A Workplace Fable

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 its stressors 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 itThus 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.

*Postscript November 2017

At the time that I published this blog post, last February, I was miserable with morning sickness and weary of hearing my former employer, the National Museum of Ireland, come under fire with news reports of its toxic work environment. When I read an online comment that it surely couldn’t be THAT bad in there, I bristled. The news reports weren’t describing a fraction of how bad I knew it was in there.

I felt triggered.

So in an effort to come to terms with my experience of 8 years of working there, I sat down to write this story. Thinking of this place, reading anything associated with it, even relating to any of my friends who had worked there or still do triggers a sense of trauma I know I still haven’t fully dealt with, so I wrote it with a sense of distance. I veiled my story, if thinly. I wanted my story to be something of a cautionary tale, as I tried to outline the problems of hierarchical work structures and how they might contribute to such terrible work relations: so I called it a “fable”.

I did not – nay, could not – pepper my personal blog with names that are triggers for me. I would not have been able to write it in the cathartic way I needed to if I did.

I wrestle, at the same time, with the need for clarity, as is highlighted currently in the #MeToo campaign and the question of naming perpetrators is raised: I see my blog post get read and shared, and I notice that some have to try guess the name of the institution, and may find themselves speculating as to names, so I write this postscript to clarify.

The institution is the National Museum of Ireland.

The “great boss” is its former director, PF Wallace.

The “supervisor” who harassed me is a member of the Irish Antiquities division, named Andy Halpin

Update here: https://kettleontherange.com/2017/11/09/vomiting-slugs-to-tell-full-truths/

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About Adrienne

Mother, yoga teacher aspirant, digital media enthusiast, archaeologist. Embracing countryside-living again after years of city lights. Still attempting, sporadically, to blog!
This entry was posted in Kettle Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to A Workplace Fable

  1. Well done for writing this Adrienne- delighted that you have. I wonder how many stories like this there are from there, and how many people have had to suffer long term consequences. People’s willingness to do whatever “The Great Boss” wished, no matter the legal or moral implications, was staggering. Many others were more than happy to turn a blind eye and leave wrongs unchallenged. Your treatment was absolutely shocking even in an environment that makes the proper treatment of individuals seem a pipe dream. Also terrible when you think of the impact this culture, which still exists, has had on people’s long-term career paths and emotional wellbeing, particularly the most vulnerable who are kept on contract. All the more upsetting as there are also a lot of great people there. Speaking for myself, the place certainly had an indelible and long term impact on me anyway.

    • Adrienne says:

      Thank you for reading. I know I’m not the only one with the scars :of insight 😦 I hope putting this out there reaffirms for people how unacceptable work systems like this really are

      • C says:

        Thanks for writing this, Adrienne. Sadly, I know exactly what you’re talking about…on all fronts. Because I also worked there many years ago and encountered the same things you described with your supervisor. Among other things, he literally pulled that same measuring height stunt with a co-worker! I’m not sure whether you’ll see my email address as a result of my reply. If you do, please PM me if you’d like to discuss further or else let me know a way to contact you.

  2. Jane says:

    Wow amazingly said. Sorry you went through all of this. It’s amazing the thing people in this “imaginary” work place get away with.

  3. Finola says:

    Very powerful. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Dec mc cormac says:

    Well done Aido. Really sad when people with a genuine love for their work are taken advantage of by individuals and a insidious system.

  5. Adufe says:

    Reading this drew me back to my own situation of being bullied. I walked out and took an overdose. I fought to be reinstated where I worked and had to have a meeting with the bully and my manager. I worked once again with the bully until I decided I wanted a transfer because I had proved to myself that I was stronger, bigger and better than the bully. I also realised the manager didn’t give tuppence about me or the situation and possibly danced with joy when I asked for a transfer. I got my transfer very fast compared to a colleague who was waiting for one for a year.
    The bully made it his business to try and tarnish my reputation in my new place of work but my work speaks for its self. The bully left the company.
    Backtracking now: To get back to work I had to attend a psychologist who insisted that bullying doesn’t make someone suicidal. I now wonder how many people she tells this too.
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with the world

  6. Bert says:

    Thank you Adrienne, for your courage and eloquence. I have many tales which may share a common cultural root with yours. Below is the first I intend to post. I have no blog/twitter account/facebook page so I hope this is OK with you.

    Once again, my sincere and deepest thanks for sharing your fable.

