Last week I did an article for the Sunday Post about what doesn't kill you, making you stronger.
Anyone who met the gobby Northerner I am now would be hard pressed to picture me as a blubbering wreck of a woman I was a few years ago. I was a single mum, had forged a great career writing jokes, drove around in a nice flash car which I’d bought and paid for myself and I was bloody proud of myself. Then along came a huge international greetings card firm, made me an offer I would have been hard pressed to refuse and so I joined them as staff.
The trouble was that my salary was a point of resentment for some. Not my problem, I thought. The firm came to me, not the other way around. And I know how much profit there is in cards. I might have been well paid, but what I generated spun a fortune. And people who could sit down and churn out jokes day after day, week after month after year were thin on the ground. I was quite aware of my worth. I worked my backside off because I loved what I did. Life looked very good.
The fly in the ointment was a nasty little bleeder of a boss. Let’s call him ‘Mark’ (not his real name, which was Stalin). He hadn’t had a particularly successful career himself but, through bosses leaving, found himself in a top seat. And more than once during wine-fuelled dinners was quite open about the fact that he felt he couldn’t do the job he was given. And his insecurities made him the type of boss who liked to drag people down. He ridiculed young artists in public, he claimed other people's credit and deflected his mistakes onto others. He had people in tears everyday. He turned my 6ft 5 rough as houses boss into a jelly being constantly on his back until he was forced to leave. My boss complained but nothing was done. Other people complained about him and those complaints were swept right under the carpet too - the man was teflon. Complainers were threatened with the sack if they so much as looked at him in the wrong way and seeing as they had put their jobs on the line to complain, and nothing had been done, they put up and shut up.
It was made very plain that you were either with him or against him – no middle ground. There are always those who flock to people like these to get positions of privilege themselves and I was amazed to find out that a person I considered a good friend was given the chance by 'Mark' to fill the boots left by my boss.
But I kept my head down. I was only interested in doing my job and earning my wage. Then 'Mark' phoned me at home and the call turned very aggressive very quickly. He told me that I had NOT to be friends with my ex-boss. And when I answered that no one told me who to be friends with, my fate was sealed. ‘It seems as if there are two camps here, Milly, and you’ve picked the wrong one.’ He said. (Although in my personnel notes, this was tweaked to: Milly said that she thought there were two camps and she had picked the wrong one.) I was told that my job was not safe, which threw me into a total panic. But then 'Mark' liked having power over people. They were more likely to do what he wanted when they felt they were in danger of losing their jobs.
My ‘friend’ – let’s call him 'John' – became my boss. But he was out of his depth and obviously felt uncomfortable working with me and made moves to shift me to another department – traditional verse, which isn’t my strong point and I didn’t like writing it. But I needed my job, so I moved to another boss, determined to keep my head down and earn my wage. Then I found emails from ‘John’ to my new boss telling her to watch me as I was prone to skiving. I was absolutely devastated. Anyone who knows me will tell you how much of a vicious lie that was. But my new boss didn’t know me and judged me on all the info she’d been fed with the result that the department was very hostile to me. Plus I was very overpaid in that job and the people I worked with knew that. It was painful how I had to present the work I had done and have it slaughtered in front of me. I was pulled into meetings with ‘Mark’ and his assistant and told that I was overpaid (and I worked from home which was another annoyance for them). I didn’t want to cause any trouble so I took whatever they threw at me, but my health was starting to suffer by this stage. I went to the doctors feeling very rundown and he signed me off. I saw the children off to school and then sat in a rocking chair all day and slept. Not like me at all.
But eventually I had to go back to work. But I wasn’t well – and I’m always well! I remember sitting in one meeting and being told to drive home – from Bradford to Barnsley – and alter a comma that I’d inadvertently put on the end of a poem to a full stop – and then bring it back. I thought the girl was joking. Now - I would have told her to do it her bloody self, but then I had lost all my confidence. At least I didn't do as she said... I wasn't quite that bad yet. It’s amazing how a culture of bullying affects people. Powerless little beings suddenly find themselves in the light of the main bully and turn against the same people they don’t like to curry favour. That’s when a good friend of mine, who was seeing my crumble, quoted me: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I couldn't blame a lot of people for not backing up the ones in trouble. But I will always blame the ones who joined in so they wouldn't be seen to be 'in the wrong camp.'
Anonymously I wrote to Head office in America and was told that I could speak to a woman in HR in total confidence. So I did. And the HR woman went straight to 'Mark' and told him everything I’d said. I was terrified. I nearly crashed the car driving there one day I was so anxious about walking into that building.
My friends were getting very worried about me. I couldn’t concentrate on the one job I used to love and I was scared that this would give them all the ammunition they needed to sack me. My new boss picked apart every one of my expenses. ‘Mark’ dragged me into meetings to tell me I wasn’t pulling my weight and maybe I should leave. I said I didn’t want to leave. They wanted me to go of my own accord, but I stuck fast so their only option was to drive me out. These meetings were all recorded, but tweaked in his favour and not wanting to cause a fuss, I signed the record to say that this was a true account of what had been said. Stupid and unbelievable, I think now, because there is no way I should have done that. But, I was a single mum with two kids and I couldn’t afford to be out of a job.
