December 3rd, 2013

Let’s Talk with Kalola: Australian Attorney

Dear Kalola,

I am a partner in a major law firm. At the time I was bullied I was one of two female partners in the regional office in which I worked. For three years before that I had been the only female partner. In total, there were about 17 partners in the regional office, and 150 staff.

The bully was another partner, who was also the manager of the regional office.

The campaign escalated over a period of about three years, but this is a summary of the types of things which happened:

  • at the weekly partners meetings, during which each partner was asked to detail what they had been doing, he would either pass over me, or if I did speak, look down while I spoke, and either harrumph when I had finished and change the subject, or make a belittling comment
  • If there was good client feedback about a partner, the usual position was that it would be mentioned at those meetings or more broadly. If I got good client feedback (which was not uncommon), nothing was said
  • there was one important client of the firm which had a manager who, for reasons he would not articulate, would not give me any work (so there was no negative feedback, even though it was sought; he would just not give me any work). The fact that I did not get work from this client was mentioned at least once in every two weeks in a public forum
  • when I won large retainers from clients (not infrequent), this manager would tell me the work should be done by another partner
  • my relationship with my interstate colleagues, which had always been very good, deteriorated. I could never figure out what was being said, just that there were questions about my competence. I have found out since that they used to say things like "she dabbles" in the area of practice in which I have specialised for more than 20 years. Again, vague, non-specific, but damaging. And of course, people are happy to believe that sort of scuttlebutt
  • partners in other offices "knew" I was for the chopping block
  • the manager used to frequently boast in partners meetings about how he was "restructuring" other areas of practice, by which he meant sacking partners. He obviously enjoyed the power, and made it very clear that he had the power to fire partners
  • he mentioned frequently that he was looking for a lateral recruit in my area of practice, and once rang me from his car phone to tell me a partner from another office was going to come in to "turbocharge" my practice. He had not raised this with the other partner, who refused to come
  • My practice at the time was growing at a very respectable pace exceeding firm targets but he kept telling me to do business plans to show how, in three years, it would be triple the size

I did not think I was incompetent, and could not understand what was happening. Eventually, I completely lost confidence, and became unable to go out and win work, or even to interact with clients and my colleagues interstate. I became obsessed with the apparent loss of reputation mostly because there were no specific allegations I could deal with.

Eventually, I had concluded I could not do the job, and decided to resign, take some time out and reconsider my career options. By this time, a psychiatrist had told me I had a problem: I had an anxiety disorder, depression and my manager was a cruel narcissist. I did not explain to my workplace why I was going. That would have been pointless.

I had to give 6 months notice. Funnily enough, the moment I resigned, he lost his power over me, and he went to some lengths to regain it. First he suggested I take 12 months leave of absence. I agreed to call it that (so it would not look to the outside world that I had been sacked and so that the firm could also save face), but had no intention of returning to work. He made me work through the 6 months notice, during which time he tried, but failed, to find a lateral partner or one from another office who could do my job.

The leave of absence was wonderful. It gave me the perspective to understand that the way I was being treated not just by him but by extension, the firm, was ludicrous.

During my leave of absence, the man lost his power. The chairman of partners rang me to ask why I had really resigned, putting to me that it was because of him. I agreed it was, and told her in my view there was a structural issue with the firm which led to him having power he should not have had.

The structure of the firm meant that:

  • he controlled all formal lines of communication between our office and head office
  • his remuneration was based on his capacity to "solve problems". Even though he did little remunerative work with clients, he was able to justify this on the basis that he "solved problems" and was thus responsible for the productivity of the rest of the office. It was a boom time: this strategy was very lucrative for him. This of course meant that he had to find problems to solve. There was an enquiry into his behaviour. He was sacked. There is now a report which details the bullying I sustained, and calls it bullying (but concludes there was no structural issue with the firm!)

Interestingly that report also says that my partners describe his treatment of me in the weekly partners meetings as "brutal" but they felt disempowered from helping me because if they confronted him they knew their own positions would be under threat.

I returned to work, and have been very successful since then. Except that, shortly after I returned to work, just when I was becoming outstandingly successful, I was bullied again, by another partner. This one was cleverer than the first. He purported to be my friend, and got the bullying to happen by remote control through the agency of a partner from an overseas office who did not know me. He had done this by building on the doubt about my competence which had been laid down by the first bully, and promising the overseas partner my highly lucrative file if this partner shoved me off it. The second bully was far more clever than the first. I could not understand why I was being subjected to a series of incredibly disrespectful telephone conferences with people I did not know, who were clearly trying to steal my file (without actually speaking to the client).

I nearly left again, but as a last resort co-opted one of my (braver) partners, who has helped me with strategies and support to deal with it.

