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I work at a research institute. We have offices that are supposed to be just that - an office. And we have labs, lots of them. The labs are shared among the several hundred people that work at the institute, and anyone who has a serious need for the machinery, testing or analytics equipment in a specific lab can get an instruction and access, as the labs and the equipment within are shared "property".

A lot of the work we do is project based (often publicly funded), and when applying to such projects we have to make a calculation of how much of the grant money will be used for salaries, how much will be used for travel and how much will be used for materials. As it is often difficult to estimate how much money exactly will be needed for materials over the course of a multi-year project (and it is very complicated to shift funds from one pot to the other once the grant is given), we regularly have money left in the "material" funds, that would simply go back to the funding body if we don't spend it. So at the end of projects, we announce to the group that there is some money left and that people who need materials that fits the projects scope can use that rest to order stuff.

Over the course of the last 2 years, a colleague of ours has little by little ordered himself enough materials to set up his own little "lab" inside his office. Only he has access to it and he doesn't really allow anyone else access. Our group managers are not aware of the extent of this, as we do not go into each others offices all the time as many conversations have shifted to videocalls since COVID-19. Yesterday, one of the colleagues I share an office with went to the colleague with the private "lab" because he needed something, and saw that he now also has a new top of the line digital microscope that costs several thousand € in his "office-lab", that would be very beneficial for the work of a lot of people in our group but no-one was aware that it exists (and the colleague apparently when to our bosses boss to get the funds so our group leaders are not aware either).

We are now seriously contemplating telling our group managers about this little private set-up, and demand that most of the stuff gets moved to a real lab where others have access to equipment and resources that have been bought with the institutes money and should thus be accessible for all. On the other hand, it feels bad to "rat out" a colleague and we are worried about the implications for the whole group (as telling will probably lead to conflict of some sort). What is the best course of action to handle this situation?

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    Take photographic evidence of what is in that lab (in case things disappear), then ask that colleague to make things publicly accessible. If he refuses, you take further action.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 8:03
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    Overcome the 'feels bad to "rat out" a colleague' emotion. The colleague obviously has no consideration for his fellow researchers - hoarding and denying access - why should he be treated differently to how he treats others?
    – mcalex
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 8:52
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    Is there any evidence that the colleague has refused to share the equipment? If he's purchased things through legitimate channels that did not belong to the common pool, then it doesn't sound like there is necessarily any wrongdoing if he keeps main possession. Is it possible that his particular work gives him grounds for needing more convenient regular access to a microscope, and other main items? Or that it's a sensitive item that he specifically needs, and doesn't want mauled with by unaccountable others? The best opening gambit might be to clarify your understanding of what's going on.
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 11:25
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    Not sure about your institute, but my ES&H folks would be very unhappy about lab work being performed in an office (yes, even "just" a microscope because, well, what are you looking at and is that OK to be in an office area instead of a properly permitted lab area).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 12:38
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    "So at the end of projects, we announce to the group that there is some money left and that people who need materials that fits the projects scope can use that rest to order stuff." - Are the materials purchased always placed in communal areas or are there any cases where these items stay when the person who requested/purchased them? It's not clear, and would be useful to know, whether this person is knowingly breaking the rules or possibly misunderstanding what the limits are.
    – BSMP
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 17:25

7 Answers 7

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First of all, if everyone was given an open invitation for submitting proposals of the required items, and if they have been authorised to avail those items (within the "project scope") then there is nothing wrong in possessing those items. The real question is: is the requester allowed to limit the usage of the items / devices / service by putting it into a private office?

You don't need to complain, neither double-spend or waste budget for something which is already available. You need to ensure that the usage or placement of that device / service does not contradict with the requirements for a project-related item.

If I were you, I'd have a conversation with my manager (or supervisor), along the lines of:

Hey Boss, I realised that if the team / lab has a device X, it'll be immensely helpful for our work. However, currently we do not have one, and if I recall correctly, it was not included in the procurement / requisition scope in the beginning either. However, I'm not sure if someone might have ordered one from the <actual-technical-term-for-the-use-of-the-leftover-budget, if any> as I do not have any idea about the list of items. Can you do a quick check, or is there a place where those items are listed, so that I can go and check? Please let me know."

