Case 002 - Customer Services Manager (Tim FIeld)
Male, 42, UK, public sector organisation being privatised.
I enjoyed 15 successful years with my employer, starting in computer systems support and development, including user support and training and graduating to customer services. I had a series of excellent managers. In early 1991 I moved to a new department which developed, sold and supported scientific computer software worldwide. A highly talented and motivated team had been assembled by the department manager who was an excellent 'people' person. All went well. At the end of 1992, this manager suddenly and unexpectedly resigned. A new manager took over, and within 3 months, morale had noticeably declined. As Customer Services Manager, one of four section leaders reporting to the department manager, I was responsible for ensuring fast, accurate delivery of bespoke software to companies worldwide, together with rapid response to customer queries. The success of the business hinged on this operation which was a team effort in which everybody in the department played a full role.
Within three months, I noticed the following, which intensified with time, although I was only able to identify and articulate many of these in retrospect:
- constant nit-picking and often non-specific criticism, which did not match my, or colleagues', or customers' views on the service levels being achieved
- simultaneous and persistent refusal to recognise, acknowledge or value my role, work and achievements
- being undermined and sidelined, with opinions ignored, requests rejected and decisions overruled
- being ignored and overruled in meetings
- being excluded from management meetings concerning the running of the department
- having information withheld
- having input and contributions dismissed, reports and statistics disregarded
- having my responsibility increased but my authority whittled away
- being forced to seek approval from peers for almost every action
- being unable to pin my manager down on what was "wrong"; when challenged, he became impatient and aggressive, often making...
- implied threats: "perhaps you'd be happier at a lower grade in another department", "perhaps we made a mistake promoting you", etc etc
- being starved of resources whilst other sections got what they needed
- being coerced into taking on additional, unnecessary and superfluous work
- being overburdened with work - in the end I was doing the work of three people
Nevertheless, despite all the hoops I was increasingly being forced to jump through, I continued to fulfil the responsibilities of my job. In retrospect, this made things worse; the more I achieved, the more he seemed determined to destroy me. Achievements and a list of duties (2 pages of closely-typed A4) were repeatedly deemed "irrelevant". Confusion reigned but the demands of the job kept growing. By November 1993, injury to health had taken its toll and confidence and self-esteem destroyed. I was working in a management vacuum. I couldn't understand what was wrong (knowing nothing about bullying at this stage), and began planning my escape. In January 1994, I received the first written criticism that "I was not fulfilling expectations...". (Later, I realised that he never defined what his expectations were, nor would he have done.)
In order to achieve a "satisfactory" performance, I had to take on an additional job. I was now doing work of 3 people. The customer base had increased five-fold, we (the whole team) had cut delivery times and improved accuracy by a factor of at least ten since I started, but there was "no possibility of taking on any new staff". I discovered later that at that moment, my manager was actively recruiting staff for the other three sections of the department. This was not the only time he lied to me.
My Customer Services section was then abolished and moved underneath one of the other sections, with a refusal to clarify the status of my section, to the consternation of all who had worked so hard to make it a success. It was called a merger but it was a calculated move to eliminate me. At the same time this manager managed to get himself promoted. Stress levels, already through the roof because of impending privatisation, rose even further. An indication of how much stress we were enduring came a few weeks before my stress breakdown. Every couple of days, somebody in the department would spontaneously burst into tears. I remember standing at the door of my office after one of these incidents thinking, "this is like an infection ... what on earth is going on here?"
Stress levels within the department were so high that the manager arranged for everyone to attend a stress awareness seminar. This was cheaper - much cheaper - than a stress management course or stress counselling and consisted of a quick chat by an occupational health adviser plus a video on stress which caused much amusement when the manager featured in the film was called Stephen but who liked to be known as Steve.
I questioned my manager about his criticism, and whilst he was "always available to discuss anything", every attempt to discuss what was wrong was dismissed as "not relevant". Pinning him down was like nailing jelly to a tree. In March 1994, I applied for voluntary redundancy. My manager, on hearing this, stated that he was fully behind me. Brutus was an honourable man.
On 2 June 1994, I watched the BBC2 programme, The Business: Bullying at Work, featuring Andrea Adams and her identification of workplace bullying. The penny dropped. I started working with personnel (the juniors were supportive at a personal level but had no policies or procedures to fall back on) and occupational health (supportive but powerless) to make them aware of what was going on. Initial scepticism waned as more and more came out. A journal swelled to 40 pages within 48 hours.
I made it clear to my manager that his behaviour was unacceptable. His reaction was interesting - he appeared confused, and made implied threats, "You know, Tim, talking about this isn't going to do your career any good." Having regained control over the situation, this had no effect on me, which he couldn't handle. The threat was repeated, and sensing loss of control, he became garrulous and shifted uncomfortably on his chair. I realise now he decided at that moment to get rid of me altogether. He had turned me into the threat he feared.
