My story

So rude (6th Incident)

Today was a ‘try not to cry’ day at work. Or to be more specific, a ‘try not to cry during lunch’ day.  It’s only the moments when no-one is looking that I have trouble keeping the façade up (like how its only when you take time off work that your body lets you get sick).

My undoing? I can handle a lot of the shit that’s thrown at me, but we all have our Achilles heel that makes us vulnerable. It’s the point they hit when they say or do something that preys on our deepest insecurities.

So a little bit about me. Like anyone, I have strengths and weaknesses, but those “strengths” that I most take pride in are not appreciated by all. For example, I’m a very straight up and down no-bullshit bluntly honest type of person. My friends and many people I work with like that quality in me. Others do not.


  • No games, no lies, no politics or gossip.
  • I give people the benefit of the doubt, don’t hold grudges, and reserve my judgement till I have all the facts
  • When there is a problem I try to find solutions and provide “constructive” feedback.
  • I am considerate of others, appreciative of their hard work, and try to help others out.
  • I am fair in my dealings with people.
  • I am at times ‘blunt.’ I will call a spade a spade, speak my mind, and generally stand up for what I believe in.
  • Politics and mind games confuse and bewilder me, and inevitably I end up saying and doing the thing that puts me in the shit.
  • Some people at my current work find my honesty “rude.”

Which brings me to today’s issue.

I’ve been working with a contractor who has failed to address my feedback on an e-newsletter design. I have had to reiterate my feedback numerous times because rather than him making the changes required he has made piss-poor excuses of why he isn’t going to (him trying to argue that it isn’t a problem, when it clearly is to me and my team).

To make matters more complicated he was hired by my nemesis Murray (Business Analyst), has realised we are at odds with one another, and that Murray has political favour in my workplace so he can basically get away with ignoring what I say.

My last lot of feedback was fair, honest, firm, thanking him for the positive changes he has made, clarifying where he has misunderstood, and calling him on the items he has not changed despite my previous requests.

He wrote back an email (cceed Murray and my other colleagues) calling me rude, saying he refuses to work with me anymore, and once again indicating he will not make the changes requested (this time his excuses include lies, saying that I agreed with him previously on something I most certainly did not).

What I have learned the hard way in the public sector (yet still not learned how to pre-empt), is that the first person who complains is the one who is believed. Like kids know that the one who runs off to the adult to “tell on” the other is the one who gets the upper hand.

Automatically I get pulled into account for my “rude” email. This isn’t just a little bit of small talk, it’s an official warning made with a witness present, and its clear that his word is enough for them. Talk about calling the kettle black: HIS emails are far ruder than mine, he is the one who has not met the brief, who continues to fail to address the feedback given to him, and has been hired to do this work.

I reread over the email I sent him, and it is to me clearly nothing more than a fair and clear statement of fact and feedback –  and his response is an unprofessional emotional rant – yet like all things it depends on how you spin it.  You could take any email and skew the meaning (is that smiley face friendly or sarcastic?).

Going through my head are two different thoughts:

1) If you provide clear constructive feedback to someone who is doing a half-arsed job, the easiest and most popular response is to point the finger at you and call you “rude” and “unprofessional” so you get in trouble and they don’t have to do the work properly.

(I’ve never experienced this kind of behaviour until this job, and now this is the third time this has happened to to me in the past four months!  And I can’t fight the system).

2) Maybe they are right and I am abominably rude. That’s the Achilles heel.

Either way, I spent my lunch break sniffing back tears.

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Butting Heads (3rd incident)

The Third Incident, the third rebuke from my bullying boss, was admittedly partly my own fault.

Matt and Jack are consultants whom my boss holds in high esteem.  They are from out of town and were booked to work with our team in our office for a limited time, so I had left my schedule fairly open on the day to be flexible around them and their meetings with other team members. They kept putting me off until the end of the day – at which point I had only 20 mins space for them before I had an important meeting set up with another person.

Prior to this meeting I had spoken to Jack several times in person and by Skype about the topic of the meeting (and we seemed to be on the same wavelength), and had one joint Skype meeting with Matt and Jack together. I had set up a shared Google document for us to use to brainstorm and converse on the topic – which neither of them had contributed to or commented on.

I sat down with them and proceeded to bring them up to speed. It was clear neither of them had read my correspondence, however more alarming was the change in tone I saw in Jack under Matt’s influence. Where previously Jack was every bit as excited about what I’d told him as I was, today he was following Matt’s lead. And Matt was being incredibly patronising, egotistical, negative, trying to tell me what to do (in a field that is not his expertise, when he hadn’t read the briefing documents I’d sent, etc). Jack followed Matt’s lead and took on a patronising tone, treating me like a child.

I could not believe what they were doing. More interested in listening to their own voices, in their own egotistical sense of  ‘authority’, than having an intelligent informed discussion – I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. In a flash of anger I called them on it, and told them to stop being so patronising. Matt told me he found me incredibly rude. I said I found his patronisation to be rude.

Due to them delaying our meeting till the end of the day I only had a short period of time before I had to get to my next meeting – so I had to excuse myself before we’d solved the issue. I said we’d have to talk about this more another day.

Later that afternoon as I was getting ready to go home, Jack pulled me aside to apologise. He said he realised that he and Matt had come at things the wrong angle. Equally, I apologised for losing my temper, and assured him it was all water under the bridge. While I would love his and Matt’s help on my project, if they didn’t want to be part of it  (for example, were worried about workload) I could proceed without them.

The next day my boss called me aside for a ‘talk.’ By this point I’d come to realise that meant something bad. She went straight on the attack, saying that Matt and Jack had made a complaint about me. She said that she’d already had to speak to me about being ‘rude’ (see Second Incident), that Matt was extremely important to the project, that I needed to be better at ‘making friends’, and that I had to apologise. I asked her: didn’t she even want to hear the other side of what happened?

When I had originally told my boss about what I wanted to do she had been excited by my ideas and asked me to involve Matt and Jack. I told her that Matt had categorically rejected these same ideas, without even listening. That ultimately if he didn’t want to be involved he needn’t be, however it wasn’t his position to tell me not to proceed when this was my core role and expertise. I wasn’t telling Matt how to do his job (I respect his opinion within his own expertise); he had no right to try to tell me how to do mine.

I relayed to my boss what Matt’s opinion was as to what I should do – a simultaneously stupid and boring idea that had my boss rolling her eyes and exclaiming “Boys!”

I agreed that I shouldn’t have lost my temper, and pointed out that Jack and I had already made up of our own accord (that Jack said himself they had been wrong to approach me the way they had).

My boss seemed to see a bit more sense about this. Still she rebuked me, said that I had to work on getting along with people like Matt, that I needed to ‘listen’ to his wisdom, and that I needed to apologise to Matt officially. I agreed to do so. I certainly felt ashamed for losing my temper. Matt had pushed all the buttons my big brother used to push when I was a kid, made me feel small, insignificant and powerless – and I hated that I’d given into my emotion in the moment and given him that control and ammunition.

I sent Matt and Jack a long email of apology. It wasn’t a complete suck up email: I politely and diplomatically apologised, re-explained the position I was coming from, the seeming misunderstanding, that they needn’t be part of it if they didn’t want to, that I would appreciate their input if they cared to share it, and that I was sorry for losing my temper and having to cut the meeting short to get to my next meeting.

Neither Matt nor Jack so much as acknowledged the apology.

And a few months later, after I had taken their advice on the topic over my own better judgement, when I presented to the team the outcome… They hated Matt’s idea, thought it was stupid and off topic, and made suggestions in line with my original ideas that had since been discarded at Matt and my boss’s insistence.

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The Second Incident with my bullying boss led to a crisis of confidence. She’d really rattled me. The power of the manipulation was such that I started thinking that I was the problem, rather than seeing things for what they really were.

She’d planted a seed in my mind that I was not doing a good job, that other unspecified team members found me rude and had complained about me, and this turned me into a cautious emotionally distant worker. I tip-toed around people, bit my tongue when I had a different opinion, felt a sense of betrayal that other team members acted nice to my face yet had apparently said something else behind my back, and felt like an unlikeable outcast who didn’t fit in.

It didn’t cross my mind to question what my boss had said on this level. Why would she lie about such things? She’d tapped into my deepest insecurities and the emotional wound festered.

She started making me report in to the newly promoted Program Manager (Leonard). At first I was relieved because he was more approachable than my boss. However it soon became clear that ‘reporting’ to him meant extra work, at times micromanagement, other times he didn’t read or respond to the stuff he’d directed me to do, he was a Yes Man who wouldn’t stand up to our boss, and if I made the mistake of raising the issues I was facing he would turn it around on me and suggest that I was the problem.

From a purely ‘work’ point of view I could logically see that my boss’s arguments didn’t add up: she had told me that my strategy was ‘wrong’ and that I was being pessimistic, yet the underlying research I had done, including what other team members had relayed to me, all indicated it was correct. I had offered solutions to the problems that she considered ‘pessimistic’, yet if she wouldn’t acknowledge the problem there was no way I could work to solve it.

