Today’s blog is a contribution from someone who would like to remain anonymous. He is a male ex-senior leader in his mid 40's who is now running his own business.
The topic is, as the title suggests, bullying in the workplace.
Over to our author:
The theme of kindness or its opposite has reminded me of a situation I experienced over 10 years ago now at work which was the closest I have come to being bullied and going off sick with stress at work.
How do you resolve conflict at work? What would you have done if you were me in this situation?
This charts the breakdown in a working relationship, between me as the manager of the section, and a female member of my team who I had recruited to join the organisation in mid-2008. For about six months all was well and she was proving to be a very good employee, very good at her job and performing well. On a personal level we got on too, when I was in the midst of a divorce she was particularly helpful, chatting to me on Facebook and at work and showing a lot of sympathy.
And then, something changed.
I'm not sure what, but things started to deteriorate...
It started out with a few inappropriately toned emails. I'm her manager, so I tell her I think the tone was inappropriate and ask her to reflect on this and we can discuss if necessary. A week later she explodes about various things, not directed at me but at the company. She felt her workload was unreasonable, that she was held back by office politics and bureaucracy, and also felt that some managers did not take her seriously because she was female.
All this took me by surprise but I set up some additional support for her, and this seemed to calm things down for another six months or so. During this time I was told (by her) that she had raised issues to do with sex discrimination at her previous employer and did not have a happy exit from there.
I recall the incident that caused a deterioration again. It was Comic Relief 2009, and she had made a suggestion that the company have a mass clean up day. We all agreed, but asked her to organise it as it was her idea. She took umbrage at this, and was especially critical of me for, in her eyes, not protecting her from this additional unwanted work.
And from there it got worse. The issues of workload resurfaced again and she would openly mention a lack of management support. Again, I didn't know what else I could be doing, but asked her what she wanted and agreed some new support processes for her.
There was then a major incident in the company that threw the spotlight on her area of work, and at this pressured time she had a period of annual leave booked. During this period, our CEO asked for a review of what was going on, and because she was on leave, I was asked to write the report as I was her manager. When she got back she was highly critical of me for writing this report without involving her, despite me explaining that the CEO needed it before she got back and I didn’t want to disturb her annual leave. The incident in question had affected her badly and she was in tears in my office about it, but then later in the week was openly telling people again about lack of management support and how she felt let down.
I wasn't happy at her attitude, particularly expressing views to other people who were not part of our section, and based myself in the main office with the team a couple of days a week just to see if my presence would help. I sat opposite her on those days, and she was very frosty towards me. It began to be quite intimidating. Other people would start conversations about non work things, and a good example would be people asking about my divorce which was a live issue at the time, and she would loudly tut and sigh as if to make the point that this non work talk was irrelevant and distracting her from her job. After a while I stopped going into the office because of this, I found the atmosphere very intimidating.
We then had a meeting with the CEO, both of us together, and she criticised me in front of him. I thought this was unprofessional. She was unhappy that I had not done an action I had agreed with her, but she knew full well that in the intervening weeks there had not been one day where we had both been in the office to accomplish this, and yet took the opportunity to show me up in front of the CEO. Later that week she apologised for this but stated that certain people in the company were out to get her and she was covering her back as much as possible. This was a surprise too, I had no reason to believe anyone was out to get her.
We then had a bit of a heated debate at another meeting and I felt she crossed the line again and should have raised the issues with me privately. I emailed her to make this point asked to discuss it with her the next time we met. In my head, I was beginning to feel almost bullied by her but I had no idea what to do about it. We met a couple of weeks later, and she apologised for her behaviour, admitting she was pregnant and had just found out that day and was emotional.
Then we had another meeting arranged offsite with a supplier, and she did not show up for this. I telephoned to find out whether she was en route but got no answer. When I got back to the office, she was there. I asked why she hadn't been to the meeting, and she exploded at me, saying I had no right to question her whereabouts and that she had never agreed to attend the meeting. In fact she had, and it was in her diary. This outburst was in front of another manager who later telephoned me to check if I was alright, as she had been shocked by this behaviour.
Despite an apology from her about this explaining her emotional state linked to pregnancy, she then deleted and blocked me on Facebook. I presumed this was so she could have a rant about me (her boss) without me seeing it, but I didn't question it.
The next blow up came at another team meeting a month later where again she was aggressively raising issues in front of everyone that should have been raised privately with me, and indeed she was worrying the rest of the team with her destabilising comments. I emailed her to ask her to consider this and said we would discuss at our next meeting. She subsequently went off sick, claiming blood pressure complications, and returned one week later.
During her return to work interview she was more aggressive than I had ever seen, and laid into me for almost half an hour, claiming that my attitude was raising her blood pressure to dangerous levels and therefore endangering her unborn baby. She flat out refused to acknowledge her part in the issue, and followed this up with a blistering attack on my personal style, values and personality, while I just sat there open mouthed. She said that she should be able to say what she wanted, when she wanted, and not have to play games with me about things. She said that all of this was making her ill and threatening her baby, and that I should "step back" before something bad happened.
