This evening on my journey home, I overheard a fellow passenger on the telephone say how unhappy she was at work - mainly down to her boss, she kept repeating 'you've got no idea'. I consider myself lucky in working with a good team and having a decent boss, but it hasn't always been like that, so I did have an idea of what she meant. Years ago I found myself working for someone whose behaviour verged on psychopathic.
The job had started off OK – but don’t all abusive relationships? Gradually my workload increased beyond a reasonable level. The criticism became less subtle and more frequent. I tried discussing it with her but was accused of being disloyal and selfish. Along with being her PA, I was also her social secretary. I would spend hours of the company's time trying to book holidays, weekends away, tickets for concerts, booking restaurants, all the while trying to keep on top of my excessive workload and dealing with the constantly changing details - dates, locations and departure airports.
My hours became longer, it wasn't enough. My workload was growing, the backlog of items I hadn't had time to do also grew, preying constantly on my mind that she would find out. I rarely took a lunch break, but even eating lunch at my desk was a luxury. She would telephone me constantly with demands - her office was a few feet away, she could see I was eating lunch, it was a deliberate interruption. It wasn't personal, I had long suspected that she hated all women. She spoke disparagingly of female colleagues and even more so of the wives and girlfriends of male colleagues and friends. She constantly plotted and schemed against colleagues that she saw as a threat, which I soon realised was all other women and any men who refused to fall under her spell and pay her the attention she constantly craved. In meetings I attended with her, I noticed how she undermined certain colleagues. When they spoke she would start a side conversation in an overly loud whisper or interrupt them with a completely irrelevant comment.
Her boyfriend once telephoned her whilst she was in a meeting. I offered to interrupt her, but he assured me that it didn't matter, he was on his way to the airport and would catch up with her later, could I just tell her that he had called. I did, fully expecting her to be irritated that he hadn't wanted her dragged out of an important meeting. She wasn't irritated, she was incandescent with rage. How could he do this, why didn't I get her out of the meeting, she was ovulating and as he was going away it was her last chance that month to conceive. I stood by her desk in shock, not sure I had actually just heard correctly, whilst she continued to rant and rage. I didn't know whether to laugh or run screaming from the building.
I frequently told HR that I couldn't cope, they sympathised with me, but did little. To many of my colleagues, I was the abused child on the block. The other PAs who had been there some time, some of whom had even worked for her before I became the victim of the moment, would tell newer colleagues in hushed tones who I worked for, and they would all look at me with a pity normally reserved for cancer sufferers. Senior colleagues would take me out for drinks to cheer me up or regale me with stories of her appalling behaviour in client meetings.
As the bullying increased, my health suffered, both physically and mentally. On the train to work I had to sit as far away from the door as possible, because sometimes the urge to just open it and step out of the speeding train was overwhelming. I never for one moment thought of it as trying to kill myself, I was just desperate not to have to deal with her. Eventually it became too much and I just walked out. Then the HR machine swung into action - to protect the reputation of the department rather than to help me. I realised I wasn't well enough to get a new job, I was suffering from nearly two years of constant bullying, my confidence was shattered. HR decided I had to stay within that department, but not work for her. We became mortal enemies, I had dared to refuse to work for her. I think she thought her sneering constant contempt would keep me in my place, I couldn’t have cared less where she thought my place was. All I cared about was not working for her.
I had cognitive behavioural therapy, paid for by HR - but of course they were doing it as a gesture of goodwill, no culpability was accepted. It worked wonders. I stopped hating her and planning the tribunal in which I would right all the wrongs against me and started seeing her as the sad, mad, insecure bitch that she was. I realised that her male colleagues and bosses saw exactly what was going on, they just weren't prepared to take on someone so unstable - those who shout loudest get furthest.
In hindsight, the first time I raised the issue with HR and they failed to act, I should have left. Far too late into the months of abuse, I started to keep a diary of her behaviour, but if nobody will listen to you, why put yourself through more misery and the pain of a tribunal? Many large companies will pay a solicitor £500k before they will pay an employee £5k and HR are not social workers, they are there to protect a company's interests. If the train this evening had not been so packed, I might have stood up, sought out the woman on the phone and told her that no job and no salary is worth putting up with bullies. The first rule of first aid is to remove the hazard, or remove yourself from the hazard. When the hazard is a bully with psychopathic tendencies, self-preservation has to come first. As a friend of mine said when we discussed this - people don't leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses.