This week, in honor of International Women’s Day, we are publishing a series of monologues from women in toxic work environments in the open data, open government, and civic tech spaces. This model is based off OH’s Open Gender Monologues, opening up space for women to share experiences and tell their stories — either using their real names or anonymously.
Stay tuned throughout the rest of the week for more. We hope readers can use these stories to recognize toxic behaviour patterns should they exist, and reach out to friends, family, and trusted colleagues for help when needed.
The one about the boss who bullies — by Anonymous
I was on my way to work one year ago when I Whatsapp’d one of my colleagues:
Me: Happy International Women’s Day!
Them: Presume [CEO] will be celebrating by shouting at a woman?
In less than two hours and three minutes, they were right.
You don’t need to look hard to find stories of toxic behaviour in any workplace. But when an organisation brands itself on transparency, trust, and making the world a better place, you’d think they’d at least try to do better.
I’d heard rumours before I was hired. When I told people about my new job, a number of them warned me that the CEO was difficult. He was known to make impossible demands. He’d bully and belittle employees, often in public spaces. There was a culture of fear at the company.
So to some extent, I knew what I was getting into. But I was at the start of my career, so the promise of interesting work, good opportunities, and salary kept me hopeful. I hadn’t seen any of the problems firsthand, but I thought maybe I could do something about it if I did.
It’s strange how quickly you get used to that kind of environment. Early on, I noticed how being there was affecting me, affecting the team, and affecting the work. I tried to raise it with management. I’d acclimated to being shouted at in meetings, and my work constantly being torn down.
Good friends and gallows humour got me through it. Lunch breaks became therapy sessions. Over time, coworkers and former employees reached out and told me they’d had similar experiences. I started to realise the problem wasn’t me or my work.
When others raised issues to management, the response was largely “if you don’t like it, you can leave” — and many people did.
A year and a half in, I’d started planning to get out. But things escalated when a relatively new employee informally flagged the problem to the board of trustees shortly before a board meeting.
The CEO refused to speak with her for a few weeks. After that, she was called into a disciplinary hearing, and I accompanied her. She’d never received a formal or informal warning, and there were no charges or evidence brought against her. She showed that the process was not meeting employment guidelines, and the disciplinary action was quickly postponed. Shortly after, she handed in her notice.
Soon after, I received an email telling me that I was in the process of being made redundant by an external HR company. This, I was told, was part of a restructuring of the company, and had nothing to do with the disciplinary.
I was supported by a colleague through this process. She had previously raised informal concerns about bullying, and acted as my companion during my redundancy. She later had charges of gross misconduct brought against her before resigning too.
Legally, we had very little recourse. As we weren’t part of a union, we couldn’t raise our cases collectively. Our only option was to raise individual internal grievances when — according to the company’s disciplinary policy — the CEO would have acted as defendant, jury, and judge. A fair investigation was out of the question.
What happened to us isn’t extraordinary.
Abuse of power exists in all kinds of workplaces, from the gig economy, to UK Home Office. Fixing the problem requires us to talk to each other, build support networks, and share experiences. When organisations that brand themselves as open and transparent fail to live up to those same values, we should question how much they really do make the world a better place.