I felt stuck not knowing how to go forward with my work when the underlying principles had been rejected by my boss, and also unable to give her a version that she would accept. Leonard kept telling me to ‘leave the past in the past’, and ‘move forward’, with no understanding that if the underlying strategy is rejected it means going back to the beginning.

I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, feeling disempowered and confused, trying to do my best while feeling very small.

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Autonomous ESP (2nd Incident)

After that first rebuke from my boss (see post Blame Game) things seemed to settle down for a time. My boss likes to say she gives us a lot of autonomy, and that’s certainly how I like to work  – just get in and do the job – and during this time she gave me ‘autonomy’ to hire some people.

However I should add that ‘autonomy’ in the context of my boss is Orwellian for “do things by E.S.P,” “make sense of her contradictions,”  and “don’t expect any clarification from her on anything.”

This was my first time working in the Public Service and there are all kinds of rules and red tape that unnecessarily complicate the hiring process. This was made all the worse by my boss giving me some of this information one day, then another day she’d give me another piece of the puzzle, a week later she would contradict what she’d said earlier, and all the while I was trying my hardest to get a straight answer from her so I could do it without overstepping the invisible rules.

After a month of negotiating the confusion, I had quotes from three contractors. I submitted my recommendation to my boss, gave my reasons for my preferred contractor, as well as all the documentation related to the quotes. This should have been a fairly straight forward ‘hire’, as per one of my earlier hires.

My boss called me in to have a meeting about this. She had the brief I’d written (for them to quote on) up on the screen so we could look at it together. And she immediately went on the attack, accusing me of hiring someone to do my job for me. From what she was saying she clearly didn’t understand the brief, had misread it, however when I attempted to correct her she got angry at me for ‘talking over the top’ of her and ‘not listening.’ I had to sit in silence while she scolded me, waiting for a moment when she’d give me the opportunity to explain.

Once she gave me an opening to answer her accusations, I rationally and logically explained why I’d written the brief the way I had (I wanted this contractor to understand where his work fit in with everyone else’s, and had clearly labelled which elements he was quoting on versus what elements other people would be doing). For every clear rational answer I gave her, she would sling another accusation at me, interrogating me about anything and everything including things not related to this issue, saying my work was wrong (even if it was something she’d previously been happy with), I was wrong, I was rude, that ‘people’ had complained about me, and so on.

I have to say I was in absolute shock as this unfolded. In hindsight I can sit here and pull it all apart and reassure myself that her behaviour was appalling and that she is a bullying boss, however in that moment I felt like I had done something terribly wrong, that my work was substandard, that my colleagues didn’t like me… It was such a hostile onslaught that I was totally unprepared for it and didn’t know what to make of it.

The pattern of behaviour for this meeting was:

1) Boss aggressively attacks with an unfounded claim

2) I offer reasoned explanation, try to find solution to placate her

3) Boss attacks with another claim – not necessarily at all related to earlier discussion

And so we went round in circles covering all kinds of  unfounded accusations completely unrelated to the topic of our meeting, her attacking, me apologetically defending, until finally she hit a sore point and I felt my eyes blinking back tears trying not to cry. The sore point?

I’d been having trouble getting the information I needed from some team members, this clique had made a blanket ‘no meetings’ ban so all I could do was email them or set up a discussion point on our intranet and hope they would respond – which they hadn’t been doing. It’s rather difficult to “communicate” to the public when you don’t have the information yourself. I had been finding this very difficult, was frustrated to say the least, and had raised the problem I was having to the Project Manager (who had done absolutely nothing to help the situation).

My boss mined this, saying that I should have a good think about why these people wouldn’t talk to me (i.e. my own fault). That ‘people’ had complained about me being rude.  That maybe I was unapproachable, and needed to work harder to be nicer.

In that moment I felt awful. It hit one of those deep-set insecurities we all have: the desire to  be liked. I thought it must have been me that was the problem.

In that moment, where I tried not to cry, and apologised categorically, explained the trouble I’d been having with this clique and how I would do anything they suggested to fix the problem – that I myself was out of ideas because I had tried everything I could think of and it had failed to make a difference – that was the moment when my boss softened.

Pattern emerging: It was only when I was submissive, responded emotionally, accepted ‘blame’, that my boss eased off.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly), when we got back to the topic of the meeting – which contractor to accept – every single thing that my boss had raised as an issue… When she actually looked at what I had already done  and was documented  in the quote (tasks broken down into packages, itemised, prioritised, scheduled,  deliverable dates, etc) she accepted my recommendation without any changes necessary.

So what the fuck was the hour long ordeal really about???

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Blame game (1st Incident)

Photo via a2gemma

Seeing as I’ve failed to identify the one ‘inciting incident‘ to my workplace bullying ordeal, I’ve decided I will instead write about the series of incidents that led to it – and perhaps one of you who has the benefit of perspective will be able to pinpoint it for me.

The first time my boss unfairly reprimanded me:

I’d been on the job for about two and a half months. I work in a communications role and it’s my job to oversee the blog and social media (amongst other things). We had an item to promote to get some people involved in our project. I took the information given to me (which had already been emailed to various people) and posted it to the blog and social media. My boss asked me to repeat this process for another item, and forwarded the information to me (which had already been emailed out to other key people). I did just that. So far so good, right?

That evening after work I had an email conversation going back and forward with her because she noted there was something incorrect in the blog post. We were offering flights to people to take part. I assured her I would correct it on the blog and mentioned she might like to let the rest of the team know about it too as this was the information they were communicating in their email out. She said she didn’t know what email I referred to, so I forwarded on the email that she had earlier sent me (including her instruction to put it on the blog). Silence from her after that…

…Until the next morning at the office. She pulled up a chair by my desk, and said we needed to talk. She told me off for putting the wrong information on the blog. She said it was my job to make sure the information was correct, and I should have known better – that we would never under any circumstances have offered to pay for flights. Someone higher up had seen it, and it made us look bad, like we were throwing money away. The email with the information that my boss had forwarded on to me had been written by someone else (Tom), had apparently not been signed off by her, and Tom was also in trouble.

I approach things with a problem-solving framework: I work out the best solution going forward (blog post corrected) and analyse the steps leading to the problem to work out what went wrong, identify how we can change things to ensure the problem doesn’t occur again, and take necessary steps.

So, I spoke to my boss about the steps that led to this incorrect information getting onto the blog post. I mentioned I’d overheard her and Tom talking a couple weeks earlier about this EOI and that my boss had seemed to agree to pay for flights. She countered that this was a different situation, and things had changed, and Tom should have known that. I suggested that this could be where the confusion arose, an innocent misunderstanding. But my boss didn’t accept that, she said we needed to take responsibility for this mistake. I said I could only work with the information given to me, and I didn’t see how I could have done anything differently given the circumstances (overheard Tom and my boss talking about flights, my boss forwarded an email with this information to me and asked me to put it on the blog, and I did exactly as requested). She didn’t accept that.

Ultimately she just wanted me to accept the blame. It was stand off, there was nothing more I could say, other than apologise and promise to do better next time. I did just this.

I felt relieved when she then eased off, softened up, and confided in me the challenges she was having now that Barry had left – that no-one was helping her with her work. I nodded sympathetically, feeling kind of odd that she was now reaching out to me in this way. She seemed kind of needy and helpless, and it was kind of flattering that she was confiding in me in this way. My boss said we should talk more often as she realised I was working by myself (while others had their ‘teams’), and she set into our schedule a weekly one on one meeting. It felt like a barrier had been broken, and while I was still confused about the incident (being blamed for something that clearly wasn’t my fault), I thought that working closer with her would ensure that we didn’t have a repeat of this incident.

FYI, those weekly one-on-one meetings that were meant to bring us closer together: lasted total of 2 weeks before she went back to being ‘too busy’ for such things and became her usual distant, hard-to-talk-to boss.

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Inciting Incident

Image via Lost in Scotland

I have a friend who is a screenwriter, and he has asked me to identify the ‘inciting incident’ to by bosses bullying (film speak for the moment when things changed, point of no return). I wish life was so clear-cut that you could divide events up into a three act hero’s journey structure (sorry more film jargon!) with a clear protagonist, antagonist, storyline, theme, and resolution. But life is more muddled. Unfortunately I can’t help but think that if life were a movie I would just be an ‘extra’ in someone else’s film.

I can’t pick a clear ‘inciting incident’, however there were hints amongst the honeymoon period that all was not so glorious. The Office Co-ordinator, Naomi, is one of those people who wears a permanent sunny smile and is happy to help out in any way she can. Yet my boss would make snide comments about her, roll her eyes, insinuate that she was incompetent. I am ashamed to admit that while I noticed this with a sense of unease, I never spoke up. I didn’t want to see the negatives, I wanted to love my job, part of me knew it was wrong for my boss to behave like this, and another part of me wondered if there was a history there of Naomi indeed being bad at her job.