This can go two ways:

  • Either the manager / boss will check the list, inform the colleague that others need to use the equipment, and they can have a discussion on that.
  • Your boss will send you the list of items procured additionally, and you can then approach the colleague to request access to the device (to be placed in the shared lab). In case they refuse, or mention any restrictions, you need to go back and involve your manager.

Note: You never know, they may have a valid justification for using it in a separate environment, in that case, you need to plan for a second unit, or, if they are simply over-possessive, the manager will have a round of discussions accordingly to set things straight. Either way, you'll have a solution.

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    @Sursula-they- unless, they were permitted for some specific reason. Follow the process, please avoid jumping to conclusion. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 8:42
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    I think this answer is right except, if you know the item exists, why not cut straight to the chase and ask about the one in the colleague's lab? Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 10:14
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    The point is to be able to make use of the budget efficiently, and as I said, if someone has allocated that budget and did not think of announcing that publicly, then they might have a very good justification for that. Let the manager(s) do their work. Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 10:16
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    @Sursula-they-, as others say, it does seem wise not to assume that your colleague has no reason for the setup. You do acknowledge that your colleague received permission from very high up for the special purchase.
    – Steve
    Commented Oct 12, 2022 at 11:36
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    @Sursula-they- That's not necessarily true. When I worked at a lab setting, quite a few of the devices of my office were paid from my pocket - including a few pieces of fairly expensive equipment. Some of the stuff on my lab was even made by myself as side-projects that I could later re-use on my work. I can't speak for your colleague, but usually those "special setups" might exist for a rather large spectrum of reasons.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 10:34
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Good answers already, my addition is that you're unaware of the provenance of this equipment. You should have asked.

For example as an engineer when I worked with other engineers I had a lot of expensive tools and equipment they didn't have and kept it locked in my office along with a shelf full of technical manuals and reference material. It was personal equipment that I owned.

Sometimes I had specialised company equipment for a project in my office. Most people would not have known I had it, but it was there for good reason and would remain there until it was passed off to the next person who needed it rather than thrown in the pooled resources for everyone.

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    Lab suppliers typically only sell to companies. I'm not sure if it would even be possible to buy a new high-end microscope as a private person. Additionally, there should be rules against bringing your own lab equipment (for safety and liability reasons). I'm skeptical that your experience is applicable here.
    – user29390
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 6:03
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    @Roland In my (European) experience, it's fairly trivial to register as self-employed if you need to buy something that is formally only sold to companies. That's almost guaranteed to work for stuff that only costs a couple thousand €, it will perhaps be different for things that cost hundreds of thousands. I have never heard of such anti-bring-your-own-equipment rules in any of the three universities I worked at (and yes, I have personally sometimes brought my own equipment in or bought some on my own; that's typically much faster/less hassle than going through the university).
    – TooTea
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 7:52
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    @Roland Not exactly true. If you have any sort of clout, influence, or contacts, it is fairly easy to secure exotic tech from suppliers. Just check youtube - the amount of people there with access to tech that they shouldn't have is absurd. Some of that tech is even freely given away by their makers themselves, in the form of sponsorships or the like. There is also a surprisingly large amount of tech that can be bought second-hand over the internet, too.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 10:41
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    @Roland If you have the money, why not? Only if it's dangerous to possess, or it's somehow extra-difficult to sell to an individual, would they not sell it. I've heard some stories of people trying to trick companies into sending them dangerous chemicals - but microscopes should be fine. Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 11:39
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    @Roland I don't think there is any difficulty obtaining lab equipment, it's just really expensive. There are limits around stuff like chemicals, but if I had the cash I could have all the microscopes and glassware that I wanted. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:34
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What is the best course of action to handle this situation?

Unless this colleague is somehow preventing you and your other team members from doing their work due to them not sharing the equipment that they have in there office, there is nothing for you to do.

Yes, I understand that they have tools that may be beneficial to yourself and the rest of the team, but unless you or your colleagues ask to use these tools and are rejected there is no case to be made that would have a positive outcome.

If you or your team need to use this equipment, then ask the colleague for permission. If they deny you access, I would let your manager or group managers know and let them handle it.

