I Put A Spell On You (Short Story)
Chair: This is the substantive hearing of an unfair dismissal and discrimination claim brought under Part 10 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 and Parts 2 and 5 of the Equality Act 2010 by Mrs Yetunde Toye, the Claimant, against Robert Newham LLP, the Respondent. I, Judy Bright QC, am the judge for this matter. My colleagues, Mr Tony Harriman from ACAS who is also a trade union representative at Legal Sector Workers United and Mr Codie Swanson, managing partner of Lloyd Harman & Co will assist me with this claim as part of the panel today.
The background to the claim is that the Respondent summarily dismissed the Claimant from her position as an Associate Solicitor on the 10 December 2019 for gross misconduct. The alleged gross misconduct related to aggressive and intimidating behavior, namely that on 1 December 2019, at a disciplinary hearing, the Claimant shouted and swore at Mr Peter Newton, partner, department head and the Claimant’s line manager and called him an offensive name, which he and the other partners at the Respondent also regard as a slur.
The ET1 was issued at the Boston County and Family Court on 1 February 2020. The grounds of claim will be expatiated on by her representative today but in summary while she admits that heated words were exchanged during the above named disciplinary hearing, she asserts that her outburst was as a result of Mr Newton’s ludicrous claims, which denigrated her character and which the other attendants at the disciplinary hearing did nothing about. She also claims that her state of distress was as a result of a long campaign of harassment and bullying by Mr Newton. She states that there were no grounds for initiating the disciplinary process as they were based solely on words which Mr Newton heard her say after the termination of a telephone conversation between them.
In the alternative, she says that her outburst did not amount to gross misconduct, was a reaction to what she has described in her skeleton argument “astonishing accusations” by Mr Newton at the disciplinary hearing and that her outburst should have resulted in an investigation by the Respondent of Mr Newton and his working relationship with the Claimant and other employees and were not grounds for summary dismissal. The Claimant has also brought sex and race discrimination claims under the Equality Act.
Mrs Toye is represented by Ms Cynthia Wright of Counsel while the Respondent is represented by Mr Henry Ingram, a solicitor and director at Employment Lawyers Inc. I have already mentioned that the claim form was issued on 1 February 2020. We held a case management conference by telephone on 5 May 2020 and, subject to one extension, directions were complied with by both parties. I am particularly grateful to both representatives for their timely co-operation during these difficult and unprecedented times. Both parties have indicated their desire to make costs applications at the end of hearing and the Respondent has submitted preliminary arguments in that regard but has reserved the right to make fuller submissions at the end of the substantive hearing. Over to Ms Wright, Counsel for the Claimant for examination in chief.
Chair: Thank you very much, Ms Wright, and you too Mrs Toye. I’ll check with my colleagues but I am minded to reserve the rest of my questions until we have heard the cross-examination…. Is that….Ah, that’s a yes from my colleagues. Mr Ingram. Your witness.
Mr Ingram: Thank you Ma’am. Good morning, Mrs Toye.
Claimant: Good morning.
Mr Ingram: Let’s go back to your telephone call with Mr Newton on 18 November last year, shall we? I believe the words you used you had both said your good-byes were, let me check my notes, “Na me answer your call, na e say make you dey craze for main road. Somebody who bald-spot is always paining.”
Claimant: Yes, but I thought I had ended the call. I didn’t mean for him to hear that!
Mr Ingram: Yes, Mrs Toye. I believe you explained that in detail during your examination in chief. For now, could you just explain to the tribunal what those words mean? I believe a lot of it is in Nigerian pidgin English.
Claimant: Well, it literally means, well not literally, but I can translate it as blaming myself for answering the call as it gave Mr Newton, I guess what you would call the…opportunity to display signs of well, madness that is mental illness or maybe malevolence more than actual mental illness
Mr Ingram: Is there more? And the part about his bald spot?
