What I Learned from Being Bullied at Work

"If I were you, I'd just look for another job." In hindsight, I should have taken this advice. Not just one but four or five people told me the same thing. I was being bullied by the directors of the company - and it wasn't that much different to being back in the school playground.

Part of their game

Twenty years later, at work, the focus for the bullying wasn't a daily one, but a monthly marketing meeting. The directors used to book a meeting room in a hotel a few streets away, and various staff would be summoned at points across the day. It would usually be around three o'clock for me, and like in the TV show 'The Apprentice', I would wait nervously outside waiting to go in. I'd have to be there from two-thirty, 'just in case', but I was never called in before three-thirty. It was just part of their game. If I did arrive in the hotel corridor later, they would pretend they had been looking for me to go in earlier. So, I would routinely spend an hour sitting outside their meeting room, like a naughty boy outside the head teacher's office.  In the meeting, they'd sit there with teas, coffees, and biscuits, and there'd be a glass of water showing me where I was to sit. I'd relate the progress made on various agreed actions, but any impressive work was only acknowledged with a cursory shrug, and the spotlight would hone in on the things that they felt they could pick away at.

Accused

The main reason I was bullied was because they would set me up to fail, and then rip me apart. They would deliberately limit my ability to get things done without their express approval. This impacted everything. Nothing could be done without one of their sign-offs. So, awards entry deadlines were missed, case studies didn't get given to journalists in time, we'd miss out on trade show speaker slots, or fail to get some event invitations out in time.One time, I 'failed' to get a series of ads in a magazine we wanted to be in. My director would only sign-off half the budget the board had agreed to. This undermined me with the publisher, my design colleague who I had made work late on artwork which was never to be used, and with the other directors who were only interested in 'the reasons why' I had failed 'yet again'. Another example was the MD encouraging me to send in letters to trade magazines' letter pages, and to do it in my own name to 'raise my profile'. I got published, and although the company's name was in print, the MD and others accused me of trying to grab the glory, when I should have had used his name in the piece.

On edge

These seem like silly examples, but they seemed so serious and important at the time, and I was always kept on edge, belittled and having to bite my tongue, knowing that if I dared to point out that a delay or failure was down to one of their acts or omissions, then I would be ripped apart. Talk about red rag to a bull! They would roast me for having the nerve to criticise one of them, and there was a definite air of physical threat, despite the veneer of civility. Yet, by refusing to give me the authority to go with my responsibility, I was always repeatedly in an impossible position, slammed for not getting something done, slammed for using my initiative. Some others in the company faced the same sort of treatment. You were either one of the golden ones, or the hated ones. Many of the best people and the ones with the most sense and ability, upped and left over a course of a year or so. For some reason, I stayed, thinking that I would somehow 'win them around', that they would tire of this game of cat and mouse, and - bizarrely - finally 'welcome me' in to their club, like one or two of them had hinted to me in private. Together though, their gang mentality brought out the absolute worst in them, and they closed their ranks against all outsiders.

A cruel game

With hindsight, I can see that it was just a cruel game. I was never sure if they were trying to break me and to get me to resign, or to see how much they could provoke me, testing my resilience and trying to prove my worthiness. The odd thing is that the more they tried to shake me off, the more I seemed to cling on, determined to hold on, and for some reason to try and win them around. I think I felt that I could actually change things. My girlfriend at the time finally made me realise I had to get out and move on - that it was okay to give up, and that in doing so, it was not a case of letting the bullies win. Instead I was winning by escaping their clutches. The rest of my life - and my mental health - need not be determined by this awful situation I had somehow got myself into.  I was so relieved the day I left. I had somehow expected it only to end when they put me out of my misery. I can look back at it now, a decade later with disbelief. How did I let it go on? Why didn't I walk away? I can only think that the answer was that my confidence was undermined to the extent that I began to believe I was worthless, and would not have any value in the job market elsewhere, and that I would only be validated when the bullies gave that validation to me.

My biggest mistake was that I truly believed - at the time - that my directors' behaviour was something I should accept and adapt to, and that in not knowing how to 'get on' it was actually my fault, and that I had brought it on myself.

You can be free

What I know now, and tell others, is that sometimes the only mistake we make as individuals is to stumble into the wrong people's paths. If you can remove yourself from the situation, you can be free. If you are strong enough, and willing to do so, then you can stay and fight, but only if it's worth fighting for. Often it will be, but sometimes - like in my case - it just isn't. In my case I could have saved myself a lot of upset, anger and stress if I had said, 'you know what...it's not me, it's you' and got out of harm's way earlier.But I did it eventually, and these days I work to live, not live to work - and I will never again let dealing with others' sociopathic behaviour be part of my unofficial job description.

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Scott, name changed