

Personal injury. Leaders' actions may hurt you directly. Sexual harassment and discrimination are all-to-common ways for this to happen, but it can also come in the form of verbal abuse, recognition withheld, or failing to provide a physically safe work environment.

Guilt. You may feel bad about yourself for being part of something that fails to live up to its promises. You might even feel personally accountable for leaders’ actions. This can manifest as a persistent gnawing feeling in your stomach that makes it hard to get out of bed.

Shame. It’s really natural to feel worried about what other people think—that they judge you as a sellout or a lemming or a pawn, weak or greedy or foolish. They may even say it in a tweet or to your face over holiday dinners. That stings.

While you are feeling these, keep your eyes open for gaslighting, where someone tries to convince you that the problem is you. Either you misunderstood, or you are too sensitive, or there were some extenuating circumstances, or "everyone knows that's just how Steve is." Gaslighting is manipulative, and it plays on our need to calibrate our social interpretations with others. Stick to your guns. If something feels wrong or off to you, no one can gainsay that. If you start second-guessing your reaction, find a couple of people that you trust deeply and reality check your experiences with them. Your experiences are yours, and no one can tell you they aren't valid.

Consider your options

So it hurts. What can you do about it? You have a few options, and they each come with their own upside and downside.

Gadfly. Criticize the bad behavior to other members of the organization. Make it clear that you disapprove.

Conscience. Call out leaders’ poor decisions but emphasize opportunities for improvement. Make a call to be better. Provide specific suggestions for corrective actions.

Dissenter. While maintaining affiliation with the organization, condemn the objectionable behavior in a public forum, like Twitter or the New York Times. A Dissenter is like a Gadfly, except that they air their grievances publicly.

Saboteur. Stay part of the organization but deliberately damage it. Common approaches include obstructing operations or leaking confidential information.

Ghost. Cut affiliation with the organization. Find another job, another community. Move on.

Apostate. Leave the organization and actively attack it from the outside.

Do nothing.

Choosing what to do can be agonizing. There are some big questions to consider. How are the ogranization's leaders likely to respond? What’s will be the benefit to me and those I care about? And what's the cost?

Above all else, be true to yourself. You might feel strongly that you need to do something without being able to say exactly why. Watch for strong feelings that don't fade after you've slept on them a couple of times. That’s a strong signal. Hang on to that deep-seated conviction, even if well-meaning people you trust try to talk you out of it. If you don’t follow through with it, you are likely to regret it for a long time.

The leaders of someone else’s organization did something very wrong.

What do I do?

This is also a way-too-common situation. Again, the decision of whether and how to respond is yours alone, but I can offer a few points to consider.

I hope some of the ideas here are helpful to you. If you have additions to suggest or a story to tell, don't hesitate to send me an email ( or post it on Twitter (@_brohrer_).

I struggled with when to release this post. It's natural to look at whatever happened in the news yesterday and assume it was a trigger. But this has been brewing for decades. I’m not an expert in this area. These are opinions only. Most importantly I haven't experienced what you've experienced. Take anything here that's useful and discard the rest.

Know that the frustration, anger, and/or sadness that you feel is legitimate and that you have some options. I wish you well as you find your path.