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Before you approach your company’s HR department, CEO and/or any senior leadership after unsuccessfully having tried to solve issues with your direct line manager, you need to be aware of a few things. First of all it is sad but understandable that only 2% of employees have the courage or care to approach HR.
Before you approach HR you need to understand your company. You need to know the atmosphere, and you need to understand the system. I certainly understand in hindsight how futile my efforts were, because I was like a boxer just hitting a stone wall trying to break out of a harsh work environment. I approached that “wall” (HR) first very normally, knocking at the door to make suggestions and then wait patiently to be asked in. But instead of being asked in, I was chased away with sweet-talk, later bullying and indifference. Looking back I am certain my approaching HR was the catalyst for all the turmoil I went through. I often blamed my line managers, and surely they also have a responsibility. Only ONE line manager was extremely supportive and stood out from among the crowd by not jumping on that bandwagon of targeting me. I will never forget that! And yet this shouldn’t surprise anyone, as most people just go with the flow, as this is much easier than swimming against a certain trend, even if it hurts people. Thinking only about #1 is the only “legacy” they leave behind. Only very few managers act on problems of mistreatment in whatever way seems best for them.
But we all have always one of three choices, to either be like the three monkeys where we don’t see, hear and say anything (standing on the sidelines passively watching wrong being done); or we are active on the front-lines and even in the background pulling the strings in mistreating people; or we get active in a helpful way by speaking up for and on behalf of the person who at the time of mistreatment cannot constructively speak up for themselves.
Bullying at the workplace is very real and epidemic, especially the subtle kind where it is hard to prove. In bullet-points, or let me use the term “Bullying-Points”, subtle bullying in my own experience and own words for example is:
- excluding an employee
- spreading rumors and lies about the employee
- blaming the employee for other people’s mistakes
- giving the employee unreasonable work where it is clear form the outset that they will fail
- giving the employee too much work or working hours to exhaust them
- or even not giving the employee more working hours knowing they need money desperately, holding them low financially
- patronizing and holding the employee low with small tasks, while he/she can do much more, declining them to thrive in their work and prevent them to grow in their position
- withholding information for the employee to do their job properly, but instead setting them up to fail again …
- etc. etc.
The list can go on and on, but the subtle type of bullying is rampant in companies, because it is hard to prove. People often feel odd and that something is wrong, but they cannot put their finger on it at first, until it is too late and in hindsight they understand what hit them. And also in my case I am blamed as someone who is a victim being looked at as the villain because of my open and loud outspokenness. Yes, I definitely wished that my tone and emailing wouldn’t have been so terrible, but anyone who went through what I went through and walked through this in a “sweet” way, please use the contact form on my site, I always wanted to meet a real life Super Hero! And dear Super Hero, bear with my anger a little longer as I struggle to pay the bills at the moment. Give me time to bounce back with sweetness and a new will to keep going.
So, before you approach HR, as in my case I approached them to make suggestions in supporting bereaved employees, you need to understand the trend and atmosphere in your company. In the company where I worked I always understood that when the majority of line managers are harsh and use fear management to “motivate” their teams, it is a no-brainer that this comes from the top, as “the fish stinks from its head”.
I was bullied in the midst of traumatic grief by several line managers lead by their boss under the watchful eye of HR, after I approached them with my suggestions. I struggled for about 12 months from the time I received the news about my brother, with the first 5 months being put on prolonged late shifts with few exceptions. This then led me to ask for a transferal to a different branch to have a fair share of rotating shifts, so I would be able to see my friends who were off in the evenings while I was working all the time until late. At the beginning of my bereavement it was okay to be on late shifts since I could not sleep until 4 or 5 in the morning, tormented by the unexplained loss of my brother. But after a while it became unbearable to be alone in the darkest time not able to see friends for vital support.
In the rare occasions I saw friends during the initial bereavement, whereas before I saw them regularly for birthdays, Christmas, New Year’s, concerts, dinners etc., but it was on an occasion at a dinner with about 8 friends in a restaurant. Some of them were talking about a film they watched, a film I was planning to see as well. So, I said to them that next time they watch a movie in the cinema if they could please let me know, as I wanted to see this film as well and would have loved to watch it with them. A longtime friend just replied, “I don’t even call you anymore, because you are always working!” It was a proper and sober wake-up call to change my working times, and yet, it was a struggle to get support from work with this. No one sat me down to inquire what would help me, like they sit down with a pregnant woman to do a risk assessment and if she needs adjustments to her working hours and tasks (because there are laws to protect the pregnant and parents in general for flexible working hours).
