“Did anyone witness these alleged events?” the investigator asked, pen poised in the air. “And can you give specific examples?”
I gulped, searching for the right words. Should I describe how my boss regularly referred to staff by our classification levels (“the 5A” or “the 10B”) rather than our names? Or how the stressed-out staff routinely had panic attacks and crying fits in the bathroom?
There’s no easy way to explain exactly how your workplace is poisonous. Sitting in the hot seat, struggling to prove that my boss was a monster, I started to question my decision to file a complaint.
One question was running through my head: How did I get here?
When I was hired, I had no clue that my new boss, “Hagatha,” would be so awful. The first sign should have been her so-called “motivational speech” on my second day at work. Perched like an eagle in a swivel chair, Hagatha glared at me with beady eyes and tightly pursed lips.
“I’m a very busy manager,” she said. “I don’t have time for hand-holding. Around here, it’s sink or swim.”
I frantically focused on swimming. One morning, I had just switched on my computer when Hagatha stormed into my cube and demanded a complex analysis of Census data.
“On my desk in an hour,” she said. “With Power Point slides.”
As the clock ticked, I manically crunched numbers and threw together graphs. If this task wasn’t completed in time, I would no doubt face public humiliation or discipline from Hagatha. I didn’t want to be like our poor administrative assistant; Hagatha had screamed at her during a staff meeting for mixing up a meeting room booking. Luckily, my coworkers helped cobble together a makeshift report. It was the bright spot in the darkness: Terrorised together, we often joined forces to complete needlessly high-pressure assignments and give comfort during those really shitty moments.
“Fix this,” Hagatha barked, tossing a draft letter covered in red ink onto my desk. “And note that 'Manager' should be spelled with a capital ‘M.’ I expected more from a 5A.”
Nothing was ever good enough. My colleague’s research report was rejected because the staple was diagonal instead of straight, sent back with “Please staple correctly” scribbled onto a sticky note. I was so overwhelmed by stress that, just a few months into the job, I developed a rapid heart rate.
Occasionally, Hagatha had fleeting moments of remorse and tried to soothe our tears with treats. After a particularly nasty meeting, in which she called one staffer “useless” and instituted a strict lunch schedule, Hagatha plopped down a box of doughnuts by the printer. But desserts did little to alleviate the emotional wreckage.
The turning point, however, was the conference. I had spent months organising a research symposium, recruiting experts from across the country. Seeing delegates eagerly attend sessions, it seemed to be going well — until a key funder pulled me aside.
“I apologize about the lunch mix-up,” he said. “I understand that Hagatha was unhappy.”
My belly lurched. “I’m sorry?”
He beckoned to the corner, where a PhD student volunteer was hunched over, sobbing uncontrollably. The poor girl could barely speak as she recounted the incident.
“No one has ever spoken to me like that,” she wept. “That lady screamed at me in front of everyone because we ran out of salad.”
Seeing this woman break down was the last straw. I cried in the bathroom, reliving all the awful moments from the past year. Fed up, I made two big decisions: I would apply and interview for one of the new positions that opened in our company. The posted job was a step down in pay and prestige, but it would move me far, far away from Hagatha. And secondly, I would lodge an official complaint to Human Resources. As I filled out the forms, I listed grievances ranging from staff mistreatment to unpaid overtime. My coworkers cheered as I filed the paperwork.
HR replied with a sterile “your concerns are being explored” and then silence. Fortunately, I secured the new position and I was quickly transferred to another department in the organisation. Six months later, my former colleague called in a panic.
“They’re searching our emails,” Keira said, voice cracking. Our team had exchanged personal and damning emails that ranged from ranting about the dysfunctional department to ugly commentary about our monster boss. I dialled my union rep, and asked for help.
With the union on board, Human Resources called in an investigator. Stuttering and sweating, I defended myself against a firing squad of questions.
“What were the results of your performance appraisals?” the investigator asked. “Were you were meeting expectations? Do you have records of working overtime? Who witnessed these events?”
When asked to testify, my equally victimised colleagues fell silent, refusing to speak to the investigator. The same people who cried in my cube now propelled their anger at me.
“Can’t you call this off?” Keira pleaded. “I have a mortgage to pay! I can’t handle the stress. It’s not worth it to prove a point.”
She hung up, and later unfriended me on social media. I felt like a failure.
Luckily, I had done one thing right. For 12 months, I had meticulously documented my office life. Like a detective, I wrote a daily report, recording facts, conversations, working hours, and witnesses. I presented the investigator with a bulky folder, along with a medical report that attributed my heart problems to occupational stress. This avalanche of evidence helped me win the case.
I did receive an official apology and a small settlement (a week’s pay), but it didn't feel like a victory. I lost close friends. The stress may have shaved years off my life. And I took a lower-paying job to escape hell.
But I would do the same thing over again. This terrible experience proved to me that one person can trigger change, even from the bottom of the organisational chart. In the following weeks, Hagatha was transferred and HR instituted a management training program. And even though it took awhile, I bounced back stronger. Advocating for myself boosted my gumption and self-confidence, propelling me up the corporate ladder. In three years, I was promoted twice, eventually becoming the Executive Assistant to the CEO. I’m considered senior leadership now, but I never spell “manager” with a capital “M.”
Names have been changed.