We would have team meetings with all present except Naomi. One day when Barry wondered if we could get Naomi in to take meeting notes my boss rolled her eyes and said she really wouldn’t be capable of it. My boss would blame Naomi if the meeting room wasn’t booked properly, if refreshments hadn’t been ordered in preparation of meeting guests, if Naomi was not at her desk to answer a phone call, she would say that Naomi had access to a file or information that I needed and to get it from her – yet Naomi would tell me that she had no knowledge of what our boss was referring to.

At the time I thought that Naomi was a lovely person but perhaps not particularly skilled or good at her job.

Later when I found myself on the receiving end of our bosses bullying behaviour, I realised that Naomi was in fact set up to fail. She couldn’t book a room for a meeting our boss hadn’t told her about. She couldn’t give me a file she had no access to. She was doing the best she could, with a boss who had fired two Office Co-ordinators in a matter of months before hiring Naomi in the role. Naomi is a bloody hero for being able to put up with my boss for as long as she has, and do it with a smile.

I, on the other hand, do not find my own behaviour befitting the ‘hero’s journey’. I feel like a coward. And even when I do imagine standing up and making a difference, it is only in my own head. Writing this blog, with the bold proclamation to be about ‘beating the bully boss’, when in real life I don’t see much likelihood of that happening. Life is not a movie. The good guys don’t triumph. The only thing we can hope to do is minimise the damage.

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The honeymoon period

dog & catKnowing how bad it is now at work, dealing with my bullying boss, it’s hard to believe there was a time when I loved my job. But there was such a time.

When I started working here at the end of last year I was so happy that on work mornings I got a warm fuzzy thrill deep in the pit of my stomach – it was love. I felt like dancing down the hall of my workplace I loved it so much.

That might sound over the top, like I’m exaggerating, but really I was excited by my new job. It’s an innovative project, ground breaking, we’re doing something  that fulfills a real need, I liked my work mates, thought I had the best boss in the world, felt privileged to have a part in it, and just felt really lucky to have landed on my feet in this role.

To be completely honest my previous work history had not been that joyous. I’d had my share of negative workplaces; difficult bosses, colleagues and clients; in recent years I’d set up my own business working freelance after having a child and found – whilst initially it was fulfilling working for myself  – it was a hard slog with infrequent money, lots of stress, unpredictable future, and no clear career progression. Transitioning back from freelance work into a full-time position, it was a challenge job hunting due to a frequent bias that not having recently ‘held a similar role’ I was not considered as safe a bet as other candidates.

It was getting to the point where I was feeling desperate, considering jobs on crap money that would be a clear leap backwards (wiping out almost a decade of experience and corresponding salary level), considering retraining as something completely different to get a fresh start,  wishing I’d made different career decisions, and was afraid that I would never be able to get past people’s biases about my work history (which I couldn’t change).

Then my luck improved: I had several strong job interviews within a couple of weeks, resulting in two job offers at the same time. I took the job that I thought was most interesting, and even had the confidence to negotiate a pay increase on the base offer. That’s the place I work at now.

And my first month on the job was amazing! My boss sang my praises; it was a family friendly workplace where people sometimes brought their kids in; people left work at a reasonable hour (the boss left at 3pm some days!); we had autonomy over our workload and hours; and I LOVED my role. I was so excited to be working in a creative, balanced, positive work environment where I had the opportunity to do my job unhindered, and it looked like I was going to be able to achieve some really amazing stuff.

That’s not to say there weren’t some little niggles, things that I dismissed, that I didn’t want to think too much about.

I was given the opportunity to work on a funding application, one we hoped would secure our project another $3-8 million – it was a great opportunity for me. Mind you it scared me shitless how much autonomy they gave me, when this wasn’t part of the role I was hired in, and was stretching beyond my core skill set. I thought it odd my boss wasn’t more heavily involved in it, wasn’t giving me any real feedback, it was hard to work out what was going on however I went along with it figuring that if I put a step wrong she or Barry (twice retired founder of the project) would set me straight.

That was a pattern from early on – my boss not giving clear instruction or direction, lack of feedback, absent leadership. And initially, in the honeymoon period, there were a few times when I got a sense that she might not be happy about something I had done but she kept it to herself and it was only body language that gave it away. So I felt like perhaps I’d disappointed her, but didn’t know why, and was determined to work harder and be better and not let her down. On the whole though it was a good time full of potential.

Our last meeting for the year before breaking up for Christmas we went round the circle to say something to sum up the past year. Being a new person I couldn’t contribute much in terms of history, but blushed as I gushed about how much I loved working there, and was so glad to have such an amazing boss. It was a little embarrassing, but I really did feel “full of goodwill,” drunk in love with my job.

I had no idea of what was to come.

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