In a recent twitter exchange two professors discussed ways of dealing with negative workplace attitudes. Professor Alison Leary said: “I…have learned to walk away….from disrespect… tokenism… aggression… wasting energy and time.” Professor Trish Greenhalgh referred to the bridge that took her out of the swamp. Both tweets were in response to one from NHS WomenLeaders which said: “You must find the courage to leave the table if respect is no longer being served.”
But what are the indicators that respect is not being served, when, in a public facing, publicly funded profession, respect is a rare commodity on a good day? How do I know that respect has left the table when it never came to most of the meals in the first place? When it seemed absent in the top down, number crunching baton making that was regularly used to beat us with? When most people who work with the public take the rough with the smooth, are grateful for the occasional ‘thank you’ and can get by for days, if not weeks at a time without any external validation? Most of us have learned over the years to measure our worth by our own yardstick. If we had waited for external approbation we could have waited a long time.
So how did I know that respect had left the house? Had taken its coat, and walked casually down the front path, to the gate which it had not even bothered to close behind it? How did I know that it was not just another no show for dinner, but that something had irrevocably changed, forever?
It wasn’t anything to do with respect, or his absence, and in this case he was a ‘he’ but he could so easily have been a ‘she’ and once was. It wasn’t that he flounced out one fine evening, in a fit of anger, or perceived martyrdom. No, there were no theatrics. It wasn’t a departure as such but a slow, dawning realisation on my part that it was not coming back.
In large organisations, in public facing professions, we tolerate a lot. We have the prima donnas, and the action men, in all gender representations and much of the time we tolerate them, weighing the good with the bad. “Oh but she has such great ideas!” we are told. Or, “you know what he’s like!” Funny how it never feels like anyone knows what I am like, but there you go, maybe allowances are being made for me left right and centre and I don’t see them. That’s the secretive, behind the back nature of public sector working, I reckon.
But there comes a point, a tipping point, where we can take no more. Where we realise that although this last transgression might be no more major than the previous one, or seventeen or ninety four, we can not take it any more. That’s what happened to me. The tipping point was a minor event but once I sat down to put evidence to my gut feeling – and now I know why it is called gut feeling because it is gut wrenching, make you feel physically ill, mentally deranged, cast adrift, thinking you are insane – once you quantify it with detail you realise that you have been maltreated for a long time.
I was not allowed to do my job. I was not paid for the work I was expected to do over and above my job, with no extra time or recognition for that work . I was being kept out of decisions about me and others which I should have been taking. When I asked questions, I was called to meetings where nothing happened, an hour of wasted time is a totally wasted day, again unpaid. I was employed to do a specific job, being the only person qualified to do that job, and being prevented from doing it. I received critical and mocking phone calls in the evening, to my home, and yet did not receive important responses to emails about the job I was employed to do or its future.
I knew there were conversations behind my back to stop me doing the job I was employed to do and I reported this to a manager who did nothing about it. I was constantly subjected to postponed vital decisions that would allow me to progress the project I was tasked with and finally was excluded from implementing the new project I had created single handedly, with no input other than unnecessary personal criticism.
So where was the bridge out of the swamp for me?
As many people have said over time, “There is always a choice.”
Leaving somewhere you have given the best part of your working life to does not always feel like much of a choice, but when you really reach rock bottom, suddenly the way opens before you. I was lucky. I was head hunted. Approached by someone who had heard about my work, had seen a little bit of it and offered me more autonomy, more money and a dish of respect for every meal. I am still pinching myself a year later, but I am also still suffering from the emotional scars inflicted in the previous role.
This is not a Cinderella story. Yes I am in a better place, and yes I work with some amazing people who see me for who I am and appreciate it. There are no games, no secrets and we do great work, together. But was it worth it? Absolutely not. To spend the six months I spent being excluded, gaslighted, criticised and ridiculed has left me with a legacy of fear and mistrust. I am a changed person. I don’t know how long it will take before I stop looking over my shoulder, listening out for footsteps, fearful of hearing that garden gate creak. If respect turns up looking for lunch, I know what I will tell him, but the shadow he has cast is not one to be forgotten so easily.