byrne·dean is proud to support the campaign to raise awareness of the impact of bullying in all walks of life. As an organisation we help our clients to create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces and so this campaign has particular relevance to our work and belief systems.
Back in the early noughties I was a newly qualified employment lawyer, working in a busy city practice. I felt that I was a high performer, evidenced by the fact that I was kept on after my training contract, had good relationships with my colleagues and produced high quality work. Perhaps more importantly I was happy – I enjoyed the atmosphere in the office and there was an active social scene amongst the junior solicitors.
However, a few months in, I found myself on the receiving end of behaviour I just couldn’t understand. A particular senior partner who worked in a different department, we shall call him John, started coming to my office to talk to me. It seemed to start out of the blue – he was someone I hadn’t worked with before and had no day-to-day contact with, so I was a little puzzled about the new ‘drop in’ chats John started having with me. Unfortunately the chats were not nice ones. The first conversation he ever had with me was to tell me that a particular piece of work that I had done for a high-profile client was dreadful, that it had tarnished the reputation of the firm and damaged the relationship with the client. He then left my office telling me he was incredibly angry with me. My initial response was worry – had I done something wrong? Had I performed badly? Had I somehow upset the client? I spoke with my boss at the time and she told me that, no, my work was absolutely fine (was good even) and that I had not had the negative impact that had been suggested. I was told not to worry about it any further.
From that point forward, John’s chats became more frequent. About once a fortnight John would come to my office, typically at the end of the working day, to tell me that he’d heard on the grapevine that I had done something wrong, that I’d upset another client, that I was the worst newly qualified solicitor they’d ever had, that my work wasn’t up to standard, that sort of thing. Each time John spoke to me I was left feeling utterly deflated, confused and upset. I didn’t like the way he was behaving towards me – I felt I was being singled out and could not understand why. I wanted it to stop because it was having a hugely negative impact on my life (I wasn’t sleeping well, was suffering from anxiety and felt physically sick at the thought of going to work) and in all honesty looking back now, I don’t think I was working at my best.
But I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell anyone because I was worried. Worried that if I tried to address the problem it might backfire, that the situation may become worse. In essence I was paralysed by fear – I knew I needed to do something but was too worried to actually take action. So I didn’t.
How was it resolved? In the end, John retired a few months later and that was that. On reflection, it is sad to think the situation was only resolved by someone leaving, but my experience as an employment lawyer shows me that workplace problems are too often ‘resolved’ this way.
Years later I discovered that John apparently didn’t like the fact that I was an openly gay man and that this may have explained some of his behaviour towards me. Looking back I can therefore see that I should have spoken more frankly to my boss about what was happening, but at the time that felt like too big a step to take. At the time I also didn’t sense that homophobia was as the root of it – I had lots of questions and wanted to know why I was receiving this treatment but actually asking those questions to someone with influence and status is just so difficult. It’s easy to say that I should have been braver and challenged John’s behaviour but that is with the benefit of hindsight. I was very junior, just starting out in my career and did not want to be labelled as the ‘problem person’.
For me to have actually spoken up – well, it probably would have required someone to step in (a colleague or my boss perhaps), for someone to approach me and to say something as simple as “you’re not quite yourself at the moment – are you okay?” And that sums it up for me - it is often the small things that make a big difference.