Claimant: I guess it means, I mean I guess I was suggesting that he had some sort of head or brain injury which was …..negatively influencing his capability to make reasonable decisions. Like…when Americans suggest that someone bumped their head and did something insane. Or when English people suggest you give your head a wobble…
Mr Ingram: I think we get the point, Mrs Toye. Do you believe Mr Newton to be mad, Mrs Toye and in what sense?
Claimant: No..I mean.. at least not before the disciplinary hearing? Maybe not mad, but irrational? He’s probably under stress…
Mr Ingram: But you called him mad on 18 November. Substantially before the disciplinary hearing. Did you believe him to be mentally ill?
Claimant: Not in any clinical sense. I thought…and I meant, he was acting irrationally. I guess. Also, it’s like an insult, I guess?
18 November 2019
Yetunde gritted her teeth. She couldn’t for the life of her understand what Peter was on about. She didn’t even understand how they had got here. All she had asked for was some software and Peter had turned the conversation into a mini-appraisal.
“I don’t even understand why you always have to write such long advices anyway. The clients don’t want that. They just want to know what the answer is, Yetunde.” Yetunde knew that it was unreasonable to be irritated by his pronunciation of her name (yee-TUN-dee instead of Yay-toon-day) but irritated she was. After she had never corrected him. Never even got to introduce herself. Just nodded when he boomed ‘YEE-TUN-DEE’ at her when they first met, shook her hand and refused to make any further eye-contact for the rest of the interview.
“Ermm….” Toye was trying very hard to be respectful . Peter had a reputation as an ego-driven, hypersensitive (little) man.
“Did the clients…I mean, have any of my clients mentioned this?”
“Look. Your accounts are a mess. You’ve got some seriously aged WIP on there.”
“What does that have to do with….errrr….sorry I’m missing the connection here. Is that connected to the client…stuff?”
“Sorry, what am I?”
“Missing the connection. And Charles said you missed the deadline for last month’s bills.”
Yetunde bit her tongue. She hated IT. If they had just said ‘no’ instead of copying Peter in, she would have left it alone. She took a deep breath. She decided to try again.
“Charles. This software is unconnected to my WIP really. I’ll only be using it to –
“Yes?!?” Oh my gosh. The man was a maniac and no one knew it. Bizarrely, an old tune started playing in her head, but she couldn’t place it ‘He’s-a-maniac-and-he-doesn’t-even-know-it! He’s-a-maniac-and-he-doesn’t-even-know-it!’
She shut the voice out. Maybe it was she who had run mad. Been driven mad by the strain of working directly under Peter for 7 and a half weeks.
“I’ll only be using it to proof my work. I won’t charge the client obviously as it’s a purely administrative expense.”
“I just don’t see the need for it.” Peter shot out after a slight pause.
“But it only cost £5.99 a month.” Yetunde said in a small but defiant voice. Surely she was worth £5.99 a month. She, who practically slept in the office at least twice a week.
“The price is not the point. Why should you need something that no one else does? Besides you only billed £4000 last month.”
“Which is of course substantially more than £5.99. And I billed £4870.” She should just withdraw her request and carry on with her work. But one could not just withdraw a request that one had made to Peter. One had to spend many many minutes explaining why they thought their request was worth disturbing Peter Newton’s precious day. A day that she noticed was characterised by loud phone-calls while he paced around the office and mysterious disappearances for periods of at least 2 hours every lunchtime.
“I know that, Yetunde (yee-tun-dee). Don’t get…Look,your target is £6000 per month. Why do you need it anyway? What’s so special about this software?”
“Well. For one thing, it gives me a better idea of how my advices are coming across. It also reduces typographical and grammatical errors….”
Peter gasped. “You’ve been sending out typos???”
“Peter, I have to go. I’m really sorry. Can we continue this conversation later? I’m so sorry. Tim Kellers is going to call me at 11.” It was convenient but also true. She was expecting a call from the in-house lawyer at Slashed Stationery. Apart from the fact that Tim’s phone call wasn’t until 11:30 am.
