Nigel was a bully.
Something felt off, not quite right, the first time I met him. I was one week into a brand new job at a brand new company. It was his first day. I was in conversation with my manager about the project I was being assigned, and Nigel came straight over. “Is this something I need to know about?” asked Nigel.
“Hi,” I introduced myself. Nigel did not return the favour.
“Is this something I need to know about?” repeated Nigel. My manager assured him that it wasn’t urgent for him to know about it right that moment.
Whilst one grade up from me, Nigel was never my direct manager. This did not stop him from immediately taking the reins. Three hours into his first day with the team, he said, “Team! Meeting room! Now!” I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. Into the meeting room we went, where we were treated to a twenty minute PowerPoint presentation on, “Who is Nigel Worthing?”. Not very long after that, I was able to answer that question with a four letter word starting with “t” and ending with “wat”.
It turned out – from Nigel Worthing’s presentation on his favourite subject that he had started life as an estate agent. Well, probably not started life (though actually it wouldn’t have surprised me). He had then weaselled his way through the most revolting industries you can imagine. Tobacco. Oil. And now banking.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “there’s a big difference between someone fundamentally unlikable and a bully.”
I have never called “bully” lightly. Nigel was a bully.
It started slowly, insidiously. He was very poor at planning but liked the team to pull “all nighters” last-minute before a big meeting. All of these were totally avoidable. He asked the team for feedback. I took advantage of a one-on-one meeting with him to suggest that these late nights didn’t work for everyone. There were a couple of parents on the team; others liked to plan ahead. Given notice we would all be happy to work later when needed, but it wasn’t always easy for everyone to drop plans last minute.
That was the first nail in my coffin.
I was excluded from team drinks. In his defence, I didn’t drink alcohol at the time; perhaps he thought I had an alcohol problem (I didn’t) and excluded me for that reason. Perhaps.
I was asked to facilitate a workshop for him. His project was totally separate from my project, but facilitation was a key skill and a reason for my recruitment so I was happy to help. The workshop went well. I was then asked to type up the pages and pages of notes from the meeting. I explained that whilst I had been happy to put a day aside to facilitate, I didn’t have the time available to spend another few days typing up all the output, and this extra (secretarial) task hadn’t been mentioned initially. He said I could stay late and do it. I explained I had plans. His team were all male and therefore unable to type. He didn’t actually say this, but the implication was more than there. I did eventually manage to do it for him – by the deadline and by taking work home to do it, but merely questioning him meant the damage had been done.
That was the second nail in my coffin.
He started talking to other team members behind my back. He asked a couple of them to “watch” me as he thought I was using Twitter on company time. I was. Because part of my project was to look at how different banks communicated process steps with prospective customers. (This was back in 2009 when firms’ use of Twitter was embryonic).
Beginning to feel concerned at Nigel’s behavour, I raised concerns with my manager, who was a personal friend of Nigel and who had recruited him to the firm. I wrote a long email where I detailed how I felt my work was being hindered by Nigel insisting on seeing every email I sent out (thus causing a bottleneck as he rarely replied), and proposing a way forward. I had no reply from my manager. I caught my manager face-to-face to ask him if he had read my email, and he merely said, “Those are your feelings, and it’s not for me to disagree with them.”
Remember Nigel was not my manager, nevertheless, one Friday afternoon he took me into a meeting room and said my work to date hadn’t been up to scratch. He presented me with a document and said “this is what good looks like” – I was to go away and produce a document exactly like the one I’d been handed – except with my project as a focus. Great. Fine, and useful to have a template. I had two weeks before my holiday and so I worked hard to produce a document exactly as they wanted. I presented it to Nigel and my manager on the morning before my holiday, finished and perfect.
Nigel flicked through it, dismissively. “Is this it?” he asked.
“You said that this was ‘what good looked like’,” I said. “I have followed the format exactly where appropriate, and added in all the relevant data you need. I also found out some really interesting additional stuff, which I have put in as an appendix, or I can rework it through into the main part if you would like.”
“This just isn’t good enough,” he said. “Your manager and I have been talking and you need to use your two-week holiday to think about whether this is the right opportunity for you. You will be on an improvement plan when you return.”
