Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
Within a few days of starting at my last firm, an Investors In People (IIP) re-accreditation process started, which involved groups of about a dozen of us meeting with the assessors at a time, discussing the way the staff felt about their employers.
It had been an odd start to a new job; it was a bigger firm than I was used to with one big corridor running through the office. When you walked down the corridor, no one said hello to you. I said to my friend Megan that it was probably because lots of people worked there; you couldn’t say hello to everyone every time you walked down the corridor. She said 'er, yes you can.' So basically no one spoke to me for months and months for no obvious reason.
Back to the IIP meetings. The assessor made it clear at the outset that someone had been excluded from the meetings because of allegations of bullying. She asked if we knew who she was talking about. There was a deathly silence, then a lady approaching retirement age said 'yes, of course we do,' and said her name. Now I am not going to tell you her name so let us call her Jane. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the name had been spoken, that we could discuss this issue, that someone was listening. It was all a revelation to me. I sat there agog as people confessed to having felt bullied by this woman. It did account for the strange, tense atmosphere around the place.
If I told you this woman’s back story, probably 50 people reading this blog would know who I was talking about. So let me make up a back story that gives you an idea of the person we are talking about. Before she worked in this law firm, let us say she had a market stall selling novelty Christmas gifts and was known to charge people double and then refuse to give them a refund if they queried it. As I say, I’ve made that up but if you change a few of the non-essential facts you will get to the true story. The point I am making is that she had a history of dishonesty and no qualifications, least of all any legal ones. She started as a paralegal and worked her way up, with role after role being created for her.
Bullies prey on vulnerable people. I have to say (and I didn’t say this was a happy story) that all the people that were bullied by Jane were women of ethnic minorities. I know.
So, what happened after the IIP meetings? Nothing. We got our re-accreditation. I am not necessarily criticising IIP, as I do not know what conversations went on after the meetings. I was so sure she would be sacked, but she was actually promoted. The bullying continued. The firm (it was rumoured) had to settle various employment claims when these women were pushed out.
We were often told that we should defer to her knowledge on the subject of marketing, as she was used to working in customer service. You know, on the market stall*. Where she stole money from old ladies*. Legal expertise was systematically devalued over a number of years, because she knew that she could add nothing on that front. They were crazy times.
For my part, I tried. Every time I was involved in management planning, each time there was a slight change in management, I raised my concerns in very blunt terms. It was difficult, and you will probably read this and think I didn’t do enough, but what went on was sneaky and was easy to deny - particularly by someone who had no self awareness of any wrongdoing. I wasn’t in her department, and I had never seen anything first hand. But I spoke up, because it was all I could do. Eventually, in my exit interview with a managing partner who was new to the firm, I said that the firm would always be toxic as long as she worked there. It didn’t make any difference. She was untouchable. There were all sorts of rumours about what hold she had over the management.
Now, clearly I am writing my blog this week apropos of nothing in particular. But I have been thinking about this woman a lot. I have been thinking about how much she could have offered to the cause of feminism by striving to be successful in her own career, for leading a team of staff, for having a career that wouldn’t have been open to her own mother, for using her initiative to enter into a profession that is closed to most people without qualifications. But let me assure anyone that needs to hear it that being a ball-crusher, treading on others on your way to the top, being unaccountable for your actions and belittling colleagues does no more for feminism than the smirking Mrs Coulter and her evil monkey daemon did in heading up the General Oblation Board. It does nothing for humanity for that matter. I can only assume that bullies in these middle-management positions are also bullying their bosses - otherwise they would be held accountable for their actions.
We must continue to speak up, as often as we can, if we witness this type of behaviour. Even if nothing gets done about it at the time. Because the people that are the victims will find it so much harder to do so. We must be kind, and support others on their way up, and discourage this behaviour by example. Don’t think that these bullies are happy, or self-assured, or that they sleep peacefully at night. Doing the right thing is what makes you happy and peaceful. Where they go low, us lefty lawyers must continue to go high.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article