One day I woke up with a raging cold, sore throat and I couldn’t get over to Bradford, so I rang to say as much, and went back to bed. Within the hour, someone from the department rang me to ask how long I’d be off sick. I hadn’t a clue, I replied. She asked if I had seen the sick form they had sent to my pc yet, because it needed filling in. I replied that I hadn’t even switched on my pc because I’d gone back to bed. They reiterated that I needed to fill it in. I went back to bed. They rang again, I let the answerphone pick it up. They demanded I fill in the form. They rang again, asking for the work I should have presented to them that morning. They rang again wanting to know if I would definitely attend a meeting the following Monday. I got up and I looked at myself in the mirror, crying with a mouth covered in cold sores and I knew I couldn’t ever go back to that place.
I rang the first solicitor I found in the Yellow Pages for help. He asked if I could get in to see him.
We became good friends over the years myself and David Gordon (real name). He says he will never forget the sight of the crying woman who sat in his office that November morning. She looked like a plague victim with all the sores. She had flip flops on and it was freezing and raining. She was a wreck. I might have been paid £63,000 a year but it wasn’t worth any of it. He advised me to get a taxi and see a doctor because he didn’t think I’d be able to drive safely. He said I had a strong case for constructive dismissal – ie when they do everything they can to drive you to the point where you feel you have no option but to leave. It cost me all the life savings I had built up, but I had to fight him. Because I had done nothing wrong and they had.
Droves of people had left quietly because of Mark and I wasn’t going to be one of them. The firm were effectively taking the food out of my children’s mouths. So I made them sit up and notice me. Head office in America threatened to sue me if I slandered them – it all got very global. They kicked against my solicitor at every opportunity but he forced them to hand over my personnel file which – in the months I’d been in the firing line – was huge. Every little thing I did was recorded. I was even suspected of issuing anonymous death threats to ‘John’ (which my solicitor chuckled at). It was a total character assassination but they couldn’t say that I didn’t do my work, because it was all there. Incidentally I kept a diary of all the work I did to cover myself and Mark’s retort was ‘I wish I had enough spare time to record what I’d done… so you see what I was up against.)
My barrister was a lovely guy but here’s where the fight started to unravel. He believed me implicitly but told me that it was very hard to prove a bullying case. Because it had happened to so many people at the place, it could be proved I wasn’t singled out. Or that he was just a ‘strong’ manager. If he’d groped me, easy case. Bullying – nigh on impossible to not have strong counter arguments. I did have some legal cover but it was capped. I’d spent thousands. I had to take out a massive loan which - six years later - I am still paying off. But I am so glad I did it. Because it was the right thing to do something. And so many people contacted me afterwards who had been through the same at his hands and wished they hadn't taken it lying down - but it is SO difficult when you are in the thick of it all not to just jack in the job and let them get away with it.
Even if I had won, it would have been a very hollow victory, my solicitor told me. There would have been no apology from them. It wouldn’t get me any money back. So I decided to let it go, when I had taken it as far as I could feasibly go. And I wrote about it. And I advise people about it. But I can look myself in the mirror and be proud that I took on a massive company.
So what happened next? ‘John’ couldn’t handle the job and took a reduced role. Then ‘Mark’ started to pick on him. That’s the trouble with little turncoats you see – they use each other but they can’t trust each other. ‘John’ went off sick with stress and then left. ‘Mark’ was reported by someone else he tried to bully and the firm decided that was one too many case to fend off so ‘Mark’ was given a nice fat payout and told to leave quietly.
And whilst I was at my son’s rugby match, a couple of years ago, I saw ‘Mark’ (account here). He spotted me and sped off as if his backside was on fire and stayed out of my way. I wanted to punch him, throw my coffee over him and scream… but knowing that he had absolutely no power over me and that I’d come out of the experience wiser, richer (although not in money) and with guts took the sting out of things a little. There is no greater revenge than success and he isn’t doing that great. But I am. That will hurt him far more than a coffee in the face would have.
And my advice for anyone in the position I was? And some of these are difficult to do but have to be done.
Firstly – some people just don’t realise they come across as bullies. Your first step should be to hold a meeting and tell that person how they are making you feel. That may resolve it. Or it may prove to you that you’re right and you then need to take further steps.
Talk to friends. Make sure that you have a real case and it isn’t just a personality clash. Bullying is a very different scenario to ‘not getting on with your boss because he’s a prick.’
Do not suffer in silence. No one has the right to threaten you with insecurity in the workplace. Keep a diary of all the incidences as they happen. Write the facts as objectively as you can. Make a separate note of how these incidences make you feel.
Talk to someone in HR if you are getting nowhere. Don’t worry about ‘stirring up trouble.’ You have the right to complain and you MUST have what you are saying logged. People are often scared to complain because it shows up on their records and they think this blights any future chances they have at other jobs. If you are in a position where you are being victimised, you need a paper trail.
If you have a union rep – see them also.
NEVER sign an account of a conversation if it is not recorded truly to ‘not cause a fuss’. You need to cover your back and insist on changes being made or refuse to sign. You have to be a good friend to yourself in these cases, dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's.
You will feel better for taking steps to watch your own back. Do NOT do nothing. A real bully will not go away.
Let litigation be the last way - you need LOTS of money and time and energy to go down this route and the victory is shallow if you get it. Don't undertake that lightly if you don't have a watertight case.
The more people that shout up, the more chance the law has of changing to recognise genuine cases of bullying. As it stands there is little between complaining to HR and litigation.
Hope this helps you