Yetunde disconnected the call, rolled her eyes and let out a long hissing sound. Peter was so mad and that had been a complete waste of time. She was, what her cousin Bukki called ‘Nigerian -Accent-Angry’. She stared at her phone.
“I don’t blame you. Na me answer your call, na e say make you dey craze for main road. Someone that bald spot is always paining.”
She heard someone talking and looked around before noticing that she had not, in fact, disconnected the call. She did so quickly. Thank goodness she had decided to speak in pidgin English instead of calling him a rude word. She tried to relax about the fact that she had ended the call and obviously not meant him to hear her but she was uneasy. She hoped that what she had heard was he was talking to someone else at his end.
She reached for the Slashed Services debt portfolio file. She suddenly felt her eyes well up and her cheeks become hot and taut. She was at least grateful she was working from home today. It was all too much. She just wanted a normal manager. And a normal conversation with her normal manager. Yes or no. Read aloud proofreader or not. She just wanted a little help. She was tired. She was always tired these days
She had a little weep. She gave herself ten minutes. Then, almost embarrassed, she started to read the last attendance note which she had made on the file.
P Newton: …..Mrs Toye knows the ethos of the firm is centred around communication and respect. She knows it.
Ms Wright: Yes Mr Newton.
P Newton: And she wasn’t respectful at that meeting. No she wasn’t.
Ms Wright: Could we perhaps return to the day of the phone call, Mr Newton? 18th of November last year?
Ms Wright: I’m afraid I’m going to need you to vocalise your answers, Mr Newton. I believe this hearing is being recorded.
P Newton: Yes, let’s go back to the 18th of November.
Ms Wright: Mr Newton, why did you report Ms Toye to HR after that phone call?
P Newton: She was rude. She called me rude words. And she sucked her teeth.
Ms Wright: Were you aware that the words quoted at the start of the hearing, was said by Ms Toye after your her phone call with Ms Toye has been terminated.
P Newton: That’s what she says.
Ms Wright: You don’t believe her?
P Newton: What I’m saying is, I’m not in her head, am I? I don’t know what she thought when she said it.
Ms Wright: Mr Newton, when did you report the phone call to HR.. .and the managing partner?
P Newton: I don’t know, a week later we had it?
Ms Wright: It says on page 153 of the bundle that you reported it on 27 November. 9 days after it occurred.
P Newton: That’s when I reported it then.
Ms Wright: Why did you wait for over a week?
P Newton: I had my reasons.
Ms Wright: I’m afraid that you are obliged to disclose those reasons to the tribunal.
Ms Wright: It says in paragraph 11 of your witness statement, page 64 of the bundle, if you could turn to it please…It says that you spent some time researching what Ms Toye’s words meant.
P Newton: Yes
Ms Wright: It said you made enquiries of Nigerian chatrooms and investigated a language dictionary. You even sent an email to the BBC Pidgin English Service.
P Newton: I did. It’s all there.
Ms Wright: So even though you didn’t know what Ms Toye’s words meant….?
P Newton: Let me stop you there. An insult is an insult. I don’t care what language it is spoken in. I know when I’ve been insulted and I have a right not to be insulted when I speak to my employees. Just like they have a right not to be insulted when they speak to me.
Ms Wright: So if you felt you were so insulted, why didn’t you raise it with HR there an then or with Ms Toye? Why hunt around for the meaning of the words for a few days?
P Newton: Well obviously, I had to protect my position. I’m not a man who likes to make accusations without knowing all the facts.
Ms Wright: Even so, why couldn’t you raise it with Ms Toye if you knew….
P Newton: I had to know what she said!
Chair: Mr Newton. I am sure there is no need to raise your voice.
On D-day, Yetunde woke up with a gassy, tied up, painful tummy. She checked the time. It was 3:03 am. She still couldn’t believe she was going to attend a disciplinary hearing. Her disciplinary hearing. The first one she had ever been invited to in her 15-year career. Disciplinary hearings were for other people. Like her friend, Jennifer, who had a problem with every one she worked for. Yetunde always made the right noises and in the moment; Jennifer did seem to have spectacularly bad luck with managers and colleagues. That didn’t stop Yetunde from fervently asking the Universe to kill her if she ever got like Jennifer.