On 28 July 1994, I came to work feeling very strange. I had been stressed and physically and emotionally numb for so long that I barely noticed. With hindsight I can see that I had been walking round like a zombie for six months - I have no idea how I survived in that state for so long. On sitting down at my desk, a colleague came in and remarked how awful I looked. After 18 months of enormous stress, my brain finally collapsed under the strain. I burst into tears, and sat there, trembling, repeating for nearly 10 minutes "I can't cope, I just can't cope". Shortly after this, my manager seized the opportunity to relieve me of my position. A colleague was appointed in my place and not long after, the Customer Services section was re-instated with her as section leader. She was horrified and embarrassed to find out what was going on, as were the rest of the department. "It stinks", confirmed a colleague. They were good people, but under enormous pressure themselves, and unaware of what had been happening. No-one dared say anything openly in case they jeopardised their jobs, especially those on short-term contracts.
After six months on sick leave I was invited to the departmental Christmas party, and by a quirk of fate ended up sitting opposite the bully. He dominated the conversation, talking mostly about his bonus and how big it was going to be. He ignored me, not even asking how I was.
A consequence of stress breakdown is reactive depression, a new experience for me. Wild swings of mood, from thoughts of suicide to occasional euphoria, overwhelming negativism, anger, irritability, aches and pains, fatigue, constant infections, disturbed sleeping and eating patterns - over 40 symptoms, with half still present a year later. For months, all I wanted to do was curl up and die. The reason I didn't commit suicide was the thought of my two young children, plus some excellent counselling. Thanks, Denise.
I estimate the cost of my case to my employer (at that time still the taxpayer) to be in excess of a quarter of a million pounds, comprising redundancy, pension, administration, personnel and occupational health time, 6 months sick leave, re-recruitment, loss of knowledge, experience, wasted training investment, etc. Not one penny was charged to the bullying manager's budget. I know he's been implicated in other employees' stress breakdowns, including a spectacular stress breakdown six months before mine which the company went to some lengths to hush up.
I summarised the experience and asked the personnel manager to put it on my manager's file. She refused to record anything about what had happened. This woman was subsequently awarded a prize for "managing change" and her photograph appeared in People Management. The bully was protected and promoted, although the company finally fired him for incompetence in the summer of 1999, five years after I reported him. His empire quickly collapsed and it comes as no surprise that the company is now in financial difficulties, the share price has plummeted, and the department in which I worked is now downsizing faster than it was growing during my time there. The reason is simple: the bully built no foundations for the business. I recall several conversations with him about building foundations for long-term strategic growth, and his dismissive responses at the time now make sense. Despite being a former business development manager, and despite being glib and plausible on the surface, he knew nothing about business. He was a fraud but I was the only person at the time who saw through him - and he knew that I could see through him, hence his need to destroy me.
A recent Advice Line call and contact with former colleagues reveal that morale at the company is still at rock bottom and still falling, just as it was a decade ago. Plus ça change. Every employee I meet now is focused on the same objective: getting out. The company's motto should be "We've hit rock bottom, now we're drilling!" Since 1989, tens (and probably hundreds) of millions of pounds of taxpayers' and investors' money has been poured into the company and it's likely that the remnants of the organisation will eventually be taken over by a foreign competitor at a rock-bottom price. Not surprisingly, the bully now has a management job in another engineering company in the north of England - how did he land this job given his unsatisfactory work record and ultimate dismissal? How did he get a reference after being fired? Do they know his history?
The personal cost has been a stress breakdown, terminated career, eighteen months of initial recovery (on benefit), four years of stress at home and a family breakdown. Following the stress breakdown in July 1994, I spent six months on sick leave, after which I accepted a voluntary redundancy package. A further six months was spent at home in recovery. I considered self-employment (I will never be employed again), and in July 1995, one year and three days after the breakdown, I felt well enough to attempt a day's work - mainly shuffling paper, nothing serious. I now know that the stress breakdown was a psychiatric injury, not a mental illness. Legal action was a non-starter - one has to apply to tribunal within 12 weeks of leaving, and there's no law against bullying anyway. A personal injury claim has to be started within three years, and it was four years before I felt well enough to read the forms without shaking uncontrollably. This would have tied me to a further five years of litigation, and of repeatedly reliving the nightmare. Only after the Long case in May 2001 would I in legal terms have stood a chance of success.
For a further six months I gradually increased the amount and content of my work at home, and eventually set up the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line in January 1996. The following month, I gave my first training workshop. It took me ten days to recover from the effort of giving this one-day workshop. By this time, work on my book was proceeding steadily, and calls were beginning to come in on the Advice Line.
