It took me years to tell anyone about this. Why? Because I was embarrassed, I took responsibility for causing it, it was his word against mine. The expression ‘he could sell ice to Eskimos’ was surely written with him in mind. I moved on. But, now it’s time to put pen to paper. One of my favorite Nelson Mandela quotes comes from when he was released from prison and said: “…if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” And so here’s my story.
A few years ago, I was working for a company where I loved my job. Let me rephrase that. I actually didn’t care much for most of my job responsibilities, but I loved my boss, and that made a world of difference. He was smart and savvy and I was learning a lot from him. The good news was, he thought I was great at my job and that I was a great person and told me so frequently. After my first year, I had my first review and it was the best I have ever received in my entire career. At the time he gave me that review, he also said that if he were starting his own company, I’d be among the first five employees he’d hire. Wow. How great to be so appreciated! I fairly swooned from his attention. And to be truthful, it helped that he was a young and handsome guy.
Fast forward a few months. My boss and I were on a business trip together, just the two of us. We were at a coffee counter preparing for the afternoon meeting and it happened. He made an overt pass. I froze. I mean, I loved his attention, I really did, but I wasn’t interested in taking our relationship to this new level. So I did nothing. I didn’t respond and eventually suggested that it was time to go. The next week in the office he said to me that “we’ve got to stop ‘this,’” and that his wife had been depressed. That was both the start of, and the end to, the conversation. And actually, I wasn’t really disturbed by what happened, and just expected things to go back to the way they were.
About 2 months later it started. My boss took me off of the business I’d been managing since I started working for him, and put me on a business about 1/10th the size. And he also moved my office to a building that was completely separate from the bulk of the company. I felt like I was in The Office. I was shocked by his actions and told him so. My problem was, I was so crushed that someone who I cared so much about, and who clearly cared so much about me (ha!), could turn in a heartbeat. For whatever reason, I didn’t actually make the connection to ‘the incident.’ I was just hurt and I’ll confess, I couldn’t talk about it without dissolving into tears. And so I didn’t. Instead, I started the process of looking for a new job.
Things got worse. Because I wasn’t sitting with the rest of the company, I started to feel more and more out of touch. By now I had accepted that ‘the pass’ had everything to do with what was happening, but I didn’t want anyone to know about that. And that made me more susceptible to what was becoming a massive mind-f***. Sorry to be crude, but it’s the only way to describe it.
The next review period was approaching and I was nervous. I was the sole wage-earner in my family. My husband had been a stay-at-home Dad for over 20 years and so my earnings kept us going, kept our kids in college, kept us insured etc. Because my first review had been done late, this next review came only 9-months later. And it was scathing. It was the polar opposite of the first one.
Pre mind-f***, my boss would often tell me how one of the reasons he hired me was that my job references were the best he’d ever heard. Ever. Seriously, he mentioned this a lot. Then during my review, he told me that he’d thought more about my job references and realized they were all actually giving him the same ‘read-between-the-lines’ message about my lack of skill. He really said this and also that I couldn’t ask them about it because of confidentiality (for a sense of timing, this was almost two years after he would have talked to them). I should also explain that there was a sentiment throughout the office that my boss lived in his own reality. He would say things that were blatantly untrue, and then over time come to believe them. I hadn’t noticed that until now.
The mind-f*** continued. He told me that he’d had 360 discussions (a common review method where subordinates and colleagues confidentially are asked to evaluate you) with a boatload of folks at the company, and they were all negative. All of them. He told me who said what, and also said I couldn’t mention it to any of them. It had to be confidential. I knew it was all crap, but being the good employee I said nothing, just as with the comments about my references. And, he told me that if I agreed to leave the company, he’d ‘make it really good for me.’ But of course I couldn’t quit…sole wage earner and all. I had to get a new job first. If I thought things had been bad before…
It’s also important to say that I’m in a protected class. I’m female and was over 50 at the time, working in a company where the median age was 28. That makes me hard to fire, especially with no cause.
The stress level was fairly unbearable. My eyebrows fell out. I couldn’t sleep. I dreaded going to work each day.
The mind-f*** was in full force. My boss was the king of making me feel good and two minutes or two days later kicking me in the stomach. His goal was to either make me so miserable that I’d quit, or to be able to make a case against me that of course had nothing to do with me rejecting ‘the pass.’ Here are just a few examples:
- He would have me prepare a presentation, then give me feedback to remove a key component. I’d rewrite it and he’d deride me for its omission. I’d rewrite it with it back in and he’d want to know why. Etc, etc, etc.
- He had a colleague of mine show up with him to one of my out-of-town partner meetings, without telling me he’d be there. And then he set me up during the meeting.
- He asked me to meet with a friend of his because I was uniquely positioned to help this friend understand how to approach a particular business opportunity (related to my job)…and so I did. He even thanked me afterwards, saying something like “I really appreciate you meeting with him, given everything that’s going on here.”
- I had great respect for the other senior leaders in the company. But I was also, for the most part, kept away from forming my own relationships with them. My boss wanted it that way. After that bad review, I was going to send my written response to his boss, but he asked me not to and so I didn’t. That’s how far down I’d been kicked.
What happened to me, in spite of the fact that I knew better, was that I started doubting myself. I started to believe that I really was incompetent and couldn’t do anything right. I faltered during meetings, both externally and internally. My boss would set me up and I’d fall right in. I had no confidence. I made mistakes. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy and was exactly what my boss wanted to have happen. And what was worse was that though I was getting calls for interviews for other jobs, I was so beaten down that I blew every opportunity. In one interview, I literally couldn’t answer the question: “what’s your best quality.”
And then finally, after a year of bullying, he forced my resignation. He gave me the news with the HR VP in tow, the same HR VP who once told me that she’d have to “Jew him down,” referring to a negotiation we were having with a contractor (but that’s a story for another day). I didn’t bring up ‘the pass.’ It was yet another confidence I kept until the end, out of some sick sense of loyalty.
I hired a lawyer but knew I didn’t have the stomach for a fight, even though there was no doubt I could have demanded more money. Now that it was over, I wanted out and I wanted out quickly. I was devastated and humiliated.
The good news is, I landed on my feet. I built myself (and career) back up and became the confident and competent person I’ve always been. I learned from this experience and became better for it. I learned that even smart people make mistakes, and that there is life after stupid. I learned it’s okay to trust, but to be careful with that trust. I learned that it’s never okay, no matter what, to let someone make you feel awful about yourself. And I learned the importance of relationships at work, even if someone is trying to prevent you from having one.
And that’s my story. I have made peace with myself and even forgiven him. That’s what us Jews do.