Now Yetunde wondered what she would have been like if her first ever boss had Peter. Maybe that was what had happened to Jennifer. Yetunde was ashamed to say she couldn’t remember when Jennifer, who was one of her oldest friends, had started complaining about work.. The other day she had complained to Yetunde because her new manager – shock! horror! – came into the office everyday and did nothing but concentrate on her job.
If Yetunde was honest, this whole job had been a shambles from when she started a year ago. She had just been lucky that her first manager was easy-going Marie who spent a lot of time bitching about the place before she moved back to France a couple of months ago.
Yetunde had been so well-loved at her last job that she was badly shocked at how averse her colleagues seemed to her presence. Then Peter became her manager and she knew what real misery was.
Yetunde promised herself one more time that above all, she would remain calm, and opened the door. Jo from HR gave her a pleasant grin. Peter didn’t. Ned looked uncomfortable but managed to flash her a tiny embarrassed-looking smile.
She had tried her hardest to exude all the right emotions – calm but serious; professional but humane and endearing – during the meeting. She really had. Whenever she felt her voice wobbling, she took a sip of water. She listened more than she talked. She tried to remember that this meeting wasn’t about every petty grievance that she had against Peter, like the fact that whenever she tried to join in any social conversations in which he was involved, he immediately ended it and walked away. She stuck to the facts. She had wanted a new feature from Microsoft Word. That was all she wanted.
Ned suddenly shifted and said. “Okay. Let’s get back to the phone call. There’s no easy way to deal with this.” Ned giggled nervously. “You’ve seen our letter and that we’ve managed to procure a translation-“
Yetunde straightened. “Look, Ned. I’m very embarrassed about this but I’ve thought about it and I’ve spoken to friends and I’m sorry but I don’t think that the the firm is being completely reasonable about this. “
Peter snorted. “Are you denying saying it then?”
God. The man was irritating. Yetunde felt embarrassed by all the times she spent sucking up to him, under the false impression that there was a human being lurking underneath all that unpleasantness and tweed. She had even brought him chocolates from a trip to France once – not just him, everyone in their small debt collection team – and saw them languishing on his desk weeks later.
She glanced at him and continued: “Look these things happen. I was upset at how the conversation went. I thought the call had ended. I vocalised my upset.” At least I didn’t call you a twat, she didn’t say.
Jo asked. “What was so upsetting about the conversation?”
Yetunde felt her stomach lurch again. It was difficult having this conversation in front of Peter.
“I just felt completely… derailed. And slightly undermined, if I’m being honest. One minute I was asking about software. Which we are encouraged to do by the way. We’re told to ask for anything that could make things better for the client. And the next minute Peter was bringing up my hours, my performance, my billing. It felt very overwhelming and stressful.”
Jo looked concerned. “Did you feed this back to anyone? HR? Peter?”
“No.” Yetunde said in a small voice. Everyone, but maybe not HR, knew that if you took your career seriously, you couldn’t go running to HR every time you felt slighted. You just had to get on with it.
“Curse his ass out and keep it moving!” is what Bukki would have advised. She wondered what Bukki would do in this situation. No way would Bukki had bowed out of that conversation with a lie about a client call. Bukki would have kept arguing, kept firmly bringing the conversation back to the £5.99 software until Peter got tired. But then Bukki managed a pop-up retail business, earned £20,000 and holidayed in her caravan every year. Yetunde earned about three times that much and, when she could take the time off, never went anywhere that wasn’t fully self-catered.
“I didn’t think it was significant enough to report.”
Jo was insistent. “But if you felt undermined….”
Peter snorted again. “Are we ever going to get to the point of this meeting?”
Jo went pink and shuffled her papers: “I’m sorry Peter, I was just….”