Victims need to understand that bullies at the workplace will identify victims and it may happen again. Victims also need to understand that they won't recognise they are being bullied and may blame themselves. In my view, the most important strategy is that you must take yourself out of the power circle of the bully. Their power comes from the feedback you give when they have baited you. You could leave, or could first try some other strategies. The first is to stop feeding them information. The second is to stop reacting to their baiting. Understand how they get information about you (which will be direct, but may also be from unwitting colleagues). Stop that flow of information by not sharing it with the conduits. And try to understand how you are being manipulated and stop reacting to it (or at least appear to stop reacting to it). Once you stop reacting to their attempts to bully you, they will have to start to being more obvious if they wish to continue and in so doing will reveal themselves and their behaviour to others.

Get coaching so that you understand why you are vulnerable to bullying. It is not because you are weak, it is probably because you see the best in people, and have some success which they want to suck from you or take the credit for. You have to understand that some people lie and manipulate as a matter of course, and think themselves superior beings for doing so.

A good coach will give you tips on how to stop looking flustered: be calm, keep your voice modulated, if there is a question you don't want to answer, don't. Don't get sucked into their paradigm. If you focus on looking calm, you will be surprised by how calming that is. Be as still as you can when you are with bully, and look at them silently but calmly.

I am very lucky. I was able to resign because my family is financially secure. I feel for people who have the added stress of feeling stuck in their job.

But if you focus on removing yourself from the bully's power, this may help. I realise now that what I could have done with the first bully was simply not go to the weekly partners meetings. His pressure that we all attend, was simply because that was where his power lay, and where he could manipulate us. I should have completely ignored him when he told me I should give work away, and just focussed on what was actually important: doing excellent work with clients and keeping up those relationships. If I did that, and ignored him, and when I had to be in the same room as him, remained calm, I would have been far less vulnerable.

Now I am trying to change the partnership from within so that the structure does not reward these people.


Dear Dorothy,

Well, we're not in Kansas any more.  Thank you for taking the time to share your workplace story, and to give advice based on your own experiences.  Workplace bullying can occur in any work setting where there are two or more people. 

Australia's Fair Work Amendment Act of 2013 becomes effective as of January 1, 2014.   As of January 1, 2014, the Australian Fair Work Commission is empowered to investigate allegations of workplace bullying made by a worker.  Workers can include employees, subcontractors, apprentices, and volunteers.  If it is found that a person(s) have been involved in bullying another worker, the Fair Work Commission can make an order directing the person(s) to stop the bullying.  Unfortunately, the Fair Work Commission cannot order that a target be reinstated to his/her position or award compensation to the target.

Safe Work Australia should have the first versions of a "Guide for Preventing and Responding to Workplace Bullying," and "Workplace Bullying—A Worker's Guide" available on their website by early December, 2013.

Your first bully was given power by the law firm that hired him.  It would appear that the bully created issues to fix in order to justify his own position with the law firm. A bully gains power when no one speaks out against the bully.  Fear will often keep co-workers from speaking up whiles others choose simply not to get involved, and tell themselves and others, "it's not my problem." Then there are a very few who think they can gain favor by aiding the bully.  You were spot on with your evaluation of the bully.

Taking time off work to take care of your health is very important.  It gives a worker the time to seek treatment from the worker's personal physician and/or from a mental health professional.  That time off work and away from the bully gives the person time to heal.  Sometimes, we try to tell ourselves that we can handle the abuse that comes our way but then our bodies tell us differently and we must stop and listen to what our body is telling us.  We are not superhuman.  It really helps to talk to a mental health professional who will listen and understand, and who will help the worker to develop strategies for coping.

Thank you for sharing your personal experience working with a coach.  Coaching services are offered by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) for a fee ($$).  This service provides confidential, personalized coaching advice tailored to the needs of the bullied worker in their current working situation.  The coaching service is provided by Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health professional who has worked with the Workplace Bullying Institute since 2009. 

Workers often times share too much personal information about themselves to their co-workers much to their own detriment.  Gossip is spread by what people know about others.   There is a childhood game or circle game where one person whispers a short story in the ear of the person next to them and that person passes it on to the next person and that person passes it on and so forth.  The game is called "telephone" or "Chinese whispers."  By the time, the story gets to the last person in the circle that person says aloud the story which by that time has become distorted or changed from the original story.  Gossip is like that game and over time the original piece of gossip or story gets altered.  Gossip can damage a person's reputation and can ruin careers as well as end friendships or relationships. "Loose lips sinks ships" was a phrase that originated from the War Advertising Council during World War II and was used on posters.  The gist of the statement was that service men and women should not give away information that might get into the hands of the enemy who could then sink a battleship.  Never discuss personal information about yourself, especially at work, that you would not want repeated to your worst enemy.

Dorothy, thank you for sharing your workplace story as well as your words of wisdom.  I hope that our readers will go back and re-read your story and advice.





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This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013 at 5:00 am and is filed under Let's Talk with Kalola. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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