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There are good answers already, however I think there is more to add.

Sometimes some of the specific equipment is bought exclusively for a certain project (projects). In such case it would be completely normal for your colleague to store the equipment in a place where it is not accessible for everyone easily.

The problem with shared spaces usually is that the equipment in them diffuses quickly and is hard to find when someone actually needs it for the project the equipment was originally bought for.

Therefore I would avoid accusations and inquire about the equipment carefully. But Sourav Ghosh has this part covered well.

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I think it would be good to first understand your colleague. They might not regard these items he has as a "lab" in itself. For example he may think that the total separation of lab from office is a problem for the sort of work they do, hence needs some equipment at their desk. It sounds like the problem isn't that the equipment isn't all in the lab, it's that it's not accessible for everyone else to use. I do also find this behaviour not appropriate as it isn't in the sprit of the department, and will result in funds being wasted on duplicate items.

I'd suggest having a small part of the office as a an area which suits this purpose, whereby there are is a merge of office and lab equipment which of course is suitable form an OHS perspective. Otherwise what else might work is a system to book this equipment which you can take to your desk, or simply put this equipment back at the end of the day for the next person to use, and sign a sheet that you use it. You don't even necessarily need to come up with a solution but can workshop this with the wider group. But I do think this needs to be addressed, in a positive productive manor. I'd say though if no one else views this as a problem it will be difficult to do anything about.

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Your colleague bypasses your lab's procedures. These procedures exist for a reason. Most importantly, they exist to ensure that the lab complies with safety regulations. But they also are also intended to ensure an efficient use of resources.

So, yes, the lab manager must be informed of this. Using lab equipment in an office is a violation of safety regulations and it is your duty to inform the responsible manager of this.

Btw., your lab's little scheme looks like a misappropriation of external funding. If the funding agency ever finds out what you have been doing, there will be severe consequences. It's fine if an amount of, e.g., some chemicals is "left over" when a project is finished but it shouldn't even be administratively possible to buy equipment from project money without the approval of the funding agency.

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    You are assuming a lot of things. Different labs have different regulations. Different funding schemes have different rules, etc. We don't know enough of the OP's workplace to give such a cut-and-dry answer.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 10:54
  • if there is money allocated for "investment" it can be used to buy equipment (that is relevant to the project), it is not missappropriation. When we write grant proposals we almost never put in specifics, as it is hard to estimate what exactly is necessary.
    – Sursula
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 12:00
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    @Sursula-they- The part that looks like misappropriation is that you are using up "extra" money after the actual project is over. So you know fully well that it isn't used for that project, because that project is done. It's not really relevant if it's the same type of material that could have been used for the project or that you didn't write specifics in the proposal. Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 13:34
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    @user3067860 Yes, but we are also using leftover material from previous projects for newer projects that we end up having money left over, so in the end we do not really use the stuff for anything else that we are supposed to, it is just shifted a bit. If I need the same wire for project A, B and C and buy them in bulk from project money from project A (for a cheaper price) - is it really misappropriation?
    – Sursula
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 13:41
  • @Sursula-they- Well, from the perspective of the person who is paying for project A but maybe didn't want to pay for B and C then yes... You can argue that money is fungible so it doesn't matter as long as the net cost comes out the same in the end but 1) even that is not going to be OK with many bean pushers as you are essentially having projects go into debt to the larger organization and then pay it off at the end, 2) it doesn't sound like anyone is even keeping track to make sure the net cost comes out the same anyway. Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 15:06
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You are making a confusion of the concept of "rat out". "rat out" would be if you tell one of his managers that your colleague is sleeping with his wife (assuming you are also in possession of some form of evidence). Basically telling someone something that would affect the person negatively and you are not directly involved in that action. Now in your case if you suspect that one of your colleagues is doing something shady there are rules in corporations that you need to report it to the managers and the managers will investigate and check if is true or not. You do not need to be involved or even mentioned (provided your managers are not idiots). Just report what you suspect to your manager and he will take it forward as it is his job. Your colleague might have some equipment that is allocated strictly on the project he is working in that case he might be right not to share. As I said the manager should clarify this.

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