Peter moved forward. “It’s just that in my day, if you cursed a partner in African, there were consequences. We didn’t spend hours pandering to internal workings of the recalcitrant employee’s mind.”
Yetunde had had enough. “With respect, Peter, I didn’t ‘curse you in African’. It was after the call had ended. I didn’t know you could still hear me and for that I deeply apologise….”
“I think we can agree that you did in fact curse me in African. You said-“
“I’m sorry. I don’t even understand how you got a translation.” Yetunde knew that wasn’t the point but it was a question that had been eating at her ever since she received the letter from HR.
“I can’t have you putting spells in me on and my family. We’ve had enough bad luck, thank you.”
“Spells?!?” Yetunde looked around the room for support. Ned and Jo looked both apologetic and defiant.
“What do you mean, spells?”
“Listen! I know about these kinds of things. I read about other cultures. I’m not completely ignorant. My family and I have had a lot of bad luck. Especially since you started at the firm. You’ve always had it in for me.”
“Let me make this clear, Peter….” Yetunde didn’t quite know how to finish the sentence. She wasn’t even sure what Peter was suggesting exactly. Her voice faded out without making anything clear to anyone.
“I’m not having you putting African spells on me!”
“Oh my God. You are a complete and utter nutter.” She heard her voice say.
Ned said: “Now hang on Yetunde…”
Peter had sat back, looking strangely satisfied, and folded his meaty arms. Yetunde was still looking around, hair swishing from Ned to Jo and then back to Ned again.
“Hang on? He just accused me of putting African curses on him! African curses! Really?”
“Oh God.” Peter said, smiling for the first time during the meeting. “There’s no need to get hysterical, Yetunde. It’s not about you being African or “black” Complete with finger quotes. “You see, my grandmother had a wretched gypsy curse her and….”
“YOUR GRANDMOTHER WAS NOT CURSED BY A GYPSY, YOU WANKER! THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS SPELLS!!!!”
“….We do not find the sex discrimination claim to be made out, despite Ms Wright’s points as summarised above and detailed in her closing submissions.
The race discrimination claim is more complicated. The Claimant argues that as the only black person in her office, she had been singled out for exclusion and harassment by Mr Newton. She argued that although she was at first unwilling to draw the conclusion that it was because of her race, she felt validated in her suspicions when Mr Newton accused her in the meeting of the 1st December of casting African spells on her. She could not however provide any examples where non-white colleagues were treated differently in comparable situations.
The Respondent argues that the Claimant was not singled out for bad treatment. Mr Newton’s criticisms of her performance were legitimate and justified and that Mr Newton did not have any social obligations towards her. Mr Newton was entitled to his beliefs relating to spells and as he had stated in the meeting of the 1st of December, his beliefs were not confined to African people or people of any particular race and extended for example to gypsies.
It is with some reservation that the panel dismisses the first part of the Claimant’s race discrimination claim. Contrary to the Respondent’s arguments, as a manager, Mr Newton does have some social obligations towards his employees. Continually walking away whenever the Claimant attempts to start or continue a social conversation is a failure to treat an employee with respect and dignity and is humiliating for reasons which should be obvious to all parties. Mr Newton has denied this charge in questioning but on balance the tribunal accepts the Claimant’s testimony and we are of the opinion that it is relevant to the claim for unfair dismissal.
The Respondent has called Ms Scott who has claimed similar treatment from Mr Newton and his general reputation appears to be one of more than occasional unfriendliness. This is not a credit to Mr Newton or to the Respondent for tolerating his behaviour but it does rather undermine the claim that the treatment that Ms Toye received was based on her race.
The claim for unfair dismissal is based generally on the narrower ground that the Claimant’s conduct at the meeting was a reaction to Mr Newton’s accusation that the Claimant was trying to put a spell on him and the lack of reaction by the Claimant’s and Mr Newton’s colleagues which included a human resources director. The Claimant also claims that she was under the strain of working directly beneath a manager who she states was hostile to her. She also claimed that it was a reaction to being disciplined for words which she had said after she had terminated a telephone conversation with Mr Newton.
