Once upon a time, I worked in a crumbling old archaic and beautiful institution. Within its many walls, two worlds co-existed side by side, adjacent and sometimes overlapping, but utterly distinct and separate and unrecognisable from one another in character and experience.
One was the dazzling front-of-house public veneer, and one was the creaking, chokingly toxic, behind-the-scenes underbelly.
If you didn’t spend much time beyond the locked and pass-coded “Staff Only” doors, you might think it would be a wondrous place to work. You might even desire it and daydream about it! How wrong you would be. Within days or weeks or even just hours you would realise that all was not as it seemed. That this was a venue that you might describe as all fur coat and no knickers.
For behind the scenes was a carved up and disjointed landscape of independent fiefdoms. Multiple departments of highly stratified staff worked in isolation from one another, cloistered away in different offices or cubicles and even in different buildings. Which would be fine, except that nobody ever organised cohesive staff meetings. Introverted staff could be left alone in their corner from one end of the year to the other. You could work there for years and walk past corridors where there were hermit-like staff that never came out. I used to think it all suited the nature of the academic’s psyche – that academics liked working alone, even in the window-less deepest reaches of old attics. I think there is a level of obsessiveness required to be a researcher. Extreme focus is how you become an expert. The place was full of them.
But expertise will come at a price if you don’t go for some fresh air, have lunch and talk to other people every now and then.
Not that many staff didn’t meet up for tea and lunch and socialise together. Only for teabreaks did staff detach from their desks at all. Because there were no staff-wide meetings, it was only over scones that anything new ever happened. It was your own loss if you missed out what was happening by not attending teabreaks. Here, and only amongst the more extroverted characters, ideas formed and schemes hatched as to how to convince decision-makers that new initiatives were good.
But the extraordinarily hierarchical staffing structure meant that decision-making was a nightmare. The Hierarchy seemed to be held in great regard, especially by those who operated from within its ranks. Relative to the amount of staff, there were loads of bosses, meaning that a single member of staff could answer to a Supervisor who answered to a Manager who answered to a Higher Manager who answered to a single overall manager – referred to here as The Great Boss – who seemingly answered to a Board, but truthfully everyone in the entire place was answerable to The Great Boss, including the Board who never set foot in the place anyway and nobody was sure whether they even existed at all.
The Higher Managers all had big important meetings together around mahogany tables and made big important decisions that got emailed out to the rest of the organisation every now and then, with no warning or explanation or consultation.
And that would seriously piss off everyone else in the entire place. If this was fed back to the Higher Managers, all they could do was shrug and say nothing because this was the entitlement of their role and in “time-honoured tradition” this is the way it had always been and always would be, and one day if other staff were promoted to Higher Management then they would also do it the way it had always had been done, because that was their entitlement now too and nothing would ever change.
In fact change was not welcomed at all. Vibrant new proposals may or may not be indulgently listened to, but almost never ever approved. A persistent young enthusiastic female like me was nothing but a bemusing nuisance. Ideas from lower grades of staff (don’t forget how important the Hierarchy was here) were a repugnance. Really, only Higher Management got to think up ideas.
Most other junior staff knew not to provoke Higher Management with ideas. They knew to respect the tradition. But not even with their mahogany tables and their decision-making and their big important emails out to “All Users” were the Higher Managers happy. Not even when they had the power to think up Ideas for new projects were they happy. The entire organisation lived in fear of The Great Boss, but nobody feared him as much as the Higher Managers. Higher Managers would pale before visitations of the Great Boss. He could never appear without warning, because a highly-stressed staff is always highly alert to a stressor and The Great Boss was the greatest stressor of all. His whereabouts was always vigilantly communicated by phone to everyone else in that corner of that building at that time.
Nobody had even to mention his name or his title, all they had to do was phone and say “HE”:
“he is here.”
“he is downstairs.”
“he is outside the door now.”
And without a hello or a goodbye, the phoneline would click off and go dead.
No matter how much preparation was laid before a visitation, that one overlooked impossible detail or that one tiny nonsensical transgression would put Higher Managers into spins of incoherent babbling before his wrath.
That’s unless The Great Boss was in good form. These days were known as the days When the Great Boss had had his Weetabix.
Oh how charming and disarming he could be then!
