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"My workplace bullies taught me the most valuable lesson of my career"

Series: 

This month’s anonymous column, everywomanIncognito, tells the story of a woman who found herself in difficult circumstances at work – and the personal lesson she learned.

Surviving my own schoolyard tormentor cemented my values for treating others with respect and demanding the same for myself. I was immune to ever being victimised again. Or so I thought.

Receiving a job offer of a senior marketing position at an up and coming youth brand was like winning the lottery. But I knew something was wrong before my first day. My new boss emailed a couple of weeks before my start date. There was a departmental social coming up, he said. He couldn’t go as he worked remotely, but I was welcome to. A great opportunity, I thought, to alleviate first day nerves by already knowing some names and faces.

As I entered a city bar that night – ever so slightly anxious and with a resolve to stick to one glass of wine – it felt like walking into a brick wall of hostility. Eyeballs drilled holes in me as I attempted – and mostly failed - to break into conversations. I was baffled. I escaped to the loo for a breather and sent a text to my other half: “Help! It’s all a bit weird!”

Afterwards I gave myself a good talking to. Most likely my desperation to make a great first impression had made me self-conscious and paranoid. How could I take things personally? They didn’t know the slightest thing about me.

I resolved to wipe the slate clean. But the evening festered. “I don’t know why, but I don’t want this job,” I blurted out one evening over dinner with my husband. We had a long chat and agreed I was having a crisis of confidence about taking on my most stretching role to date. That explained it. But my gut was telling me to run.

There wasn’t a day of my three-month probation period that I didn’t leave the office in tears, fearing that everyone hated me. I’d often sob down the phone to my partner and best friends, wondering if I was going mad.

The company had been sold to an overseas investor and everyone’s job was on the line. After being informed in a company-wide address, my department congregated. We drank tea, we chatted, defences crashed down and certain individuals made eye contact with me for what seemed like the first time. I’m ashamed to admit that on the day that I and my co-workers – some parents to young children, others in the midst of buying first homes - found out that their livelihoods were in jeopardy, I left the office on a high. I’d made meaningful connections in this shared adversity. It felt like a personal triumph. Weird, right?

The following morning I sent an email to the department’s director to whom I was second in command. I’d love to finally start having those weekly catch-ups I’d been asking for, I said. It was even more important now there was so much insecurity in the team. We needed a strategy for helping people through it. I didn’t get a response. Come five pm I watched as the director in question invited his favourites to the pub for drinks on him, who filed out past me.

I shelved all the weepiness, self-doubt and confusion, and anger kicked in. I demanded an urgent video call with my boss and spilled out everything that had been going on. Shock number one was that he didn’t seem at all surprised. Shock number two was the story he told me next. My number two had gone for my role – that much I’d known. But my department’s director had advocated strongly for her hire. My boss, believing that my number two wasn’t experienced enough (I’d been in the industry 15 years versus her four) fought and fought for me as an external candidate to get the job. He received the backing of the CEO, who also agreed that my position would continue to report into my remote boss, rather than the director of my division. “All hell broke loose over it,” by boss admitted. I was furious. I was a political pawn in this silly game. But I was also flooded with relief. I wasn’t crazy or paranoid. There was something, and I could now address it from a position of knowledge.

The next day I asked the director if he’d had a chance to read my email – the one about one-to-ones. He didn’t take his eyes off his screen as he told me that if he needed to catch up with me, he’d find me less than 20 metres from his desk. I pointed out that he was having regular catch-ups with my subordinate and that this was odd and left me out of the loop on important matters. His response was to pick up his phone and start texting. This was a grown man. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry (in private I did a bit of both).

It continued this way for three and a half years. I exceeded expectations, smashed targets and didn’t consider leaving even when approached by competitors. I realise now I simply didn’t have the mental capacity to find another job. I was focused on survival. Sunday night panic attacks were the norm, but I was on auto-pilot, charging on like a wind up soldier, finding support where I could in allies from pockets of the business.

I turned up to a departmental meeting to find I’d been taken off the agenda and my number presenting the team’s quarterly results I’d spent the previous three evenings preparing and rehearsing. I sat poker-faced and still at the back of the room. When I arrived back at my desk something made me keep walking. I remember, bizarrely, feeling this sensation of my feet not quite connecting with the ground.  On arrival at the HR department I calmly laid everything on the table. The rep said nothing. I think she could tell I was beyond saving. Once I’d said my piece, I got up, walked out, and never went back.

For three weeks I sat around beating myself up. I was an idiot for staying. I’d had plenty of opportunities to get out. I had no clue why I’d let myself be treated that way. What did it say about my character that I hadn’t stopped this behaviour in its tracks? Finally my husband walked in through the front door one night and I said  “I think I want to sue”. “It’s about time,” he said.

I called an employment lawyer and spilled everything. I still remember my shock when she talked about a valid ‘bullying and harassment’ claim. I actually laughed out loud. “Oh no,” I said. “It wasn’t bullying!” “That’s exactly what it was,” she said, and in that moment I knew it was true. It felt odd to have the emotions of the past thousand plus days reduced to legal jargon. But in some ways the bullet point coldness of the tribunal process made it easier to deal with.  I won and received financial compensation, though no apology, which was what I really wanted. In the end it didn’t matter; I’d never felt freer after coming out the other side.

News travels fast in this industry. As I waited in reception for a job interview at a competitor firm I was still in two minds about whether I’d ‘confess’ to the way I’d left my previous job. My fears were in vain. The interviewer kicked things off by saying: “So…I hear you’ve been through the mill!” It was a fabulous ice-breaker and for the first time in a long while I relaxed in a professional situation.

I’ve been asked why I stayed so long (one previous colleague with whom I’ve kept in touch has since sheepishly admitted over a bottle of wine that there was a team sweepstake in effect for how long I’d stick it out). I don’t really have an answer. But the other question I’m asked is what I learned from the ordeal, and this one is easy: trust your instincts; trust your instincts; trust your instincts! I felt in my bones that something wasn’t right from day one. I should have listened to the voice in my head. She was trying to help.