The Respondent states that the claims of spells is somewhat historical as Mr Newton had by the meeting of 1 December, obtained a translation of the words and knew that she did not in fact try to put a spell on her and was merely explaining why he felt he needed to obtain a translation.
The Claimant had not been working at the Respondent company for the statutory period of 2 years and therefore it is technically unnecessary for us to make any ruling about the narrow unfair dismissal claim as the Claimant simply does not qualify for it. However, because it is linked to the second part of her race discrimination claim, we make the following observations.
In a sense the matter is balanced. As to the claim of a campaign of harassment and bullying by Mr Newton, the parties’ perspectives have to be taken into account. The Respondent states that Mr Newton was legimately following up on issues about the Claimant’s performance while the Claimant states that she was overly criticised, in comparison to her colleagues, and that Mr Newton was frequently negative and unfriendly towards her and occasionally rude and hostile. She said she constantly felt on edge around him; a situation which worsened when her former line manager left the employ of the firm. While it is difficult to judge matters of perspective, we are of the view, as stated above, that some of Mr Newton’s behaviour amounted to a failure to treat an employee with dignity and respect.
However, previous lack of respect and dignity directed at a colleague does not justify gross misconduct at a subsequent meeting as was established by the fairly recent case of Khan v West Midlands Transport Co-operative (2014) which facts bear some similarity to this one. Swearing and shouting at a colleague, including a manager, amounts to gross conduct. As emphased by Mr Justice Owens in Khan, an employee or colleague is not permitted to store up grievances and erupt at a manager, regardless of how well-founded those grievances are. The proper way to deal with such matters is to make a complaint to the human resources department.
The Claimant has not produced any medical evidence to show that she was suffering from clinical stress, anxiety or depression as a result of her experience at the Respondent’s firm although she has described her mental state with some clarity. From the evidence, it seems that Mr Newton had a reputation for being difficult. This and his accusations at the hearing should have prompted an investigation of all parties including of Mr Newton. A suspension instead of a summary dismissal would have been a more proportional response to the circumstances and this was in fact the recommendation of Ms Hodgson and Mr Cameron, also present at the meeting. There is therefore some chance that, had the Claimant had the necessary length of service, we would have found that her dismissal was unfair.
Finally we come to the second part of the Claimant’s race discrimination claim. We find this claim to be made out. The Respondent argues that it is not racial discrimination to identify an insult or negative comment as being in an African language just because the Claimant happens to be of African origin. This is undoubtedly true but as Ms Wright pointed out, to leap to the conclusion that a curse had been put on one by a member of an ethnic minority and link it to a curse supposedly placed on a member of a family by another ethnic minority shows a racial bias and in layman’s terms, a certain suspicion of foreigners or people not from your ethnic background.
It is for this reason that the tribunal has come to the conclusion that the Respondent failed to investigate this matter, including a possibility of racial bias. The second ground of race discrimination is therefore made out. This means that that it is not necessary for the Claimant to demonstrate that she has been employed by the Respondent for two years to prove her race discrimination claim.
The tribunal therefore decides that the Respondent has, contrary to section 39 of the Equalities Act 2010 , discriminated against the Claimant on the basis of her race.
Turning to damages…..
How to Cope With a Bad Boss
Disclaimer – I am not an HR expert, employment lawyer (the case of Khan above is made up as is the law surrounding it), psychologist or any kind of therapist or expert on this matter. I’m just a sensible, empathetic person. Actually, I’m probably not even that. These are just my thoughts on coping with this type of situation.
The first step in any kind of recovery-related process seems to be recognition. Therefore the first step in coping with a bad boss is to ask whether you actually have a bad boss and to evaluate your own expectations. Do you expect every boss to be your friend? Do you thrive on praise or challenges? Is your boss actually a bad boss or person you don’t like?
