Recently I had a conversation with some co-workers about who had worked for the worst boss. When I said: “I used to work for a boss that hit me“. I had clearly marked the winner. “Why did you not just leave the job?” my friend asked astonished. Of course, I did leave the job eventually, but it took me a few years, and some major health scares to realize what was going on.
It is a Gradual Process
Firstly I explain to people that this did not happen on the first day! If he had slapped me during the interview I would of course never even have accepted the job. It was a small organization, and open plan office and seriously, this was my dream job! My boss was a charming and funny guy, and even later when I was aware of his true nature, he could be super nice and funny. When I started working there, I was very happy and I thought I had a great boss. The whole office would sit down for lunch together, we made jokes and laughed, and we were all very committed and worked very hard.
So when did I start to notice that things were not that perfect? Well, I started noticing pretty soon that making mistakes was a big deal to this guy. When I started there, I was only the temp, so I was not at his focus. One of the program managers was though. She and he had some opposing views on the best way to deal with things, and there was NO room for her to voice her opinions. “You are not paid to have independent thoughts” he used to joke at all of us, it took me years to realize that was not a joke, but a management style.
So eventually he would give me quite a chewing out for making small mistakes (like leaving a typo in a letter). Every time I would figure out a way to deal with his anger, he would add a new tactic until eventually, he started smacking me across the back of my head. And he would differentiate his methods depending on the staff member’s personality and buttons. I know he used to give people the silent treatment, throw tantrums, or throw files at them, he would deny ever having given people assignments (even if they showed him a note in his handwriting with the assignment on it). Anything really to keep us off balance and doubting our own ability.
There was an enormous amount of gossip in the office. Usually started by our boss. He would focus his anger at different staff members in turn, and would talk about them and how poorly they did their job to the other people in the office. He once even managed to ask us for reasons he could fire one of our colleagues during a staff meeting when she was away on annual leave. So we were all aware that he was wanting and preparing to fire her, but he left it hanging for 6 months, after which time she was tired of his bullying and left. We were too afraid to tell her about it, and it felt so much like I was lying to her by keeping his secret. Whatever the means, he made sure there was no trust between the staff members. Now I understand he was making sure we would not join forces against him.
Eventually the Spot Light Hit Me
So as I stayed on and became a full-time staff member I became more of a focus. I could see he was unreasonable and saw many colleagues leave. Of the 14 people I worked with (we had a 4 man staff), 12 left in conflict with the boss. After number 8 left, the board really felt they needed to take some action. They decided that the director was bad at staff management, so they would hire a day-to-day manager as a buffer between him and the staff. At the director’s advice, I was promoted to manager. That was when the spotlight truly hit me.
Instead of letting me deal with staff issues in a way that suited me and my personality, he tried to turn me into a Flying Monkey. He would send me to chew out a staff member over her not keeping a tidy desk, instead of letting me judge whether there was a problem and if so deal with things in my manner. Because he was bullying me into using his “management strategies” I was unable to take charge. On top of that, he would overrule every single decision I made on my days off so that I lost all credibility with the staff.
The Stress Ruined my Life
It may not surprise you that working within that environment resulted in a serious breakdown. I was not aware of that until I saw my doctor about some breathing problems I was having. I was convinced I had a touch of pneumonia. My doctor did some tests and spoke to me, and resulted: no, that is stress. I was horrified that I had let this situation progress to a place where I could not perform basic bodily functions properly! From that moment on a complicated journey commenced that started with doctors and ended with solicitors. I got out of that workplace, but it took me two years, mostly because I really wanted to go back to my dream job!
His influence extended the workplace. I really was a mess! Going to the supermarket became a challenge, so I became a hermit and withdrew into our house, withdrew from my friendships. I was overly apologetic to my partner, and I had random panic attacks in the house. I started applying his emotional programming to other situations, and that meant that people perceived me as weak and incompetent. His influence really ruined my life, well for a while!
It Took Years to Recover
It is now a good 4 years since I left the job, and I think I have finally recovered from his programming. When I first left the job I was so doubtful of my own abilities that I only applied for jobs well below my skills level. I would catch myself doing things that were part of coping mechanisms I developed for him. I would hide typos by shredding the paper instead of just binning it, because he used to go through my waste paper bin every night to confront me with mistakes the next day.
I think most people greatly underestimate the effects of bullying in the workplace. They just tell you to “man up” or just to leave the place. But when there are bills and a mortgage to pay, that may not be an immediate option. Besides, reprogramming by emotional bullies is a process that they have practiced so often that you may not be aware what is going on, until you are well and truly in their claws.
Once they have you feeling like a failure, it can be hard to remember your strengths.