Architecture Games: Bullying, Sabotage and Discrimination 1

Monday, October 5th, 2015
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A peak medical organisation has apologised to all staff and students who have suffered discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment by surgeons.

“These behaviours have been too long tolerated and have compromised the personal and professional lives of many in the health workforce,” said Professor David Waters, president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

With this case at the front of our minds, we should spare a thought for how the design industries rate in similar circumstances.

Students of architecture, interior design, industrial design, landscape architecture and related fields study for many years to become professionals. For architects, there is usually a first undergraduate degree and then a Masters of Architecture. With no hiccups, this may be completed in five years with a component of work experience usually making it six years’ duration. That is a very significant investment in a career. Do interns and student architects fare any better than their medical school compatriots?

I have worked in a number of jurisdictions in many architectural offices, design offices and construction companies, and my experience would indicate that the behavior complained about by medical practitioners is not confined to that industry.

Students must gain work experience in a studio or office to be able to complete their registration exams. With more graduates than placements, some students are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get a work placement. After six or so years of study, most graduates did not contemplate that their first and primary role in the office would be answering the phone or making tea and coffee for clients and senior staff. If an intern gets to assist with preparing marketing information or to fix a computer software issue, this may be as close as they get to their core skills in the first months of experience.

According to many employers, “interns” or recent graduates do not contribute a whole lot to productivity for some time, and it is difficult to justify a high level of remuneration. My experience is that only the relatives of employers or directors are ever paid a salary commensurate with their many years of study. It is a conundrum for recent graduates; continue living on a very small salary and working very long hours and weekends, or never get your foot on the first rung of the career ladder.

Design offices often consist of a small number of people collaborating together. This may be good for intimacy with work colleagues, but what happens when  it goes wrong? There may be nowhere to seek refuge when working under a demanding, demeaning, high-strung boss who runs an office like Margaret Thatcher incarnate, or the little Napoleon.

Early in my career, I was given a project to work on by a colleague who was competing with me for recognition and choice assignments. This individual sabotaged the drawing board and aligned the set square incorrectly. One should check the alignment when one starts on a new station, but in this case I had assumed that as it was a modern board, the alignment would be correct. After a day and a half drafting, the colleague waited until the boss was walking around and then dramatically revealed, “Hey there appears to be something wrong with these drawings, look at this, I think the board is misaligned.”

It was 10 brownie points to the saboteur, and straight to the dog house for me. In a modern office, the control and sabotage of a colleague’s work has reached new and even more devious levels. CAD and BIM programs and their management are a case in point. I was working in an office where, whenever I went to lunch, my CAD settings were changed to random settings. It took some skill and time to set them correctly, and the devious saboteur changed settings which were not normally tampered with. The same colleague was reporting that my work was defective to management, and in a review reported that my settings were incorrect. It is particularly difficult to determine who has tampered with a file when so many programs have shared access. However difficult to prove, tampering with someone else’s work is bullying, and may be cause for litigation.

Professional enmity at university or during professional registration is not uncommon. In my registration exam, I was grilled relentlessly during the oral exam, and asked questions which were, to be polite, off beam. I appealed on the basis that no other applicant was likely to have been asked this particular line of questions, which I had written down soon after the exam was complete. The second examiner agreed and the appeal was successful.

Some professional entry examinations may be manifestly unfair and open to abuse. One employer told a group of senior staff that they, “used to provide relevant and true references, but they found that staff turnover increased, so they now have a policy of not providing a reference, or giving a less than glowing one, and this had reduced turnover.”

Another issue is where students and staff moving to a new position wish to take samples of their work for future reference. That may not be appropriate if you are working on the security of an international airport, or the police headquarters, but is it reasonable to have work samples for one’s folio? Rather than engage with their staff, this employer had a policy to denigrate the work of  their staff. If you have a problematic relationship with a colleague or boss, it can be difficult in a professional setting to get a clean break from them. It can be far worse in the design industries when we encounter a bully, because generally we work in small collegial groups to complete tasks – a small office may only employ a few people. Small and intimate work groups are also problematic if the boss or a manager embarks on an affair or relationship with a junior staff member and they are given a leg up in terms of promotion, or act inappropriately in a work setting.

How much easier is it for the young flirtatious male or female to get promoted and a plum position than for those who have achieved through hard graft? While research reveals that most CEOs and promotions go to those considered attractive, is this the best policy for future productivity and creativity? Are appearances everything in a design-led industry?

How do these issues play out in the profession? A small group of collaborators can blight the careers of promising young professionals. As a young architectural student, I encountered one senior lecturer who would take it upon himself to designate who would be successful in the profession and who would be wasting their time. The number of obstacles he would or would not place before a student varied accordingly, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as to one’s ability to succeed at that university. When you talk to design professionals and architects from around the world, most in the profession will admit that they have encountered the bias and unprofessional conduct blighting or unfairly rewarding the careers of potential and young professionals.

Do mechanisms exist to reduce bullying and bias in the profession, and if so are they working? Are references worth the paper they are written on, and what other mechanism could be used to independently verify the quality of your work when moving studios? Certainly a stronger charter for the design profession would be in order, as unfair bias and bullying seems to be endemic.

How do recruiters evaluate candidates fairly when references and work records are so open to manipulation? I would suggest that any power structure such as the one the surgeons and medical practitioners have apologised for, that may exist in the design profession, should be open to greater scrutiny, and that appeals processes should be more rigorous. Employers who promote people unfairly or treat recent graduates unconscionably should be named and shamed. I would suggest that the issues of unfair promotion and bullying of juniors who are reliant on senior professionals for promotion and registration are not confined to the medical industry.

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  1. John Bohmer

    Very interesting and important issues, Grant.

    Certainly, what has happened in the healthcare profession is unacceptable and should never be allowed to happen anywhere.

    Unfortunately, however, I suspect this kind of behaviour is not confined to the medical profession, and as the aforementioned experiences show, indeed this is not the case.