He had enormous wit and knowledge and he could employ it lethally. Even Higher Managers who hated his guts because he made them stutter and lay awake at night with worry of him would laugh uproariously at his acerbic humour and fawn over his photographic memory that made him remember their great-aunt’s fondness for súgán chairs. On those days, the whole staff would bask in the temporary burn of his cheer, the deathly calm before the next storm of his more typically bad temper.
And so, morale in this place was not good. Too many variously dejected bosses under one nasty Great Boss under a faceless Board meant nobody felt supported, or heard, or valued. In this environment isolation and and harassment and infighting was allowed to fester. Like I said, it was toxic.
For my part, when I started work there I felt excited and privileged to undertake my new job. I was getting to work on a staggeringly enormous and famous project. But my immediate supervisor sexually harassed me and in time the Great Boss bullied me directly.
The supervisor harassed me from the first day with utterly unwanted and inappropriate physical contact at every opportunity. It was insidious and persistent and I was expected to carry on a normal working relationship as if nothing was amiss.
I buried my head in my work and relished the satisfaction of it and of working in what I wanted to believe was the beautiful institution as was known from its public face, but I felt paralytically uncomfortable at sharing the office with my immediate boss. I grew to hate the office with its ivy green carpet and still can’t bear the tinny sound of a moped bustling up the street. I was all but completely lost in the confusing hierarchic structure. It all made me uncharacteristically shy and retiring, and I developed a tickly cough and ulcers in my nose and in my mouth. The great privilege of working there was soured.
I confided in new friends in other departments and they told me sadly that it had happened before. I made an informal complaint to HR, as I heard others had done, and overnight the supervisor was removed to another office without him being told why. Just like the way the Catholic Church quietly transfers priests from one parish to another. I was left flying blind in my job, but I knew what to do and I can tell you I didn’t mind. I was so relieved he was away from me.
Unfortunately, I think that rather than feel empathy with previous recipients of this man’s harassment, I felt angry at them for not taking a stronger stance which might have protected me. HR told me that the only way they could really do anything was if I made a Formal Complaint. I felt responsible in ensuring it wouldn’t happen again to other women.
HR told me I was brave. I didn’t feel brave. I felt terrified.
I went through the strain of invoking a formal investigation. A specialist mediation company was called in and I was interviewed several times. He was interviewed. We were fed reports of each other’s words. He mostly admitted it, and even tried to justify some of it, by telling them that he was a “naturally touchy-feely person” and wanted to kiss me and hug me so much because I was such a capable assistant. He confessed he had unhealthy thoughts towards me. He explained that he’d pushed me against the door one day to measure my height because he’d seen some tall school girls visiting the public side of our workplace and he “wanted to prolong the fantasy” he had with tall women, by contrasting my short stature with the school girls he’d seen just prior. He said I was a “foil for his fantasies.” Re-reading the investigator’s report of his words makes me shudder.
The investigators told me that the whole thing was the most disturbing case they’d had to work on.
The organisation upheld my complaint. They created a new fixed term contract to give me the role he’d had. Somebody joked that I’d done well out of the situation: that I was the cuckoo that had pushed him out. I didn’t feel amused. So what if I had had pushed him out? I had suffered under his treatment of me and as such he wasn’t deserving of his role. My responsibility and my workload increased dramatically.
After that I didn’t speak to him again, and I hardly saw him: I had to engineer my movements to avoid his. I heard that he still worked alone with women: some as young as Transition Year. It made my blood boil. I felt my efforts had been a complete waste. I wished to goodness he’d been fired, but in the kind of organisation I worked in, someone with a permanent contract could only be gotten rid of through death.
Meanwhile, because the Great Boss specifically didn’t like the Manager left remaining above my grade, he cut the project I was working on off from him and thereby left me alone with no department to belong to. I worked quietly and independently and I seriously loved the nature of the work. I was glad I no longer had to work with the man who had harassed me. I was told to report to a Higher Manager (instead of a Supervisor or a Manager now), but he knew that my work was a personal pet project of the Great Boss and who would therefore have nothing to do with it. Thus he offered me no support whatsoever, and referred everything upwards to The Great Boss.
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire!” another commentator chuckled to me.
The Great Boss was largely suspicious and untrusting of me, as he was of everyone else, though he seemed to value my work in a twisted way. When I phoned to discuss maternity leave, he told me angrily that it wasn’t his problem that I’d got “up the pole”. At a social occasion, in front of horrified friends from outside the organisation, he told my partner in a seemingly jovial way that he’d better not get me pregnant again.