Cutting a very long and very unpleasant story short – when I returned from leave, I was indeed on an improvement plan (albeit with a new and nicer manager). Nigel then left my improvement plan “accidentally” in the middle of a table in a meeting room, viewed by God knows how many people before it was eventually returned to me by a member of staff whom I didn’t even know. My reputation had now been undermined with pretty much everyone. Those who hadn’t seen it had heard about it. Everyone knew I was incompetent.
Coming back from the toilet one day, I heard Nigel ask my manager where I was, before following up with, “Never mind, she’s your problem now, not mine.” A book called Management and the Art of War sat on his desk. He told people his hero was Machiavelli.
The toxic environment and Nigel’s bullying tactics meant that nobody trusted anybody else. People would literally go through each other’s desks when they were on holiday to “stitch them up and give them a kicking”. Everyone knew they could get brownie points with the bully by giving him information on me. If I had taken a personal phone call (we were moving house – and everyone took occasional personal calls), it was reported back to me and raised by my manager (wearily, to give him credit). Similarly, if I had left five minutes early, I was taking the piss. If I worked late, I wasn’t coping. If I made a joke, it was an example of me not taking the job seriously enough. If I looked serious, I was told I should smile more often. In a lunch break, I facilitated as a favour for another team and got an email with glowing feedback, which Nigel and my manager were copied into. Hearing nothing, and asking if Nigel had received it, I was merely told I should try and focus on my own job, as if I wasn’t succeeding there, then he really couldn’t see how I could have time to help somebody else.
It was death by a thousand cuts. The day I brought Krispy Kreme donuts in for my team on my birthday – and nobody took one. The way the slightest mistake, like accidentally booking a meeting room on the wrong day, would suddenly become another indicator of my incompetence – and, worst, by far, worst of all was how I started believing it about myself. I thought a whole team of people (with a couple of kind exceptions) couldn’t possibly be wrong. Even though I knew most people disliked and feared Nigel, I couldn’t understand how they were still willing to side with him.
Even now, the best part of a decade later, I feel I need to justify myself to you about how I wasn’t a waste of space: how I was headhunted for this job on 1.5 times the salary I had previously been on – and this was one of several offers on the table. How I had previously been identified as “talent” and was on a leadership scheme. How I had never previously had a performance review that was anything other than good. How I was certainly never perfect, but I was generally thought highly of – a safe pair of hands, a strong presenter, an excellent facilitator, a great corporate trainer, a thorough and reliable project manager, a solid proofreader.
I also feel I need to tell you how I went on from this role, and succeeded once again – albeit slightly more nervously and doubting myself a lot more than I had previously done.
But every story has two sides. And I wonder what Nigel’s was. Was he genuinely a psychopath? (I do not use this term lightly, and I do mean medically – he certainly ticked some of the boxes.) What was it about me? Was it because I was the only young woman on the team? That would be an easy answer, but he seemed to have no problem with the intern. Was it because I didn’t immediately agree with everything he proposed? Surely I couldn’t be the only person who disagreed with him.
I had no energy left, no confidence remaining, to put in a complaint. I didn’t think I would win. My self esteem had disappeared. I felt it really was me.
A long, long, long 18 months into the role I found a new job. On my final day, I handed my access pass back to my nice manager, and I swear, I have never felt so physically light as when I floated down the stairs, never to return.
I took a week off to gather myself.
Starting in my new job, on my first day a young lady called Gemma showed me around, showed me where the canteen was, introduced me to people I needed to know and had endless patience with my newbie questions. She was just starting out in her career, and had no need to spend so much time with me helping me get up to speed, but I will never forget how kind she was, and how it almost moved me to tears. And I realised how badly the last job had damaged me. And how workplaces can be enjoyable, and people can be kind and supportive. And slowly, more slowly than I would have liked, I moved on. I was respected again. I succeeded again.
I looked Nigel up on LinkedIn a while back, forgetting that their algorithm shows you who has viewed your profile. A week or so later, I realised he’d seen that I had looked at his profile, and had viewed me too. A cold sweat came over my body and I felt violated. I know that sounds extreme – particularly as I had looked at his profile first. I guess it’s like the difference between seeing a tarantula in a zoo when you’re expecting to see a spider, and suddenly seeing one in the middle of your living room on a Tuesday evening.
Nigel was a bully.