This set the pattern for 1996, and by the end of November, over 400 people had come to me looking for advice and support; most of these cases were at the severe end of the spectrum, with many callers near or in breakdown, many having thought of suicide and some having already attempted it. Remembering Andrea Adams' kind letter and words of support just after my own breakdown, I sent each caller a package of information to help them turn the corner in their experience. A pattern emerged early, with most callers in their mid-to-late 40's, at the top end of the pay scale. About 75% of callers are female, and over 50% of reported bullies also female. The three worst affected sectors seem to be teaching, nursing and social workers - the caring professions. Since 1999 there's been a noticeable increase in cases from the voluntary/charity/not-for-profit sector.
1996 culminated in the publication of my book Bully in sight: how to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying. As no publisher would touch it, I typeset and published it myself under the imprint Success Unlimited. Diana Lamplugh OBE kindly wrote a foreword. Bully in sight has sold over 10,000 copies in more than 30 countries. Feedback is phenomenal and I am pleased and humbled that something good has come out of my experience.
Demand for the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line is constant. During 1997 I realised I couldn't meet the level of demand indefinitely and in January 1998 I made my insight and experience available on the world's leading Internet web site devoted to bullying, Bully OnLine at Bully Online which is now my preferred first point of contact.
Interest from the media has increased steadily and on average someone from the media contacts me every day. Appearances on TV, radio and in newspapers and magazines are increasing as the issue of bullying - of children, adults, partners, the elderly, and in the uniformed services - comes out into the open.
I published David Kinchin's book Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: the invisible injury in January 1998. David has updated his book (originally published by Thorsons) to include a chapter on PTSD caused by bullying. I published revised editions in September 2001 and October 2004.
Update, 2000: Seven years after the stress breakdown, I believe myself to be about 98% recovered mentally and about 80% recovered physically, with an improvement rate of about 0.5-1% a month. From my experience and from talking to at least 10,000 people in similar situations, I estimate it takes between 2-10 years or more to effect recovery, and only if one has support. Some people never fully recover from such an abusive experience. Physically I may never recover fully. We'll see. During 2000 I co-wrote, with international journalist Neil Marr, a book on children who have committed or attempted suicide because of bullying at school. I published Bullycide: death at playtime on 30 January 2001. The Times Educational Supplement described it as "an excellent book". I plan more books exploring bullying and its causes.
Update, January 2003: The last 12 months have been a year of intensive personal development. Spurred on by and embracing the teachings of Brian Tracy and Rhonda Britten I've focused on neutralising and eliminating the remaining negative thoughts and feelings to finally make it back into the real world - whatever that is! My bullying episode started in January 1993 and it feels like my life has been hijacked for the last decade. It's taken 8.5 years of recovery to get to this stage and for the first time in ten years I'm back in charge and at last life for me is getting better and better. 2003 sees many challenges, the first of which is to move out of the spare bedroom and into a "proper" office - this was achieved on 1 March. Sharing my knowledge and insight with public seminars, moving all my support work under the wing of a non-profit organisation (later to become a registered charity), and employing people to help with the workload are high on my list of objectives for the remainder of this year. The most exciting challenge for me this year is the development and delivery of an innovative new seminar Recovery and re-empowerment from bullying and abusive life events which enables people to get their lives and careers back on course by recovering from an abusive experience in less than half the time it would normally take.
Update, Summer 2004: having returned to something like normal, my recovery was dealt an apparent setback when in August 2003 I became the target of a vexatious writ of libel sponsored by the National Union of Teachers. It seems like someone took exception to that fact I'd helped over a thousand NUT members, all of whom reported being betrayed by their union. Long story short, and with the help of some wonderful friends, I negotiated a mutually-agreeable out-of-court settlement in July 2004. During the legal battle I decided I had no option but to give up my office, suspend my seminars indefinitely and close the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line (all support is now via Bully OnLine). After a year-long emotional roller-coaster the legal battle - which culminated in standing in the same court with such august predecessors as Jeffery Archer, Mohammed Al Fayed and Neil Hamilton and hearing the barrister shoot his client in the foot by admitting the NUT were conducting a war against me - ultimately turned out to be an enriching and empowering experience which provided more insight for the next book. During 2004 I discovered Alternatives in London and as a consequence I'm benefiting enormously from a lot of spiritual development work I'm undertaking which includes looking at my origins and identifying why and where much of my information is coming from.
Update, July 2005: after more than a decade of almost non-stop work tackling bullying I'm taking a much-needed break for six months to recover my energies. Starting in the autumn I'll focus exclusively on writing with more books (one on how to recognise serial bullies and workplace psychopaths, the other on the spiritual meaning within trauma) and a film script or two. It's time to go for the bigger picture. For relaxation, I've taken up singing and am now to be seen (or rather, heard) regularly on the karaoke circuit in Oxfordshire; romantic ballads and soft rock are my favourite [click here for my song list]. In May 2005 I auditioned for X-Factor 2 and although I didn't progress past the preliminary round it was a great experience.