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Susan Seng ~ Parker & Seng Big Bad Bully, A victim's guide to managing workplace bullying

Big Bad Bully – RRP $29.99
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ISBN  978-0-9872031-1-3

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Louise's Story

In 2006 I started working for an organisation as an administration officer. It was terrific. There was such camaraderie. It was busy but we all seemed to pitch in and get the work done. In October that year the supervisor retired and we were told the position would be filled by an internal transfer. I’ll call her Katherine.

For the first few days after Katherine started things were quiet. There was a slight feeling of awkwardness in the office. I put it down to adjusting to the change. Our first admin meeting was brief. Katherine explained there would be some changes occurring with our roles and this would be discussed further as part of our performance reviews; reviews she wanted to start immediately.

A fortnight later, at the next admin meeting, nothing was mentioned about the performance reviews.  Katherine said she would be implementing a swipe card sign on system instead of the current manual timesheet. When we openly agreed it was a terrific idea and that it had been bandied around for some time, Katherine appeared annoyed, almost frustrated. It felt like our enthusiasm was met with contempt.

The following meeting Katherine said she would prefer to nominate a person to collect the milk for morning teas so there wasn’t any confusion with responsibility. Up until this point, every few days we had taken it in turns to collect the milk. There hadn’t been any confusion with responsibility. It was something that was important to all of us. But now, it was a designated task expected of Kate, the Receptionist.

Katherine was five weeks into her role when she’d asked for a performance review meeting with me. At first she seemed quite charming; making small talk. She talked about work – life balance and how she wanted flexible work hours for staff and that early morning starts would be shared by everyone in the admin team.  Karen had, up until now, always worked the early shift. I’d said to Katherine, Karen had asked to do that shift because she drops her eldest son off to work at 7am in the morning allowing her to pick up her twins from daycare in the early afternoon. Katherine said nothing.

The meeting progressed and I could see Katherine was looking more and more confident; making eye contact and smiling.  What did surprise me though was what happened next. Katherine started making derogatory comments about team members, nothing that was overly spiteful or confidential but certainly nothing that needed to be said, more so idle gossip. Then she made a disparaging comment about a team member’s body shape. It floored me. I didn’t make any comment.  I was really disappointed that she would discuss people in the office this way. I thought to myself, if she’s talking to me about others, what is she saying about me?

It was at this point our relationship deteriorated. Katherine would dismiss any input I gave at meetings. Whenever I tried to contribute to discussions she would cut me off saying things like, “I don’t think that’s the case” or “I can’t see how that would improve anything.” On one occasion, Katherine had asked me to collect information about purchasing a new laser printer. When it was my turn to speak at the meeting, she stopped me abruptly saying, “That does NOT need to be discussed here!” It wasn’t just her tone, her facial expression was contemptuous.

Administration meetings were now weekly and Katherine had asked all of us to provide an update at each meeting about where we were up to with tasks. When it came to my turn, she would continuously interrupt me, dispute what I’d have to say and criticise me in front of my team mates for exaggerating my workload. She would challenge everything I’d say; asking why it took me so long to complete tasks when subordinates who’d worked for her previously could complete tasks in a much shorter timeframe. When I would try to explain, she’d interrupt me again and say something like, “You need to work smarter not harder.”  

At the next meeting, I mentioned I was working with several different data bases and needed information from two or three of them at the same time to complete contract work. I’d asked if it was possible for me to have a second screen to improve the processing time. Katherine flatly refused saying, ‘that won’t be happening’.

It wasn’t long before there was division.  Katherine had secured friendships with those who would listen to her gossip, too intimidated to stand up to her. She created further division by nominating her favorites to act as manager when she was out of the office.  Most days Katherine was late to work.  When there were telephone calls for her, I would simply take messages, never commenting or speculating on what time she might arrive. I wasn’t her secretary; however Katherine diverted missed calls to my phone. I didn’t question why. I didn’t want to give her another opportunity to belittle me.

