In a previous role I was sales and marketing manager for a training company, which had been sold to one of the directors. In the sale my previous line manager had been made the company secretary and began operating in a purely administrative role for the business.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a different dynamic enter into our relationship. Conversations became emotive and there appeared to be some bitterness coming in. Her tone was different and abrupt. We would have short exchanges and even go for periods of time in the office when it was entirely silent, which when there are only two of you is quite suffocating. I was confused, but she had always been a prickly individual to deal with, so I buried my head in the sand, and got on with my job.
One day I was on my own in the office - it was a small company with only three of us on site – and had left to do something when I heard the phone ring. I ran back in and went to the first desk to pick it up, which happened to be hers. I needed to make some notes on the call so I rifled through her in-tray to find a bit of paper to write on and as I did, I came across a dossier which was on me. My heart and my mind started to race, but I dealt with the call. You can’t put back what you’ve seen, so I read it.
Inside were pages of details on my personal life, things like notes on the dental work I was having done at the time and how I hadn’t told her that I couldn’t drink hot drinks. Or the fact my dad was travelling in Australia and again, how I hadn’t told her of this. The notes were on things that I would never bring into the office anyway and the whole dossier was bizarre. Initially, I expected to turn the page and see similar comments about my colleagues, but it was all about me.
I couldn’t envisage what would make someone do that without there being any clues in their behaviour – she had never mentioned any of this to me – and I didn’t know what to make of it or do with it. In the end, I photocopied it, put the original back, and took it to the company owner who was as perplexed as I was. We both spent some time thinking on how to deal with it.
Up until to that point I had had no clue what was happening, but once I knew, I felt very bullied and abused. I let everything go on as normal though in my relationship with my colleague, knowing that was something was happening in the background and there would be a resolution.
The owner eventually decided the best thing to do was to put us in a room together to discuss it, which turned into the most horrible scenario. Realising that her behaviour was odd, my colleague became tearful and dramatic. That didn’t really resolve anything and the relationship suffered because of that intervention. The challenge for me at the time, I thought, and the main reason I took it to the owner of the company, was how I would explain to her how I had found these pages in the first place. In truth, if you leave something on top of your desk in an open plan office no one should have to explain how they found it.
Shortly after, the company had to make further cuts and she was the most obvious person to remove, as she was admin support. They needed someone in the sales role I was in and the other person was in accounting so they kept her on. So in the end redundancy resolved the issue. It battered my confidence for a long while after though, and I learned that you shouldn't be open with everyone; there are people you can trust and people you can’t
What I learned from it, though, is that the best way to deal with scenarios like this is to be open and transparent. I look back and I do wish I had gone to her directly and had the conversation without anyone else necessarily knowing. It may be the right thing to do if you’re in a position where you feel like you can’t handle it on your own, but in this particular situation it brought another level of judgement for her and I could see she really struggled with that being made public.
I think she lacked self awareness around uncovering why she almost felt that it was a personal dig at her that I didn’t bring my medical problems into the office and I still don’t know what she was trying to achieve with it. She had previously been a big fish in a small pond in the company and had then had to become a peer and perhaps she found that transition difficult. But she made it personal. And when we’re in the workplace it’s about business, you can’t really take things personally.
This is the kind of situation that needs to be handled with kid gloves and not an immediate reaction. In the end, I am glad I took a reflective route to dealing with it as this was such strange behaviour that you could rightfully make the assumption that there was actually something going on for that person - and this was just a symptom of something far, far bigger.