I’ve always prided myself on being a strong person, but the first time I broke into tears in the office, I started to question my emotional stability.
“You need to present yourself better at work,” he said. Looking down at my black slacks, leather heeled boots, and clean blouse I wondered what he meant. Seeing my obvious confusion, he took it upon himself to elaborate.
“Your hair and face are very plain, it would be good if you could doll yourself up a bit for your next editor’s photo. Talk to [my coworker] – she always looks great.”
I was completely taken aback. I didn’t say anything at the time because I honestly didn’t know how to respond. I just sat there in stunned silence and gave him a sort of half nod.
Later, standing in the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror and cried. I told my coworkers about the incident, but I never told them how much it made me feel sick to my gut.
I was in my first job with a publishing company – straight out of uni – and in this moment, I realised bosses could be bullies.
In my first few months with the company five editorial staff members quit, two of which did so with no other job lined up. This might not seem like all that many, but the editorial team was only made up of eight people. When they left, they told me “to be careful” and not to trust him.
“He has their favourites,” they said. “He likes you now, but it’s only a matter of time.”
I shrugged off their comments, as my boss had already ‘confided’ in me that they were troublemakers with bad attitudes. So I didn’t question their comments further, I merely looked at their departures as an opportunity to snatch up more work and extra responsibilities.
But then reality started sinking in. I started noticing a lot of whispering around the office, how people would tense up when our boss came into the room, and how often people would burst into tears, especially after having meetings with him.
In my first performance review meeting, I received nothing but praise, but the conversation quickly turned into him gossiping mercilessly about other staff members.
“She has some issues that one, she’s 30 and her boyfriend still hasn’t proposed," he told me about my colleague. "She’s starting to develop mental health problems. That’s why she cries all the time.”
His behaviour was often justified by statements like ‘He wasn’t always like this,’ or ‘He’s just under a lot of pressure at the moment,’ but do these excuses ever make bullying okay?
There was also a lot of inequality within the team. Staff members were paid based on how much ‘he liked them’, bonuses were given to girls who wore a lot of makeup and dressed fashionably, and it was an unspoken rule that no men, people of colour or homosexuals were allowed to be employed, even as interns.
Listen: David Gillespie on how to spot a psychopathic boss. (Post continues...)
Thankfully, promotions were handed out by the managing editor, not the business owner, which is how I eventually came into my role as an editor. My boss had always looked on me favourably - largely because I knew how to keep my mouth shut - and up until the point I got my promotion I was one of very few lucky ones.
This all changed when my role demanded more face-to-face contact with him. Some of our methods for handling work were very outdated, which made our jobs needlessly difficult. When we approached him with new ideas, asked him questions about print dates or chose an image for an editorial, which contradicted his personal views on the world, we were chastised.
I still remember knocking on his office door, standing in front of his desk and telling him the designers were yet to send through proofs for a magazine that was scheduled to go to print in two days. We needed to move back the print date. His response chilled me to my bones. Standing up, he picked up a magazine on his desk, threw it against the wall in my direction, and yelled “Why don’t you just run the place then?" before storming out of the room, nearly knocking me over as he did. I was terrified.
I started to dread going to work, and would feel sick to my stomach; I couldn’t sleep, felt stressed and started fighting with my husband more because of it. I was too scared to do my job, in fear of what comments he would make.
Eventually, I started looking for new jobs, but because the industry I was in was a very small community, word of my interview with another company got back to my boss.
He was not happy.
I was called into his office, but he didn’t tell me what the meeting was about. He started out by telling me how people would fight tooth and nail for my job. How he has seen lots of girls come and go and they all regret leaving. Then he called me “ungrateful”, “stupid”, and “selfish”. I thought I was going to get fired. He told me to think about my actions, and come back to him and hand my resignation in if I wanted to leave. I walked back to my desk with flushed cheeks. My heart was pounding. My breaths were short. What just happened?
Later, his PA came and told me what was going on. He was friends with the owner at a job I had interviewed for, and he expected me to apologise for my discretion. I was scared. I had a mortgage to pay. Humiliatingly, I went into his office, voice trembling, and apologised. The smug look he gave me made me feel like a child.
After that, he openly discussed my incompetence with other staff. Comments were made about my writing ability, my attitude, and my appearance. At the height of the bullying, my relationship, financial position and career prospects were all laid out on the table for him to attack. Remarks that “I was destroying my career, and would lose my house” were made publicly. In the heat of his rage, he also told the whole team “her husband will leave her, she’s so useless. I wouldn’t want to be married to a girl like her.”
He made me feel awful, and no one did anything because they were scared of how he would react, and like me, needed the money.
Listen: The unspoken rules for open plan offices. (Post continues...)
This was 12-months ago. After over a year of daily bullying, I finally left that role. I worked up the courage to tell him that I felt like I was working in an unsafe environment and that I would be moving into a new role elsewhere. Before this, my self-worth was called into question on multiple occasions; my normally bright demeanour and ambitious nature had almost entirely disappeared. Now, I’m working in a friendly team environment and I enjoy coming to work. My only regret is that I didn’t speak up sooner, and that I stayed in an unhappy workplace for as long as I did. Two years is a long time to spend in a hostile workplace, and honestly, I actually started to believe that every workplace was like that. That bullying was normal.
Sadly, I’m not the only person that’s ever been in that position and I’m certainly not the last. For one reason or another, so many of us put up with it. But we don’t have to. It’s never too late to speak up, and walking away from my old boss was the best possible thing I could have done for myself.
Have you ever had a horrible boss? Tell us your story in the comments below...