There were rules for Katherine and her favourites – and there were rules for others – like me.

I remember one day, Katherine was late to work. It was a Friday. She was angry that she was going to be late for a budget meeting and demanded I locate a travel form for her. While I frantically looked for it, she asked me for the latest Monthly Costing Report.  Still searching for the travel form and without looking up from my computer, I said “It’s in your mail tray.” She turned to me, angrily waving her hand inches from my face. Aggressively she demanded, “WHERE IS THE LASTEST MONTHLY COSTING REPORT!” I looked up at her, “Didn’t you hear me? It’s in your mail tray.” I was horrified. Her behavior was abhorrent.  

The report had been sitting there for three days.  On the Tuesday I’d sent her an email saying I had completed it and it was ready for her review and approval. I didn’t realise she had ignored the email. Katherine would never respond to any of my emails. Not even with a courtesy reply to say it had been received or a thank you for completing a task – nothing.  

It was at that point I searched our online intranet for another job. Enough was enough! I couldn’t take any more. It was affecting not only me, but my husband, my home life.  I was so stressed every day. I never knew what to expect. I was always on edge. Most days when I got home I was in tears, wishing it would stop. I hated her. I hated the way she spoke to me, her contemptuous tone and demeaning manner. At one point I was so stressed my periods stopped. I explained the situation to my doctor and he looked at me in disbelief saying, ‘Louise you may need to see someone, perhaps a psychologist. I remember thinking, I’m not the one with issues here. He said, “If you keep going like this you could end up very ill.”

Within a couple of days a role similar to mine was advertised. It was a temporary 12 month position located within a regional office.  I applied. Within a short time was offered an interview, however part of the process was to have your supervisor’s permission to attend the interview. Katherine advised she would not allow me to take on a seconded role, as it would be impossible to find a replacement prior to the envisaged start date.

Three months later another role, similar to mine, was advertised. This time, it was in the city, but within the Research and Development branch. I wanted the job so badly! It would only be for six months but it would give me some relief.  I didn’t mention anything to Katherine.  I applied and went for an interview. I was offered the role but it was conditional on my supervisor’s approval to leave my current position for that period. Of course Katherine refused to allow the secondment. If things were bad before, they were unbearable now. 

Katherine would approach staff when I was within hearing distance. She’d laugh and talk with them about their weekends. I would always say good morning when I walked past. Her short sharp replies coupled with her looks of annoyance were a reminder that there was a difference in how she treated me and how she treated others.

I remember in an admin meeting, I was sitting at the end of the table. Katherine was delegating tasks for a training day, when she referred to me as ‘what’s her name’. A second later she called me by name. This was her way of letting me know how insignificant I was. Even her favorites were shocked at Katherine’s level of disdain. 

I decided to take action and set up a meeting with Katherine’s direct supervisor, Samantha. Samantha said she was happy to meet with me and that she would come to my office. I didn’t want that. I wanted to have the meeting at a neutral location.  Samantha arrived. What I didn’t expect was to be questioned about why I had an issue with assertive women in the workplace. She made me feel as though I was the perpetrator, someone who wanted to cause trouble. Where was I to go now?

I walked out of that meeting and started to cry. I left work that day and said nothing. There wasn’t anything to say. I sat on my verandah with a bottle of wine. The tears flowed. Still I said nothing. I felt helpless, exhausted and powerless. My husband arrived home late. We sat there for a long time, in silence.  

On my third attempt for a secondment role, I advised Katherine of my intentions. She said nothing. The role was for four months working in a regional centre. The day prior to the interview Katherine set up a meeting time to review my work. She’d said she was disappointed with the standard of my work and it was unlikely that I would be offered a secondment. I broke down. I started crying uncontrollably. I was so embarrassed. Katherine sent me home. The next day, I went for the interview and a few days later was offered the role. Katherine approved it.

