As my manager was herself a new appointee (the previous manager—and the entire team—has resigned and left the bank some months previously), the majority of my initial work was essential “continuity management”: painstakingly going through the records of the past, so as to maintain a semblance of Business As Usual, while myself learning those procedures and attempting to update them to the new team’s requirements. In this, I achieved a measure of success; not as a self-congratulatory self-evaluation, but gleaned from the appreciative remarks I received from several higher-ups.
The red flags started after perhaps three months, corresponding, coincidentally, to my notice period. At first, there was the occasional odd remark from my manager (addressed to me or to colleagues) or questionable conversations I might overhear, as I was seated right next to her.
While she made good on her promise of a pay increase (and later on, of a promotion), when she told me, without a trace of humor, “Take the time to get to know the activities and procedures really well, because, by year-end, your honeymoon period will be over,” I did wonder what I had signed up for. Given that I wasn’t exactly spending my days hob-knobbing with colleagues at the water cooler, but was instead of putting in nine or 10 hours of hard graft a day, I wasn’t sure how that could be described as a “honeymoon period”.
It wasn’t an exaggeration, though.
Questionable, inappropriate, and frankly unacceptable incidents came thick and fast. She was not stupid; she systematically reserved her worst behavior for private settings behind closed doors, or for brief tête-à-têtes while on a lunch or cigarette break, where there were no witnesses.
On more than one occasion, I overheard her on the phone with Human Resources, wanting to fire an employee for not having done things the way she wanted, or for having failed to show adequate deference, the poor HR employees being in the unenviable position of having to stand their ground, explaining that what the manager was suggesting amounted to unfair dismissal, and that she would likely get the bank hauled in front of an employment tribunal.
In meetings, she would regularly denigrate other employees’ comments and suggestions, and during telephone conference calls, rather than being encouraging, fostering discussion, or leading by example, she would often resort to bullying tactics, quite literally shouting orders rudely down the phone. These conference calls at this point could have upwards of 20 participants, mostly middle and senior managers worldwide, so her behavior was no longer even on the down low, but more of an open secret.
It was an open secret, known to those in our immediate sphere of activity, but also (I would later discover) known to Human Resources, who maintained a “blacklist” of problematic managers, not that it did much good. Although her abusive behavior was known to us, it wasn’t tolerated. She was essentially the bank’s global head of activities for our area, so the abuse was that much harder to counter than had it been coming from someone on the same hierarchical level. Instead, the period during which I was there saw probably the highest staff turnover in recent memory, outside of any actual organizational restructuring.
Increasingly, being the closest thing to her right-hand man, I also became the subject of much of her ire, even though I was regularly assured by colleagues, with some sympathy, that I was doing a sterling job. Note at this point that I was already incapable of telling whether I was really doing a good job myself, as my sense of validation, understandably, but in this case, toxically, was based on feedback from someone I’m quite happy to define as a malignant narcissist.
In team meetings, my comments would be derided and denigrated in front of everyone, the insinuation being that I had nothing of value to contribute, and leading to much post-meeting commiseration from appalled and well-intentioned colleagues. In bullying fashion, and perhaps in an attempt at some “good cop, bad cop”, she would try to commandeer my workstation, so as to send rude and wholly inappropriate emails to her underlings from my email account, forcing me to physically shut down my computer. On a couple of occasions, I witnessed her being (mildly) taken to task by her senior colleagues or her own managers, but it did no good.
By the end, I was living in a liminal nightmare scenario of constantly being made to feel inadequate and incompetent, contrasted with the positive feedback I continued to receive from colleagues, all the while pulling 10-hour days, with this monster sitting next to me, for 18 months. My sleeping and appetite were affected, with friends outside work commenting that I looked positively gaunt; I was drinking too much by way of self-medication; and ultimately, I suffered two nervous breakdowns, not just while working for her, but literally at the workplace.
I took some much-needed holiday time one summer. Two weeks, but it was barely enough to recover from the psychological abuse. My manager had already planned to take two weeks off immediately after me, so I fancied I’d essentially have four weeks of breathing space and comparative normality.
That didn’t happen. The very day I got back, I was subjected to ongoing and almost daily emails from my manager (while she was on holiday) enumerating what she saw as all of my failings and incompetence. (For the record, until this posting, I had a stellar employee record.) I saw these emails more as a reflection of her frustrations and panic at being left alone without me to do her bidding, but by then I had already reached a breaking point.
I decided that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t face her again), and wouldn’t even wait for her to return from her holidays. I did my work as per usual, tied up some loose ends, and took my leave on a Friday lunchtime for a wisdom tooth extraction (this was actually true, not a ruse). I then consulted my GP and told him all that had transpired, and he put me on sick leave so that I didn’t have to return to work.