    Once upon a time a young and ambitious lord sought his fortune in a foreign land. His bold, brave and courteous ways brought him to the attention of a king in need of loyal, noteworthy and skilled reinforcements for his personal staff. The lord was invited to join the king’s ranks, leaving his kith and kin, to explore distant dominions. He brought with him his heiress, a child yet to turn two, and his lady wife. She too had abandoned her own courtly pursuits in support of her lord’s purpose. Similarly resolute, she sought a function at the king’s court, fitting to her education, experience and cultivation. After many audiences with the king, she had abandoned hope. He had rebuked her for her Marxist opinions and questioned her lord’s attitude to her personal goals.

    One aide informed her that they had been warned not to retain her services lest she fall heavy with child. The aide and their cohorts had been cautioned by the king lest the lady request leave for her lying in and the lord require leave of paternity. He feared that his ranks would, thus, suffer. The inner circle, whose loyalty lay with their king, followed his decree, condemning the lady to exile from council. She retreated to her humble abode, tending to her lord’s brood.

    As if by magic, after encounters with the king’s assistants alone, she was needed for two vastly different roles. After loyal service and decorations for devotion to duty, the lord and his lady were both content.

    One day the lady’s mistress departed, leaving her to manage what was a challenging household of papers, book, artefacts and logistics. In the course of this work, parchments appeared verifying the tale of deliberate exclusion (the irony being that when the lady was summoned to serve, she had forsaken all prospect of preferment and was again with child).Those who were queried about the protocol of recruitment to service refused to comment, retreating to their ivory towers. The lady should be grateful to have merited any advancement under the great king.

    This was not to be the last time the lady found herself at variance with the king.

    Coming soon;

    Battles to save national treasures and the king’s not so imaginative tongue.

    The pack rallies to protect the less than chivalrous knights.

    Professional service v personal sanity.

    Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – institutional bullying.

    Knight in shining armour – Where is the red tape when you need it?

  7. gerry gleeson says:

    Adrienne . Am so sorry you went through this. I was dealing with my own demons in a building accross the way. Well written perhaps a book between us.

  8. John O'Neill says:

    Powerful piece of writing Adrienne. To be honest, I turned my back on archaeology as a profession rather than turn into the people I could see around me (both the ‘Great Bosses’ and those that scuttled around doing their bidding). And my experience was nowhere near as dark as yours. It will be interesting to see, since The Irish Times took up the recent report into NMI, whether the dominant patriarchy of other ‘Great Bosses’ manages to close the story down again. I’m guessing that (sadly) yours was a common experience of the workplace that just doesn’t get highlighted enough.

  9. Erin Gibbons says:

    Dear Adrienne, Well done for your courage. I hope it encourages others..

  10. Bert says:

    Once upon a time there was a raconteur named Bert. He had long been an entertainer and was loved as the family storyteller.

    He hoped to share his tales with those who delighted in tittle-tattle, frivolity and light-heartedness. Besides the odd tipple, Bert saw that he might regain a degree of self-confidence from revelation.

    After over a decade in the wilderness, he embarked upon a voyage of catharsis. Seeking not revenge or justice, but renewal and a second chance.

    Others did not appreciate his humour or jest and insisted that he desist.

    And so it was that Messrs Grimm and Anderson could rest easy. Bert realised that his future lay not in the fool’s world of wit and repartee, but in that of the clown, obscure and humiliated. Maybe in that of the victim; fearful and browbeaten…

    He packed his knapsack and left court. He noticed his luggage was lighter than before. His spirit, dreams and hopes crushed and fetid by the roadside. His voice silenced once more. How he wished the memories in his head could be so easily hushed.

  11. Pingback: In the institutions… | The Cedar Lounge Revolution

  12. C Corlett says:

    Very powerful reading that leaves me (almost) completely lost for words. Absolutely extraordinary that this form of (mis)management and (mis)behaviour is tolerated in the 21st century. That it has been an indelible mark of that institution from time immemorial is inexcusable (the stories of previous great bosses are legendary). Total respect to you for telling your story so (frighteningly) vividly. If nothing is done now in that institution by the powers at be, what hope is there that the environment can ever change? Part of me would like to be optimistic, but the other part of me has been working in the public sector too long. For the sake of all the good staff, their hard work and the wonderful treasures that the institution holds, I truly hope that it does.

  13. Sadie Cramer says:

    A brave and well executed piece of writing. Very thought provoking and unfortunately most women’s experience at some stage in their lives.

  14. Annette says:

    Well done on telling your story in such a brilliant and eloquent way. You are a very brave woman and if i can offer you any support please get in touch with me

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