When I started in the new office, on the first day, I found out my boss was the brother of the woman who had made my life hell. He walked the same way, talked the same way and soon, he was treating me the same way. My old boss would continuously ring my phone wanting to speak to her brother. I’d asked her to please ring his phone direct and in a sarcastic tone she’d say something like, “Oh his phone must be on divert.”

I’d only known Susan a few weeks. She said if I needed to talk, to call her.  Susan is the author of Big Bad Bully.

Susan talked with me about responding to poor behavior and why it’s important to acknowledge a person when they exhibit poor behaviour. I hadn’t done this. I didn’t know how to. We talked about why responding positively was important for the reporting process and about preplanning responses for events that are likely to occur. We talked about why it’s important not to be judgmental of a person’s poor behaviour but to understand why we react the way we do and how we can respond well to a negative situation. It was hard to understand at first, but before long I realised that it wasn’t about Katherine anymore.  It was about how I choose to respond with professionalism. Katherine’s poor behavior was the catalyst to bring about change in me.

We started practicing responses together and Susan talked about Bullies and what motivates them.  I’d only been in the new office a short time and Susan said this was the perfect opportunity to try these responses. ‘What have you got to lose Louise? It’s likely your new boss will have the same bullying traits as his sister.” Susan was right.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and David walked into the office, late back from lunch, just like his sister. I was ready. I had practised and practised and practised my responses over and over again. I was nervous but now change had become more important to me than the job. I just had to get one sentence out.

David was on cue. His tone demanding, his voice raised and without asking for explanation he said, “LOUISE YOU WERE TOLD TO HAVE ALL CONTRACTS THROUGH TO CONSTRUCTION BY THE END OF THIS WEEK. WHAT’S HAPPENING?” Even toned I replied, "David I am really enjoying working here and when you talk to me in an abrasive, demanding tone, I feel it's unwelcome."

Inside I was shaking.  At that second, time stood still. But I knew what I had to do. It was important I addressed the poor behavior first, not his question. David said nothing, he walked away.  The contracts were finalised. They were sitting at the front counter, but this wasn’t about the contracts.

For me this was a start and it felt good. There were other occasions when I used my responses and each time I became more and more empowered.  Ironically, I soon learned David was being seconded to the metropolitan office. He’d accepted a 12 month senior management position. It was difficult for me at first to see that others in the office looked up to me as a role model. It had been the first time they’d seen anyone respond to David’s poor behaviour.

The real test was yet to come.  I practised and I practised. I was ready. Now I waited.

When my phone rang, I saw her number and turned to see if David was on the phone. He wasn’t. I picked the phone up and with a welcoming voice I said, “Hello, Louise speaking”. The anticipated opportunity to address Katherine’s poor behaviour was now here and she didn’t disappoint. Sternly she said, “It’s Katherine, is David there?”  I continued, “Hi Katherine how are you?’’  She paused. Her reply though stern was a little hesitant, “I’m good. David on the phone?”  Using a warm professional tone I said, "Katherine I appreciate you are calling to speak with David, and when you talk to me in a harsh tone I feel it undermines our company’s values of treating people with respect."  

I waited - there was nothing – and then it came – ‘’I’ll ring his extension’’ and down went the phone. You could not wipe the smile from my face.

Susan talked with me about why it was absolutely important when faced with situations like this that confidentiality is key to success. It is the most important part of the process and one that must be followed for these new behaviors to be embedded. Confidentiality draws admiration and respect from others. Susan explained to me why, in these situations it’s important not to share the feeling of empowerment. If you do, it may diminish your progress. Susan said, if approached by a team mate to talk about what’s happened, be sincere and say something like, “I might just keep going with what I’ve got to do here” and leave it at that. In other words show maturity and professionalism by not gossiping or talking about the situation.

When David’s relieving role was advertised, I applied and was offered the role.  In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve made a difference. People notice people who are professional, who show empathy and respond to negative behaviour with compassion rather than aggression.  It took courage. It took all I had - and it was worth it. 

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