There are different kinds of managers and management styles. I prefer some, of course, but I think a wide range can be acceptable as long as basic values like honesty, respect, dignity and courtesy are observed. It’s not unreasonable to expect your boss to be friendly but, in my view, it is not a sign of bad management if managers are not naturally sociable or want to place boundaries on their time or professional relationships.
Almost every HR-related course which I have taken emphasises the need for positive reinforcement of the managed but I’ve found that some people will naturally praise while others are more concerned about what can be done better. In relation to the latter kind of manager, I believe that the thinking is sometimes that the mere fact that the employee has been hired shows that they are competent; the focus should now be on continuous improvement.
Also, dare I speak such triteness as bosses are human too? Like everyone else, they make mistakes and their first instincts (again like everyone else) may not be to accept their errors. They experience insecurity in decision-making, have their own workloads and are subject to constant interruptions especially from the kind of people who like to increase their sense of self-importance by running to the manager (with quick, little noisy steps) for every little thing. Sometimes they themselves are badly managed.
It is worth going through this process and trying to separate your expectations from what the boss is actually doing wrong. You may decide that your boss is someone who you are never going to be very sociable with but actually they are an adequate person to work with or work under.
However, most of us can recognise a bad boss or certain weaknesses in a boss like hostility, bullying, being manipulative, undermining and gaslighting, taking credit for your work and being overly critical. If you have won the ‘bad boss lottery’, you’ll first need to recognise that the situation has not come about because you are weak, unlikeable or incompetent (relative to your experience) or have somehow invited the bad behaviour.
I would advise also acknowledging that you are dealing with a stressful situation and giving yourself permission to be stressed about it. This again sounds obvious but ideally there should be a time when you have emerged from constant feelings of stress, anxiety and even panic associated with work and told yourself expressly this. This can keep you from feeling inadequate because it acknowledges that you aren’t somehow bringing these bad feelings upon yourself, or failing to be ‘grateful for what you have’ and that your feelings are a perfectly normal reaction to an external stressful situation.
Concentrate on your coping mechanism for dealing with this stress. Self-preservation is key. You are not there to save your bad boss’ or the company’s reputation. Your job is to try to come out of the situation relatively unscathed – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically (some bosses have been known to hit their employees and vice-versa) and in terms of your career. Also, you want to avoid a situation where you are coming into work every day to be freshly hurt and stunned by their bad behaviour. My personal nightmare is having a loud, teary, incoherent melt-down in the office or getting so ill with stress, depression or anxiety (in so far as any of us can control those things) that I am no longer able to earn a living.
I find a good start is to focus on your goals. Finding a new job will always be at the back of your mind but while you are there, other goals may include not damaging your reputation in your particular industry and getting on with the job, especially the parts that you actually like. You may still enjoy helping clients or customers or you may want to keep up with your targets. You may just wish to maintain your mental health and move from being anxious, sad, angry, or scared all the time
As I said put your health/survival (dramatic word I know!) first – you are not there to fix them. My personal weakness is difficult people. I think I can save them or charm them out of their bad behaviour. It’s a narcissistic trait which I will freely admit to and a big no-no in this situation. It will backfire and even worse, you may find yourself an ally and enabling their bad behaviour when they are bullying others
It also helps to remind yourself of your self-worth. Their bad behaviour is a reflection of them; not you. You are entitled to be treated in a dignified and respectful manner. Dwell on your past achievements if necessary. Do not be tempted to wonder whether this means you have been crap all your life or career.
I would also suggest developing some coping mechanisms. Avoid them as much as possible if necessary or communicate by e-mail; sometimes in advance of a difficult situation to diffuse it and as a less confrontational way of recording your communication. I once complained to a friend about a bad conversation with a (bad) manager. She advised me to ‘document it’ which was great advice. Just write to them and say, ‘As a record of our conversation, you asked about this, I said this and we agreed this.’
