Monday, June 3, 2013
Beginning the Story: The first experience of workplace abuse
As I mentioned in my last posting, the previous foundational series has been very difficult to write. To remember. To put into words. It's been draining - both physically and emotionally. This series promises to be the same, draining me of what little energy I have left. Yet, in order to understand where recovery began, it is a vital piece of the puzzle. To understand the devastation that entered my life during the first workplace abuse experience and the non-healing that followed. The tension and fear I lived with daily in the workplace.
The first time around re: workplace bullying snuck up on me unawares. So unawares that I was not only unaware of what was taking place when it was happening but also for years afterwards.
I lived in a world of denial. This can't be happening to me. I'm a good worker. I'm really good at my job.
But it had nothing to do with how good I was. It had everything to do with what my immediate supervisor thought I was.
I was on a series of contracts at a local, family-owned business after finishing a co-op work term as part of the Administrative Assistant Internship Program at a local school. From there I went on to a summer part-time contrat which then became a full-time contract as other employees shifted to accommodate a maternity leave vacancy. Even then, though, the supervisor expressed reservations and instead of a year's contract to cover the full vacancy, offered a short-term contract of a few months. Short-term contract followed short-term contract - for a total of 25 months. Each time the carrot of a full-time job at the end was held up in front of me. Too bad the carrot I kept following so eagerly was on a string tied to my tail. It was an illusion, a pipe dream. But I didn't know that. Or maybe, the truth is, I didn't want to know that.
I wanted a job. Period. So badly that I was willing to ignore the reality of my position.
While taking the Administrative Assistant program, I'd been at the top of the class. I was one of the ones that others went to for help when they were stuck. I often helped out the instructor with others when she was busy. I was looked up to, acknowledged as a natural leader. Intelligent. Capable.
From that position of respect in the academic setting, though, I seemed to have become the "doofus" in the office setting. The one who was incompetent. Who didn't know anything.
Even in the early stages of my tenture at this company, there were red flags. I was told not to ask questions. Like task-related questions. As in how do I get this done?
I specifically remember one time in my career as a co-op student when I was approving invoices for product warehousing and came across something that didn't seem right. I remember sitting there with my co-op supervisor sitting beside me feeling fearful, questioning myself: should I ask him and risk his anger or should I just ignore my qualms and approve this invoice? Tension mounted within me. Finally, I cleared my throat and asked. At first, he started to remonstrate: I said no questions. Then he saw what I was pointing to. I had uncovered the tip of the iceberg of a billing error which saved the company several thousand dollars. But only because I was brave enough to ignore the mandate: No questions.
A second incident of this idea of not being allowed to ask questions or clarification for tasks came up when I was on my first contract. A fellow employee gave me a task to do. I can't remember the exact nature of the task but it involved problem-solving. I'm good at problem-solving, but it would have helped if I had an idea of where to start unravelling the problem. She refused to give me any guidance, forbade me to ask questions and then went to lunch. I still remember how it felt to sit there at my desk, feeling isolated, feeling obligated to accomplish this task and having no idea of where to start. Eventually, my "mentor" from my co-op term came by, and I asked him. It turned out that he was already working on it. From him that day, I learned a lot on how to approach this kind of issue in my job and eventually became quite good at unravelling the issues and finding the answers. But only because I was brave enough to ignore the "rule" and ask questions.
I found my supervisor hard to approach. I had concerns about a co-worker who was shuffling work on to the rest of us. In fact, we all had concerns about this one person. And we talked about her behind her back. A lot. It was nasty.
At one point, I tried to approach my supervisor with my concerns and she sloughed them off. I came away with the perception that this co-worker was untouchable, a favorite. So I kept my thoughts private and didn't try again.
When we had our evaluations that year, the other employees were given an opportunity to voice their concerns about this one employee. When it came my turn, I was told that I had been "less than honest" to the supervisor and had not come to her with my concerns. I pointed out very timidly that I had tried to. Her response was that she didn't like the way I had gone about voicing my concerns. She also indicated that she perceived that I was the cause behind the backbiting and gave me a verbal tongue-lashing. I teared up at the unexpected assault. I felt like a little child being scolded by its mother for a misdemeanour that the older sibling had done. However, while I was not the cause of the backbiting, I did recognize my part in it. I learned a valuable lesson that day: don't participate in office gossip and backbiting.
We were all told not to talk about this co-worker. What that accomplished was - not much. We never did discuss the co-worker again. But her work didn't improve either. We just suffered in silence.
I had also noticed that there were many sharp edges to various personalities in the office. When I first came into this workplace for my co-op term, we were all squeezed together cheek by jowl in a small distribution office in the rear of the building housing the manufacturing plant. As time progressed, the decision was made to separate the office people, the customer service people, from the warehousing people, and an office was renovated on the second floor of the building. Further positioning changes occurred as time progressed and more cubicles were added to our office space. On what became my next-to-last contract, my cubicle was moved next to my supervisor's. In retrospect that was the worst place for me to be positioned as my supervisor could hear everything I said - and she appeared to have been judging me from the other side of the wall.
Why did I put up with this? Why didn't I just say "no" to a new contract? Why didn't I put in my notice?
I think I was willing to do almost anything (as long as it was legal), bear anything, any challenge to keep that job.
I was in my 50's. While there were still a few good years left in me, I was past the point of easy employability.
It was fear that kept me in that workplace.
And that is where I will leave you today, dear reader. Up on the second floor, next to my supervisor, quivering in fear.
No workplace abuse situation occurs in a day. It takes time, months, even years, to develop. As noted in the beginning of this post, it creeps up on one unawares.
Tomorrow, we continue the saga of what became the contract from hell.