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Where to turn when issues arise

Resources and guidance for navigating workplace conflict.

Why this is important

Disagreements and differences of opinion are a part of all workplaces, even healthy ones. Your success at NIH depends on your ability to develop healthy relationships with peers, colleagues, and supervisors. This requires the development of skills to set boundaries and have high-stakes, or difficult, conversations. High-stakes conversations can be complicated by differences in communication styles, the level of assertiveness of the parties involved, and the influence of hierarchy. Furthermore, when people are busy and/or stressed their impatience and frustration is more visible, making us feel unsupported when we ask questions and need help.

Keys to healthy relationships in the workplace

  • Healthy boundaries that define what is allowable and how issues will be brought raised and addressed
  • Assertiveness skills to help us voice our needs, wants, and concerns
  • Active listening skills to help us stay fully engaged in high-stakes conversations
  • Perspective taking to help us pause and reflect on the needs and wants of the other party and to consider whether our first interpretation of the situation is accurate or needs adjustment.

Resolve workplace conflict

Resolving workplace conflicts includes:

  • Knowing and using resources
  • preparing for conversations
  • talking with relevant parties
  • considering options and moving ahead

The NIH OITE, your IC, and other NIH offices offers resources to help you proactively deal with stress, have high stakes conversations, and find a healthy approaches to your work and life. Important resources include:

We especially encourage you to participate in the Becoming a Resilient Scientist series, which focuses on setting healthy boundaries and being assertive in research groups. We know from experience that trainees who take advantage of the resources available to them deal more effectively with the challenges they face, have more successful and satisfying training experience.

What if I am having conflict with a colleague?

If you are experiencing discomfort or conflict with someone in your research group, it is best to speak with them directly. Be sure to do this when you are feeling calm and take time to prepare. If that doesn't resolve the issue, speak with your PI or other supervisors in the group. If you are not comfortable doing that, or if the situation is not resolved after speaking with them, seek advice from others including your IC training director and OITE staff, career and well-being advisors.

What if I have concerns about interactions with my PI?

If you have concerns about interactions with your PI, it is important to talk with someone you trust. Hopefully you will have devel­oped relationships with your Lab/Branch Chief, or with more senior trainees and staff in the group. If you have, start by talking with them. If your concerns persist, talk with the training director in your IC; however, if that is not comfortable for you, or you still have concerns after seeking guidance, please reach out to us at oite-private@nih.gov for a confidential discussion. During this discussion, we will explore your concerns and ways to address them directly with your PI and will talk with you about resources to support your through the process. Appreciate that we may need to discuss the situation with other parties to help you, but we will take a measured and careful approach and will ask permission before speaking with others about the situation.

What if I want to change research groups?

We hope that all trainees and fellows have a positive experience at the NIH. While we appreciate this does not mean that all of your needs will be met within your research group, you must be in an environment where you feel safe (physically and psychologically) and can thrive. If you are reading this section, it is a sign that you need support as you work to consider your options and address your concerns.

If you have concerns that are causing you to consider changing research groups, please do not make the decision, or talk with your PI about resigning or not renewing your training contract, without seeking confidential guidance from the OITE. We can help you consider the risks and benefits of changing groups, explain the process in detail, and make sure you have consulted appropriately with your IC training director. We can also address the details of a research group transition, including timing, funding issues, talking with your PI, finding other opportunities, interviewing, and handling the transition period. We can also help address the unique concerns of our visiting fellows.

If you are reading this section, it is important to highlight another important element – your stress level.  If we don’t manage our stress and tend to our health and well-being, we cannot calmly consider our options and take action to address our concerns. Use OITE well-being resources to make a plan for managing your stress.

What if I was told that I am not going to be renewed?

If your PI tells you that you will not be renewed or that your position will be terminated early, please reach out to us at oite-private@nih.gov immediately. We will coordinate with your training director and provide you with immediate resources for stress management and the search for another position. We will assure that you have funding through this critical transition period and will work with the NIH Division of International Services to address unique concerns of NIH Visiting Fellows.

What if I have concerns about safety, harassment, discrimination, or bullying in my research group?

It is important that you feel safe at NIH, that you are treated with dignity and respect, and that you have support to address challenging situations in your group and beyond. There is detailed information on many resources to support you and to help you understand NIH policies. These resources include information on responsible conduct of research, NIH safety programs, the anti-harassment program, and the personal relationship policy.

The OITE and IC training directors are here to support you through the challenge you face. We will help you decide measured careful approaches to resolving issues, and will guide you to appropriate NIH resources. Please reach out to us at oite-private@NIH.gov.