The more paranoid among us will hesitate to do this because we are worried that it is an open declaration of war or bad relations or something. It may be but it is still necessary. And you are probably not going to make an ally out of them regardless of how conciliatory you are One way out for us wimps is to have written to the manager beforehand and then follow the e-mail up after the conversation. Some bad managers will still be jerks about it, even complain about you overloading their inboxes, while others may be a bit more cautious in the future. Sending an e-mail prior to a meeting may also allow you to say what you want to say without interruptions or your mean boss demeaning or derailing you.
Alternatively you can choose to ‘work around them’. Once you realise that they wind you up something rotten, reduce opportunities for them to get to you. Lockdown is good for that – you have an excuse to come into the office less.
You may choose to engage them only at things that you know they are good at if you have the strength and it is to your advantage. In no way am I suggesting that it is up to you to somehow manage them.
You could try and find other sources of support within the organisation and if the opportunity arises, bond with another senior member of staff. I once bonded with a senior barrister while I was doing a pupillage with a very critical barrister. I still remember my pupil master bursting into the Head of Chambers’ room to say “_______ is stealing my pupil!”
Keep a note of any thing relevant to your work relationship and their behaviour towards you. This is personal but I would complain about bad behaviour to HR instead of to your bad boss. My theory is that people who behave badly in the first place are unlikely to welcome criticism of that bad behaviour or even realise how bad it is .
It almost goes without saying that you should assess the organisation that you work for. Regardless of how nice everyone else it, you have to question their judgment and your fit in the company if they’ve seen fit to hire a vile manager.
Try not to personalise their bad behaviour. If your boss is bullying you, report it as soon as you are comfortable doing so. Don’t hesitate unless there really is a chance that you could lose your job, never get another one etc. You probably don’t have a long term future with that company anyway and it may keep them on their toes.
However, try and get some perspective on their behaviour. I had a ‘bad boss’ who constantly upset me and I fell into the trap of obsessing about how much he must hate me. He may have disliked me but then so may many others. I in fact dislike some people at work. The relevant fact is that he was unreasonable and sometimes disrespectful. That is what is unacceptable; not him disliking me.
Try not to gossip about them but if something slips out, give yourself a break. It’s a valid response and outlet. Your focus is on maintaining your sanity not saving their reputation
Finally let’s talk about loss of confidence and looking for a new job. In the movies, the line between the bad boss and the good trodden-upon employee is often a clear one. The boss is incompetent, malicious, dishonest, rude, mean, lazy and/or even sometimes sexist or racist. The employee does everything perfectly and still isn’t good enough for their evil manager.
In real life employees are seldom perfect. We all make mistakes. We may make more mistakes under stress. Sometimes a significant element of the bad boss’ behaviour is reacting badly to our mistakes. Part of a manager’s job is to manage mistakes properly. If no one is perfect, it is, in my view, disproportionate to react wildly simply because a mistake has been made – the relevant issues are (1) how to avoid a repeat of the mistake (2) assessing the consequences of the mistake and (3) questioning whether it is an indication that the employee and the role are not suited.
From an employee’s point of view, it is tempting to vow never to give the employer a reason to behave badly or worse sack you. My own personal view is that not only is the mental strain of keeping that up going to be difficult to manage, it’s unlikely to happen, especially when you are working under stress.
My own personal coping mechanism is to try and look at mistakes in the cold objective light of day; try and pretend that you do not constantly feel the fetid heat of your bad boss’ breath down your neck. In fact, pretend they do not exist and you don’t have to answer to him. You are your own boss. What would you ask yourself? In no particular order -what are the consequences of the mistake? How can I fix or make it up? Why did it happen? What do I need to do and what support I get to ensure it doesn’t happen again? (Is this the right job for me?)
Easy to say but difficult to implement; nevertheless helpful to have at the back of your mind.
So that’s it. Some of the above is helpful to have in mind constantly but in my view this level of engagement should be reserved for a truly bad boss. I’m not suggesting that there is no need to work on difficult aspects of your relationship with an otherwise reasonable boss although I accept that this is challenging where there is an imbalance of power.
Hope you find the above helpful!