I approached HR about this, even mentioning a risk assessment for physical situations like pregnancy. But unbeknown to me this was the catalyst of targeting me for the months to come. After about 12 months with line manager after line manager (except this ONE of course) mistreating and targeting me under the guidance of HR, and me being sent away, I emailed the CEO for help. I think the plan of HR and those who targeted me was to grind me down so much that I leave. But this hard nut wouldn’t break and kept bouncing back! So, another plan had to be drafted.
Months after I literally cried out for help involving the CEO, I applied for my employee file under the Data Protection Act 1998, thinking that maybe a former line manager from years ago wrote something detrimental about me that led the current line managers to see it fit to mistreat me. What I didn’t realize, and in hindsight I just have to chuckle, that my file was to contain a lot of emails from and to HR and managers about me! I was suddenly like a fly on the wall peeking into some conversation where they usually try so hard to avoid anything in writing that could come back later and bite them in the butt!
The file was a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I could really see the confirmation of my gut instinct that I was mistreated, it was right in front of me, black on white. I always doubted myself in the midst of this ordeal because I mixed up the pain with my bereavement. When I felt odd about a situation with my line manager, I blamed myself, I blamed my grief. But I can only say to everyone, do trust your gut, you know yourself best.
And the file was a curse, apart from the sheer volume of it but also because my mental illness really got into full swing then, whereas before I was “just” bereaved and traumatized. But the bullying and then reading about the tricks and traps spiraled me into illness and I also started to drink then which added to my miscommunication. This subsequently thrust me into thousands of ill emailing to the company, friends, counselors, anyone I had an email address from.
In the file I read things like the “nice-sounding” email from the CEO. After I emailed him he wrote only in the subject line to the Head of HR: “Did you meet that poor girl P. from Spitalfields? I promised to visit her before Christmas…” He did visit me briefly and I appreciated his care then. But what bothered me reading his email to HR is several things, for one the patronizing tone of “poor girl”.
Secondly, emails are always written to collect written evidence to show how much they care (supposedly) while in reality I was placed in a shop under yet another line manager who has “strong people skills” as the boss of my former line manager said. Well, his “strong people skills” were his ability to get team members under control. He was very suppressive, held me low and even wouldn’t want to let me go after I raised a grievance against him for not informing me of important things I needed to know and other reasons. Right from the start he even said to me regarding my traumatic behaviour that he didn’t want “the area to feel sorry” for him anymore. With area he meant his colleagues, the other managers who had a laugh about my turmoil. Strong people skills right there! *irony off*
The third thing that bothered me was that it is clear that the CEO knew how harsh the managers are with people, hence “… that poor girl…” because I was whirled around during my trauma like on a spinning program of a washing machine.
There was no mercy from my line managers and their superiors and HR, and the CEO knows how harsh that workplace is! And fast forward 3 years later, he calls me his “late night girl”, minimizing my ill behaviour (late night emails to the Pret work emails), which I tried so hard to stop regardless if I get fired or not.
And the fourth thing that made me realize that this email is not an email of a responsible reaction to a real problem in the company, I would have loved to read in the text body of the email something that would have shown that the CEO has a zero tolerance on bullying, especially bullying a bereaved employee. The example of a text like the following would have shown true care to me:
Subject line: ‘Did you meet this team leader P. from Spitalfields? I promised to visit her before Christmas…’
Body of email: ‘I want a full investigation on what happened to her and a report back to me ASAP.’ … and then a review of any anti-bullying policy or the lack of a policy should have happened, not to mention some heads to be rolling. But hey, dream on little naive late night girl!
The reply from the Head of HR was a typical response to mistreatment, he blamed downwards by replying: “… I met her on Monday, she is in a bad way. We are helping her with counselling, a shop move and a sabbatical. She’s had a terrible year. Her manager could of been more empathetic, we have a plan for that.”
Reading this email was like an insult to me, again for several reasons. Firstly, a sabbatical was MY “plan”, again coming up with suggestions and solutions, and also:
- Counselling was THEN offered after my constant approach to HR with suggestions and also with asking for advise and help. Nothing happened until I emailed the CEO. I was only given a form to give my consent to the company’s insurer to have access to my medical file. This was “offered” me without explanation while I was bereaved, NOT mentally ill yet, while at the same time before the CEO’s involvement, no one, no line manager sat down with me, except here we go again this wonderful person.
- Suddenly the Head of HR knew about my terrible “year”, but didn’t seem concerned to help me except once the CEO got involved. I also knew from an email the HR advisor who took the notes in the informal meeting in May 2015 (the notes that later got “lost”), emailing me after the meeting, saying that he will put forward my suggestions to the Head of HR the following week after the meeting (May 2015). So, the Head of HR was aware of my turmoil all this time.
