IN 2009, my husband and I bought our first home together.
We slogged through the never ending paperwork and solicitor appointments, filled in the insurance forms and tricked the bank into lending us the necessary money.
We moved in on a sunny Sunday in June and never looked back. We love this house and over the past few years we’ve turned it into a home.
So 2009 was a great year in many respects – we became home owners, went mad in IKEA (who DOESN’T need 4,000 napkins?) and argued over who’s turn it was to put out the compost bin – but it was also the year in which I was bullied at work.
It wasn’t overt. Nothing was ever said to my face. I wasn’t physically harmed, or screamed at, nor did I ever fear I would be. It wasn’t anything like that.
I was working in a local newspaper, freelancing actually, between there and a few other jobs at the time. Sometimes I would cover if a journalist was out sick, summer holidays, that kind of thing.
I also wrote a weekly column, one I had been approached by the newspaper to write, about life as a single woman, and then my subsequent relationship and engagement.
One day I was asked by the paper to cover a shift as a journalist had left. I was told to sit at a particular desk and told to open the email account on the computer to see what mails had come in, that I might get some stories out of.
One of the more recent mails in the box had my name and the name of my column in the subject line. I opened it to discover it was part of a ’round robin’ mail between several of my colleagues, both in my department and another department. It appears, that every week when I would email in my column, it would be circulated to this particular bunch of people and they’d slag it off.
They didn’t like the column, or indeed it seems, me. They didn’t like how I wrote or what I wrote about. In this particular stream of emails that I saw there was reference made to what they thought I did sexually with my (now) husband.
One colleague would also include a friend of his in the correspondence, someone I had never met, who didn’t work in our company. This friend, joining in the fun of slagging me off, believed that my writing was so bad that it would be better for the world if I ended up being the next Jean-Dominique Bauby , the former editor in chief of French Elle magazine who had a stroke and was left paralysed, before he eventually died. (Not before writing a bestselling book, but I don’t think it was that part of his legacy this person was wishing on me.)
I was devastated. But more than that, I was mortified. I had no idea that any of this was going on. It had been going on for months. Every time I emailed in my column, they tore it apart and trashed me. What killed me most of all is that, as I was freelancing and not regularly in the office, I didn’t really know any of these people. I had to ask another colleague the surname of one of the men involved. And one of the women involved from another department was so new to the company that I had never met her and didn’t even know what she looked like.
I had been in and out of that office, minding my own business, never thinking that these people thought so little of me, when all the time this had been going on. I felt sick with embarrassment sitting at that desk. I blushed to the roots of my hair and had to go to the bathroom to compose myself.
I complained to my direct supervisor who was very kind and was upset to think this had been going on without her knowledge. From there it was passed to senior management and, as can happen with these things, nothing more really happened.
I was assured that the behaviour was unacceptable and that each of those involved would be reprimanded. As far as I’m aware, they were spoken to and given a copy of the company’s computer policy – it seems the company was more concerned that the bullying had taken place on work time and on work PCs, than the actual bullying itself.
A senior manager then told me that each of the people involved had expressed a wish to apologise to me – but no mechanism for this was suggested or set up. I don’t know if it was expected that I would initiate the conversation or something, but I was so embarrassed that I just let it go.
So in the end, nobody ever apologised.
I received a one line letter in the post subsequently from the company, advising me that they had received my complaint and the matter had been resolved. And that was the end of that.
Only it wasn’t resolved. I had bills to pay, I was house hunting, I had to continue to work and one of the places offering me regular work was this company. I had no choice, I needed the money, so I had to go back in there.
It was really hard. Very few people spoke to me, except about work matters. I felt very isolated and alone. The story spread through the office and while nobody said it to my face, everyone knew about it and the feeling I got was that I was in the wrong for complaining about it. I felt physically sick every morning going to work – and in fact vomited several times from nerves – and as before I was excruciatingly embarrassed. I stopped talking and engaging with people, I didn’t go to any work nights out, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t sit with those people and pretend to enjoy myself.
That sounds very dramatic, I know – but I can’t find the words to convey how excruciating it was to work there knowing how they felt about me. Knowing that they thought I was a joke. That they thought so little of me that when their spitefulness came to light, they didn’t even have the grace to apologise.
I know there are far worse instances of bullying and in fact I even feel uncomfortable calling it that – but it hurt me a lot, it felt like bullying, so I guess that’s what it was.
The following year, the company changed hands and the new owner cut back on staff so I was no longer needed there. It was the push I needed to go. In hindsight I should never have gone back to work there, it wasn’t good for me, but I had never been out of work in my life before then, so I clung on to the job and the security. When I walked out of that building on my last day, I took a deep breath and it felt like the first easy breath I had taken in a long time.
There is no particular reason why I’m writing about this tonight, I guess I just felt like talking about it. Apart from my family and a few friends, not very many people know about this. I didn’t discuss it in public or on social media at the time, but it’s been six years now and I suppose it’s always been there in the background, weighing a bit on me.
I really don’t want sympathy or pity, I’m not writing this for any ‘poor yous’ it’s just a story I wanted to tell. So now I have. And thanks for listening.