At this I was seething inside and had had enough. I disagreed vehemently with pretty much everything she said, and felt she was manipulating the situation and using the pregnancy card to mask and justify her actions. But because of her pregnancy, I felt powerless. I remained outwardly calm, as I felt an argument would prove her point, and considered the pros and cons of disciplinary action against her, but again the pregnancy card made this immensely complex and she was more or less bulletproof.
In the end we both agreed to informal mediation from the CEO, and this happened the following week. The CEO did this very well, and both of us agreed to draw a line in the sand and work together. She apologised for causing offence, but said that she was pregnant, emotional and often spoke from the heart.
There's a pattern developing here, I thought.
Around this time we had some consultants in doing a strategic review of lots of things. In their draft report they commented on her, saying that she was technically good at her job but did not handle pressure well. This didn't make it into the final report, but lots of people had seen it, and also the evidence was there. Whilst not focusing on me much, she was then starting to get aggressive and have outbursts with other team members and managers who were coming to me to complain about it. Unfortunately if I acted on these complaints she would claim I was victimising her, so I felt powerless again.
After a month or so she began regularly having a go at me again, and I felt awful. She began overstepping her authority, and commenting negatively on me and my management style to external suppliers, as well as completely overreacting and having a go at me on a team night out.
Eventually, the time came for her maternity leave, and I'd recruited a temporary worker to cover the vacancy. There was a weeks overlap as a handover, and I was putting together this handover plan. On two of the five days, she was working from home. I asked her to come into the office on one of these to help with the handover. She agreed, but made it clear that she was working from home for maternity reasons, and felt my asking her to come in was unreasonable and putting her unborn child in danger again.
The following day I asked her to complete a piece of work that the CEO had emailed me to get an update on. She actually refused, saying that the CEO had emailed ME about the work and therefore I should do it and not delegate it to her when she was busy and had other things to do. She then said that if I asked her to do it again, she would go off sick and therefore there would be no handover at all to her replacement and I'd have to deal with the consequences.
The next night we had a leaving meal for her, and I was feeling so scared and upset that I no showed the meal. I couldn't do it. I was due to give a speech at the meal about her leaving, and I knew I couldn't say all the usual platitudes about her. I just couldn't. So I didn't go.
Her final day before maternity leave came and I asked her to agree with her temporary replacement what Keeping in Touch days she might have and how the two of them could use them to best effect. She blew up at this, saying that she did not have to tell me when she would use her KIT days and I couldn't make her use any. I was flabbergasted, as far as I was concerned I hadn't done that, but she departed under that final cloud and that night I was so relieved that I cried, it was a release of emotion and I felt finally safe in work.
During her maternity leave she was moved to another team so that when she came back, she was managed by someone else. Not long after, she began having problems with her new manager too, and her new colleagues, and eventually left the organisation after yet another major falling out with another manager and a disciplinary investigation into her conduct. I felt somehow vindicated, it hasn't been entirely down to me, she was clearly a person with problems.
So how did all this affect me?
Greatly. It undermined my position as a senior manager, and almost destroyed my confidence in dealing with my team or any conflict situation. I felt under pressure, under scrutiny, and accused of bullying by a pregnant employee when I actually felt I was the one being bullied.
I felt like I couldn't tell anyone. After all, I was the senior person. I managed her. Surely bullying is something that the more senior person does to the more junior person normally? And as a man, I felt pride prevented me telling anyone that a junior female employee was routinely bullying me.
In short, I felt ashamed.
It's brought back a lot of memories writing this blog and the aim of sharing this is partly to get it off my chest, but mostly it's to raise awareness of bullying, which can be defined as persistent unwanted conduct or behaviour. Lots of people think that bullying is only something that happens at school, and I had experiences of that too, but sadly it's in the workplace too.
I wrote the Bullying Policy at that workplace but even this knowledge didn't protect me. I felt powerless throughout as this person did pretty much what she wanted, and I didn't think anyone would either believe me or do anything about it if I raised it as an issue.
I just out my head down, took the abuse, and waited till she left.
I wish I had been stronger.
Has bullying ever affected you in the workplace? How did you deal with it?
Thank you to our author for this insightful piece.
The kind of breakdown in working relationships that is described in this blog can be incremental over time, ultimately resulting in bullying behaviours, just as it did in this scenario.
Work-related bullying is often perpetrated by an individual who has more power than someone else and frequently the one with the most power is the person who is highest in the hierarchy. This piece illustrates that is not always the case. In the scenario that has been described, the unkindness came from a junior female employee towards the senior male manager, gender issues were also a significant factor in the way events unfolded.
The author of the piece said that he wanted to share his story so that it might encourage anyone who is faced with unkindness in the workplace to speak up and not be ashamed. He feels that "the more we speak about such things, the more we shine a light in dark places."
If you have been impacted by work-related bullying, please speak to someone you can trust, or get some professional advice externally. You do not have to put up with people treating you unfairly or unkindly at work.
You can find expert guidance at the following links:
Thank you once again to our author for this piece, a reminder that work-related bullying can be so debilitating, regardless of your job level.
If you would like to submit a blog for this series, please send your work via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you tomorrow for the next instalment!
#Kindness #BeTheRippleBlogs #BeKind #bullying #organisationalculture #workplacebullying
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