Monday, September 8, 2014

Surviving Workplace Abuse: My leaving story - part 3: When bullies take control


I often told my supervisor in the period while the bullying was escalating and retaliation, undetected by management and HR, was becoming the norm in my workplace that I felt tlike I was being judged under Mexican law rather than Canadian or American law.  The difference is that in the U.S. and Canada, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty.  Under the Mexican system, the reverse is true:  a person is considered guilty until proven innocent.  The difference is in the burden of proof.  In the U.S. and Canadian systems, the burden of proof of guilt is on the legal system.  In the Mexican system, the burden of proof of innocence in laid squarely on the shoulders of the individual.  In the system I was in, I was never given the opportunity to prove my innocence.  I was simply presumed guilty of ... whatever.

There is no more revealing evidence of this occurring than when I signed a legally binding agreement to resign based on a "complaint" by co-workers in a local doughnut shop with only the union representative present while still on sick leave.


Sitting at the table in the doughnut shop, I had no idea what was to come.  I was naive. I was complacent in my innocence.  I knew I was being bullied.  I knew too I was covered under Ontario's Bill 168, the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act (Violence and Harassment in the Workplace), which went into effect June 15th, 2010.

According to this piece of legislation, I had the right to be free of harassment in the workplace.  Bill 168's definition of workplace harassment is as follows:  “workplace harassment” means engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.

This same bill also protects the worker against violence in the workplace.

I was still in the "let's get the union rep on the same page re: workplace bullying as I am," frame of mine when the union rep came back with the coffee, sat down and said that the co-workers had submitted their own complaint.

My first reaction was one of bemusement.  I was confused and bewildered.  I honestly did not take the significance of this new turn of events seriously - at first.  It was not until much later, months after everything was said and done, that I realized the seriousness of the impact of this alleged complaint and its ramifications.

Since I was still actively working on getting the union rep to understand what bullying was all about, I could not comprehend (a) what these people had to complain about me and (b) that those in high places in the company could take this seriously.

I was wrong on both counts.  They took it very seriously.  Seriously enough to craft a legal document in which I agreed to resign.

All I wanted at that point was to survive - and get out.  I also wanted some financial lifeline to hold onto as I wasn't expecting to leave the workforce quite so soon or under such circumstances.  I still have a bit more than three years to go before I hit that "magic" age of 65 and could receive CPP.

I was then shown the "complaint".

It began with the wording "we the undersigned" and proceeded to make a number of unsubstantiated, unverified allegations.

The main basis of the "complaint" was that they had the "right to a stress free workplace".  It was followed by a rambling paragraph making a slew of allegations.  Looking back, the "complaint" was akin to how I make soup: throwing in everything I can think of that will add to the flavour of the soup that is available to me at that time.

These people threw in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.  If an action or statement, could be twisted to be interpreted as being wrong or causing them stress, it was.

Noticeably absent, were any specific incidents or statements on my part such as "on such and such a date at such and such a time, Suzanne did such and such."  Nothing definitive.  Just a bunch of broad-based allegations allegedly seen by eight people on all three shifts in our small office plus one who didn't even work in my department.

In the third to last paragraph, I was accused of being confrontative, verbally abusive, going to HR and management on perceptions and assumptions and putting things on Facebook.

The second to last paragraph politely asked the recipient of the "complaint" i.e. management and HR to resolve the issue.

The last paragraph though was the doozy.  It expressed the perception that these workers were afraid of me and that they believed I presented a valid threat to their safely in the workplace i.e. that I could become violent.

Oh God, this is so hard to write.  Even after three years, it brings it all back.

Going back to Bill 168, it not only protects the worker from workplace harassment but also from violence and/or the threat of violence in the workplace.  Bill 168's definition of workplace violence is as follows:
1. the exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that
causes or could cause physical injury to the worker,
2. an attempt to exercise physical force against a worker in a workplace that could
cause physical injury to the worker,
3. a statement or behaviour that is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to
exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical
injury to the worker. 

Because I know that I'm not a violent person and that I had done everything possible to work on recovery, to resolve the situation with these co-workers, to be non-threatening in any way, shape or form and that except for those five shifts, I hadn't even been there in something like two months, I didn't take this "complaint" seriously.  I guess I figured that if I knew that I wasn't the person portrayed in that piece of paper, that management and HR should know that too.  From where I was sitting, to me, this complaint was proof that these people were bullying me.  To me, HR and management had the proof in their hands that what I had been saying all along was true.

Apparently, HR and management did not see it that way. 

Seeing those signatures undid me.  Especially the last one.  Someone I had done nothing to.  Someone I didn't even know was involved in the mess.  I was devastated.  Distraught.  I dissolved in tears.

Significantly absent was the signature of the trainee whose refusal to allow me to train her had precipitated the second stress breakdown.

How did all these people get involved?  To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't done anything to them.