Because I had no Supervisor or Manager, and the Higher Manager I was supposed to answer to wouldn’t have anything to do with me because he was so terrified to touch a project that he saw as the Great Boss’s baby, I had to report directly to the Great Boss. And I had the audacity to propose Ideas. I suggested technological new solutions and creative approaches to raise funds and dynamic ideas to achieve tasks.
My attempts to upgrade time-honoured traditions made him apoplectic. He yelled at me, cursed at me, slammed down books in temper at me, spittled at me in rage, snarled at me that I was “not paid to think”. He referred to other staff that I spoke up for as “nobodies” and warned me not to let the “grubby paws” of people he didn’t like near the project that he saw as his.
In meetings, because my persistence and my challenges to his inaccuracies and his utter rudeness made everyone uncomfortable, I was frozen out by Managers, or I was told outright not to upset him: that he was, after all, The Great Boss.
Oh how totally they believed in the hierarchy.
Because to see through the illusion of his position would be to cast doubt on their own.
When the end of my Fixed Term Contract loomed in the new year, the Great Boss and the Higher Manager promised me they would move earth moon and stars to get it extended. They told me to plan the upcoming calendar year’s budget as if I would still be working there. But three months into that year I got a letter to my home thanking me for my service. It came with no forewarning, no meeting, no courtesy from anyone in management in phone or in person to confirm to me that actually, sorry, they’d done nothing to save my contract. The Great Boss himself had just retired with no warning and nobody in the Hierarchy wanted anything to do with his legacy. The project I worked on so devotedly was nothing but a poison chalice.
The dismay was sickening, better off and all as I knew I would be to get out of that toxic organisation.
This was all bad enough but the project was in full swing with its objectives for that year, because the Great Boss and Higher Manager had instructed me to go ahead with them. I had contractors appointed and interns newly in place. I had to sit them all down and tell them they their contracts couldn’t be honoured now and their positions had to be cancelled. I felt I was leaving the project like a veritable can of worms, not much better than how I’d found it.
And I was half way through a PhD research project based solely on my dayjob. I was going to have to give that up too.
The Union were very kind and told me I’d worked there long enough to make an application for a Contract of Indefinite Duration (in other words a permanent contract, but nobody was allowed to call it that). I should have been offered one in the first place. I told them eventually that I didn’t have the heart to fight anymore. I had given my all to my job and my family needed a better version of me. I needed a better version of me.
Near the end I had an email from my old supervisor. The man who had sexually harassed me. It was the first contact since the Formal Complaint. It was cheerful and friendly. He wanted to meet me – he’d heard I was leaving and felt he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t get to meet me and say sorry. He could spin over and meet me in my office, or we could go for tea he said. So chillingly lighthearted and breezy. I couldn’t accept there was any sincerity in it. I had been given to understand he was told not to approach me. Through the Investigation, I’d established I never wanted to speak to him and did not want to receive an apology. Clearly he felt absolved of all wrongdoing now that I was being let go.
I told him never to contact me again.
If his startling, uncalled-for and unexpected email was a knife in my back, the Higher Manager twisted it. Before I left, he called me to his office for a chat. Seeing as how the Great Boss had left, the project could be handed back to its former department now. As I was leaving, they had decided to put my former supervisor back in charge of it: as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
How would I feel about debriefing him?
The man who had sexually harassed me?
The man who’d been absolved of his duties because of his behaviour? They wanted to reinstate the perpetrator and they wanted me to debrief him?
I believe I said: “over my dead body”.
My cheeks thundered red for the rest of that day, at the shock that was piled on the shock of losing my job, at the reminder of what I’d been through and how pointless my Formal Complaint had been.
I knew then that despite all my hard work, my enthusiasm and devotion, nobody in the Hierarchy really gave a shit about my welfare or my contribution. They didn’t even care about the project; that, as I outlined, was a poison chalice. All that mattered was the Hierarchy and the entitlement it seemed to afford to some.
Like many before me I walked away from there, helpless and alone and scarred from the experience. I walked back through the public face of those achingly beautiful buildings, an outsider again, a member of the public, my privileged access revoked for good.
I was left to wonder what good any of it had done. I thought of the many beautiful people I had met and the gorgeous sense of purpose many of us had shared, even if the Hierarchy hadn’t. We truly made the best of a seething, sorry mess, even if it broke my heart to have to close the “Staff Only” door on what was to remain a sorry mess.
As if to keep the workplace a mess was the Hierarchy’s right.