- He also then did the typical Pret thing to blame downwards, blaming my line manager whom he correctly stated, as not having been empathetic. But this line manager was under the guidance of his boss (who targeted me for 6 months with the help of a group of managers), and this boss who was under the guidance of the HR People Business Partner who was present in the May 2015 informal meeting. In fact this PBP was aware of my ordeal after I had a breakdown when my line manager rebuked me again in front of my team, and then forced me out in my broken down state in tears to do customer service. He was informed about my breakdown before I even emailed HR about it. I emailed the general HR email address, not directing to any specific person, but addressed HR as a department. I explained that I had a breakdown at work and this time want to raise a grievance myself against this line manager (where before the first grievance was raised by an HR advisor on my behalf after she heard my side of the story for a change). This HR PBP picked it up as I read his email to the HR team saying that he would pick it up. And his response to my breakdown was just to say the typical generic thing, “I’m sorry to hear that you had a breakdown… yada yada yada…” He never asked what happened or if I am okay or need anything… He went on to blah blah some more and sent me back to the boss who started the whole bullying. This then lead me to email the CEO the next day which was the day of the first anniversary of my brother, wasting this important day on work. Months later I read an email in my file from this PBP to the boss of my line manager who inquired if she should respond with a formal hearing against my break down, figure that. My breakdown involved me sobbing and being loud and distressed. His advise was another slap in my face when he wrote: “… I’d suggest dealing with this informally to start with, as this time it is no doubt a difficult time for her….” The “no doubt difficult time” was because my breakdown came after being rebuked again in front of my team as this was also two days before the first anniversary of my brother’s death and I was already on the edge. But for him to acknowledge only THEN that I had no kiddin’ a difficult time, and that “to start with” the boss should deal with my breakdown “informally”, basically before going to the next step to deal with this formally. This was such a hard lump that went down my throat when I read this! And again, this email was part of me then raising a grievance against this PBP, but of course to no avail where only the part where he sent me back to the boss was partially substantiated, to keep me stopping to raise my voice against this systemic bullying. I also have no space for him on my website. There is no open letter to him here, as everything I said to him has been said.
- There was no “plan”. In fact the plan was to get rid of me as the line manager wrote in an email to his boss, who sent it on to this PBP, writing twice that my “situation (bereavement) was imposed on them.” Imposed? Blatant discrimination like this was of no concern to the PBP who only worried about the length of the email from the line manager. I raised a grievance against this PBP later based on the emails, but of course I didn’t get far, as this is systemic. The only plan they had was Plan B and C and D … until F for Firing me after I became so ill, writing countless and inappropriate emails out of this trauma. I always owned up to my conduct and tried to stop this illness. But they topped everything with involving yet another “Ace” in their sleeve, and that crossed a line that went too far. And then firing me while my dad was in intensive care, just out of a coma was another typical way to deal with problems in the company. For a company with the size, resources and finances like Pret, it really is no excuse to be doing what they did.
So before you approach HR or senior leaders, do know your company, know what is in place regarding bullying, mistreatment, true support or the lack thereof. And the best advice if you experience your workplace as being toxic, join a Union, don’t start one like this fellow did, it only backfired on him fast. Don’t start one, just join one that has already the manpower and resources in place. But good on Andrej for having tried and at least having done something, just something as best as he could. You can only fail if you risk something, and you can then learn and grow. Also, start doing your homework on how to get legal help. I was too traumatized to think straight.
As life keeps throwing me curve balls and we all will come to the end of our lives eventually, I am more than determined to not be silent again. I always played with open cards which was to my disadvantage. So, I am playing my cards so openly now, that everyone who passes by my little spot on the Internet can read what I have been through and what others go through.
Please don’t be a bully and please don’t be like the three monkeys. A friend of mine said that in this life we walk through a mine field, we never know when it will hit us. And we all get hit, some of us survive to tell their story, others don’t make it. I certainly walked right into the mine field and an ambush from behind, into an HR department I tried helping to help me. So, only 2%? Yep, understandable.
But whatever happens in the mine field, do not be silent, don’t look away, give a helping hand, will you.
They will sue me and I have nothing to lose. Go ahead Pret, do what you do best. I’m sure you have another trick up your sleeve.
I worked at Pret A Manger and survived systemic workplace bullying during bereavement that involved HR, the top leadership, HQ and even the now “retired” former CEO Clive Schlee. I declined 4 settlement offers if I am silent about my ordeal. But I rather speak out to help others. For an overview of important blog entries of my experience with Pret, please visit “My Ordeal with Pret A Manger”. The little arrow to the right next to each heading will lead directly to the post.
An incomplete list on what other Pret staff say about Pret’s bullying environment: Caught in the Act Bullying at Pret.
I tell my story for the first time verbally in below audio player interview on a podcast by The Adam Paradox, and wrote two articles in the Scottish Left Review.
Thank you for reading/listening.
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