I had realized for quite a while that every time I was away either off sick, for a holiday or whatever, that when I came back it seemed that one more person was avoiding me.  Refusing to talk to me.  To look at me.  I was increasingly becoming systematically more and more isolated in the office until at the end I was, for all practical intents and purposes, totally isolated from the others in the work environment.  I sat in my corner of the office and stared at the wall when not busy with work-related activities.  While they talked among themselves, I listened to my iPod which my manager had given me permission to have.  I initiated no conversations with any of them unless it was work-related.  I ate my supper alone.  If they went out and brought back coffee from a local coffee shop off grounds, I went to the other, larger office where the managers had their office and made myself a cup of instant.  I often felt so isolated in the workplace that when someone from a different part of the plant came to my window and asked a question, I would pantomime the response.  I had to remind myself when leaving for the day that it was OK to talk now.   When was there an opportunity for me to verbally threaten these people many of whom were head and shoulders bigger than I am?  When?

I had learned many coping techniques and was dealing with the total isolation until....

Until ... these co-workers began running to management who immediately reported anything reported to them to HR.  It didn't matter what.  Saying hello to a co-worker.  Telling a co-worker who was standing in the middle of the room waving her arms that she had hurt me.    Every mistake I made, no matter how minor, was immediately reported to my manager who began a file on me.  Getting called into my supervisor's office became commonplace.  I was threatened with discipline routinely.  You wanna talk about stress?  I was under a brutal amount of stress, and still finding ways to deal with it and cope. 

Through my tears, I read the document twice.  Through my tears, I heard the union representative read the legally binding agreement which would end my relationship with the company, ending six years of employment.  Also effectively ending my working life.  Something I didn't know at the time.

It all seemed so unreal.  I think I was in a state of shock.

I still didn't understand the seriousness of the situation as, from my perspective, the union rep was holding in his hands concrete proof that I was actively being bullied by these co-workers.  I was still working on getting him to understand that.

In fact, he had once said after an international convention of local union officials held in the United States in which he was supposed to talk to officials in the large union we were affiliated with, not our little shop union, that the consensus of opinion was that it was in the best interests of the employer that I be totally separated from them.

He told me that if I did not sign that agreement, I would have to return to work when my six weeks of disability ended.  I was hoping that my disability would be extended as I knew that I was not ready to go back to work yet.  I still hadn't reached where I had been when I came back to work the first time.  I could not read or follow recipes which contained more than three or four ingredients.  I could not talk without a severe stutter.  There was more, much more.  I just can't remember them all at this time.

According to the binding union agreement, I was entitled to 52 weeks of short-term disability.  I had used 10, so I had 42 more potentially.  

At this point, I was hanging on to the hope that the specialist who I was to see just before my six weeks off was over would sign me off for additional time off.

I knew that I was not well enough, not strong enough, to return to that environment.  I felt that if was forced to return to the situation as it was in the current state I was in that I would likely commit suicide.  I'd worked too hard, too long, to stay alive, to heal, to recover, to want to put myself in that position now.  

At this point, I'm not I really understood what was happening at that doughnut shop.  First off, I had no idea a "complaint" had been made against me.  I was never advised of any complaint or investigation into one and, therefore, was not involved in any investigation.  I felt like I'd been hit in the gut without warning. 

I never saw this coming.

I did have the presence of mind to ask the union representative about an investigation and was told that since I wasn't planning on returning anyway, there wasn't any reason for one.


If there was one, I was never made aware of it or involved in it.

Mexican justice at its worst.

At that point the only thing I think I really understood is that I was in a fight for my life (i.e. suicide) and that going back with probably sign my death warrant.

I was not given the opportunity to take the paperwork home and think about it.  Or to take it to a lawyer.

I felt that I had to sign then and there.

With tears still streaming down my face, devastated and distraught, I signed while the union representative looked at me dispassionately like one would look at a lesser life form, an insect for example..

After signing, I asked for a copy of the "complaint".  He denied my request.

It was only later, as I analyzed everything that I realized just how thoroughly I had been played.


Not only does this posting opens up a Pandora's box of significant issues regarding what constitutes a valid complaint, company polities regarding such complaints and their investigation, etc., but it also brings back all the memories.

It brings back the helplessness I experienced not only during the entire four year episode but especially that day in the doughnut shop with only the union representative in attendance.  No HR in attendance.  No friend to intervene.  I was alone.  With the union representative, the "complaint" in front of me, starring at the company's resolution to the issue.  Alone.  Distraught. Devastated.

I've tried to recount what happened that day as objectively as I can.  Facts only.  Leaving out my opinions, perceptions, assumptions.  Those will come in later posts.

For now, I'm exhausted emotionally.  It's time to draw back - at least for a few hours - to re-center myself.  To remind myself that fair or unfair, it's over.

There is never a delete button in life.  What's done is done.  We can only go forward from here.

We just have to find the courage to do so.

Until tomorrow....

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