From early on in my career, I always got head-hunter calls. When you reach a certain level of expertise, they find you. This was before LinkedIn and Facebook, and they could still find you. At the time, I was not interested in going anywhere. Sure, my boss ignored me most of the time, but I loved my team and I loved my work and I loved my coworkers. I was making a difference and I always had something new to keep me engaged. I even loved the part of the city that my office was in, even though it took me 60-90 minutes to get there and another 90+ minutes to get home at night.
Bring in the persistent researcher. She knew that I had about 90% of what her client was looking for, which is an excellent match. So, she effectively ignored my “not interested, try calling this other person” responses and wore me down. I decided to do the interview for fun or practice, and partially as a favour to her in case I ever decided to leave where I was. I wasn’t going to move over 500 kms away from where I lived with my wonderful husband, twin girls about to start grade school, and our fantastic dog, Chelsea, so practice was the only reason to go through with it.
And, I was flattered and excited to be wooed for a job in another city.
On the day of the second interview with the agency, I put on my best suit, which my husband noticed as I was running out the door at 6:30am. In response to his questioning look, I mentioned the interview, but not to worry because it was in this other city. To my surprise, he said: “I’ll move there.” Oh. I guess I better try.
I did well. They sent me to the other city for additional interviews and then the final interview was held back in my city, where I was offered the job.
I provided a month’s notice and got busy getting ready to go.
Then the big day came: I started the new job.
I think I was imagining a big, happy family, kind of like what I left in my former position. Instead, it was more like guerilla warfare. I couldn’t see it at first, but there were lines drawn and walls built to protect the empires of those who worked there. I knew by the end of my second day there that this was not the place for me. But it was too late. We’d sold our home in record time. My husband had given notice. My old company did a reorganization to fill the gap I left behind. I was stuck and had to make the best of it.
My new position was intended to be a central nucleus of the department’s ongoing projects, leveraging my knowledge and abilities to get things done. My team members and I worked on special projects that normally would not have had the resources to move forward.
That all sounds good, so why am I suggesting I was bullied? One of the types of bullying in the workplace is work interference: sabotage which prevents work from getting done. In this case, my colleagues would hoard information. Because I was new, I didn’t have full security clearance or training to access what I needed. I had to rely on them to give me what I needed. One of the first projects was to reconcile a multi-million dollar pension fund down to the penny. Missing the top 1% of the data made the task impossible. I thought I was going insane. People insisted they gave me the correct information, so I must not know what I am doing. I used to be the go-to person for how to get things done with Excel and Access, and was now questioning my abilities. I cried on the floor of my hotel room after being berated by my new boss for not being able to reconcile the data. That was just the first week. It only got worse from there.
There were some allies to be found. They would pull the figurative daggers out of my back and get me to the Starbucks around the corner to let off steam. They wanted me to succeed. I was a breath of fresh air. When I needed data, I would ask my allies for support in verifying that it was complete and, you know, not missing the top 1% or some union group or whatever monkey wrench was thrown at me. It took about six months for me to learn enough about the company so that I could figure out if data was missing on my own and nearly a year to get the proper clearance from my boss to access all of the data in the system on my own.
I wondered why I was hired in the first place. You would think that your boss would be the first one to step in and remove barriers to success. That’s how I saw my responsibilities as a manager. I cleared the path so that my team members could do what they needed to do. Instead, I was moved from cubicle to cubicle. At one point, I was put in the farthest point on the floor, where it was difficult to find me or engage in casual conversation. The previous peer who was stationed at this desk called the walk the Green Mile, after the movie. The people who reported to me were on the other side of the floor.
That was when I started contemplating suicide. The environment was incredibly toxic and my allies could only help so far. I had a plan and knew when and where I was going to do it.
Clearly, I did not commit suicide. I am an orphan because both of my parents died by their own hands. I knew the signs and sought counselling. In one of my sessions, I mentioned where I worked and the therapist changed her tune (it was initially all about me and what I was doing and what I could do better) and told me to get out of there fast. She had had several clients from the company, so this was her professional opinion based on years of experience.
I started making my plan for departure. I decided that I wanted to do something different. I went back to school. I started my consulting business and, later, started the residential cleaning business.
The concept of workplace bullying wasn’t part of anti-harassment policies at the time. It wasn’t “a thing”, as my kids say. Now, governments are trying to regulate everything.
As I look back on my experience, there were excuses like “I didn’t know you needed that (top 1%) data” or “that was a mistake” when I called people out on withholding information. While I had my suspicions, I wondered if the sabotage was deliberate or if the perpetrators were stupid. Sabotaging work by withholding information would qualify as bullying, but it was done so subtly that I don’t think I would have a case.
The cubicle moves always seemed to make sense – trying to streamline areas of expertise (except for my team) – but the isolation at the end was unbearable. Social isolation might have been a supporting element, but I had friends in the workplace, so I wasn’t completely isolated.
What would I have done differently? I would have gone with my gut back at the job interview stage. When I had asked to meet the team before making a decision, I was given a weak reason when the request was declined. I should have taken that as a sign to stay away.