Working with others: my worst experience explained

First of all, I have to apologise to everyone for the lack of updates. This past month has been so incredibly busy and I’ve been focussed purely on my work and had little time to write.

I was recently asked about taking on a student intern to help me with some of my day-to-day activities. I have to admit that I froze a little and was hesitant to commit. It had nothing to do with autism or social anxiety or any of that. I would love to have an extra mind to bounce ideas off, if even only for a few hours. What made me worried was because it was the first time I thought about myself as a ‘boss’; or at least responsible for directing someone. Even if I don’t take on an intern, at some point in the near future I will have to take on staff… and I’m scared. I will explain why…

I have only ever been employed once.

I’d been on a rollercoaster of a journey for 10 years with severe social phobia. I had dedicated every waking second to try and get better; to be a ‘normal’ member of society. Despite being isolated at home for so long, I had spent that time preparing for a time when I could get a job. I taught myself web design, SEO, digital marketing and how to use all of the Adobe products. I took online courses on copywriting, design and helped set up and manage forums on social anxiety. I even ran a small site for students so I could put my skills into action. I knew it would be a matter of time before I was well enough to apply these skills in a working role.

I was 28 years old when I decided the time was right to get my first job. I looked on a few job boards and happened to see a position for a ‘SEO Junior’. It was an entry level position but with lots of prospects to train and progress. On paper I had all of the technical skills they were looking for.

I was quickly offered an interview and turned up at a rather impressive looking office! To the left were rows of open desks lined with state-of-the-art Mac Computers. In the middle, a small meeting area was enclosed by shelves stacked high with brand new board games and toys; apparently gifts for prospective clients. It looked more impressive than Toys R Us! To the right was a large meeting desk, surrounded by a tropical fish tank and the former home of a toad (which had either died or moved on). Towards the back was a small kitchen, a table top football game and a basketball hoop. Downstairs in the basement was a small cinema. All-in-all a dream of a place to work!

The interview went incredibly well and I was asked to go home and write an email explaining what I had thought of the interview, the owner and the business. Despite me feeling like this was more of an exercise of the owners ego, I did what was asked and was immediately offered the job.

The company setup needs a little explaing before we go on.

Jack (not his real name) owned a successful design company with around 12 employees. His girlfriend Jane (again made up) was the Managing Director of an SEO company, with Jack also being a Director and advisor (he had much more experience). The two companies were based in one building, with the SEO company in a small room in the corner. Although Jane was my new boss, I would be reporting to Jack at least for the first year.

The first few days were super exciting to me and both Jack & Jane really seemed to like me. Jack was quick to say how he wanted me to one day be a manager of a team. He told me his vision was to see myself and Jane up collecting top awards in the business community. It was something I completely bought into.

On a day-to-day basis I was doing a lot of SEO admin tasks which I enjoyed. I completely expected to be on the bottom of the ladder and was happy to put in the hard work to climb it quickly. But after a few days I started to see that Jack wanted the type of perfection that I would never be able to live up to. One day he had me spend the entire morning changing fonts and colours on all of the company documents; only to decide that it needed to be changed again… and then again a few days later. It was fair enough that he wanted them changed, but he always made me feel like I’d done something wrong and needed to go away and do it properly.

Every day Jack would speak about the ‘culture’ of the company. It was something he was so desperate to create and shape, even to the point that he would tell you what to think. ‘I want you to love the brand’ he would say to me over and over. Even on my first day he said to me:

‘I want you to love the brand. That’s why we have a culture here where we come in earlier and leave beyond our finish time’.

The staff staying until 8 every night wasn’t because they loved the brand so much. They were doing it because they were told to do it; to force a culture of love.

There was also an odd and sometimes uncomfortable e-mail culture. Jane and I were in an office which used to be the main entrance to the building. It fit two desks and that was it. The thing was tiny! If I stretched far enough I could have reached out and touched Jane. Yet she barely spoke to me. Any orders or requests came to me via email. Even things like ‘Emma can you print me off this please’. I’d sit there looking at her and wonder why she couldn’t just ask me. Then of course, every e-mail sent within the company had to be copied to Jack… and I mean EVERY email. Even just asking for copier paper, Jack has to be copied in. If you didn’t he would come and give you a telling off.

Many times I would be at my desk working with Jane and I’d do something ‘wrong’. Within minutes Jack would come hurrying in to tell me what I was doing wrong. It didn’t take me long to realise that Jane would watch me do something (like eating something at my desk) and then email Jack to tell him. It left me feeling paranoid and completely untrusting of Jane.

I’d been there about 2 weeks and had barely said two words to anyone. In fact, most talking was done over email (with a CC for Jack). The day before the staff had gone out for fish and chips. The ‘culture’ according to Jack was that we ate at our desk whilst we worked. I’d been good and stuck with my home made salad and ignored the smell wafting through the office. Today the staff had gone out for KFC and enjoyed it at their desk. Again I fought my way through my salad and ignored the delicious smell of southern fried chicken – (now remember all of this for later!). It was later on that day that Jack came in to our room and started talking about OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I didn’t think anything of it and mentioned that I’d been diagnosed with it several years ago. He gave me a bit of a blank stare before leaving.

A couple of days later I had received a latter from my psychiatrist asking me to go for my 6 month review. I’d been told on my first day that attending any hospital appointments was fine, as long as we showed the original letter. I fired over an email to Jack that I had an appointment letter. I explained that I had a psychiatrists appointment because I had Bipolar Disorder and this was just my general review. He immediately replied saying something along the lines that I should have disclosed this condition at interview and he would have to have some discussion about it. Feeling a little worried that he thought I was some kind of mental case, I replied that I had Bipolar II (the less extreme version of bipolar), had been well for years and took medication which worked well for me. That didn’t seem to help me much, instead he said he would have to call a meeting of the Directors to ‘discuss my duties’.

Things were weird for a couple of days after that. He seemed to be utterly disapointed in the fact he’d hired someone with a mental illness. I could feel it and see it on his face. Rather than doing any SEO, I was asked to clean out his office fish tanks. One was a huge tropical fish tank where I had to carry heavy buckets of water back and forth to pour down the toilet. Being only 5’3 I had to stand on a chair to scoop out the stinking fish water and hope that I wouldn’t break my neck. It probably went against every health and safety rule in the book. The next task was to clean his own little gold fish tank he kept next to his desk. He gave me a net for the fish and a tooth brush to clean the tank. Once I did it he said it wasn’t good enough and made me do it again.

I went home feeling like I was in some kind of hell, but truly believed it would get better. However, the next morning I went in to find an email from Jack asking me to attend a meeting at 10am. It was described as a progress meeting for new employees so I wasn’t that concerned.

At 10am I headed over to the small meeting space where Jack was waiting. He explained that he normally did a review of new staff after 4 weeks, but I could see in his eyes that this was more than that. He was angry and disapointed that he had employed someone with a mental health condition. Maybe someone who could tarnish his brand and ‘culture’. This meeting was to become an onslaught of him picking on all my ‘faults’, rather than any real constructive feedback.

I was told I should have informed him at interview that I had Bipolar as he would have been able to decide if my duties needed to be changed. Now he was going to call a meeting of the Directors to discuss this in depth and examine which of my duties needed changing. I explained that I was not affected in any way by my condition but he didn’t seem to listen. Instead he compared me to the office receptionist who had cerebal Palsy and how he’d had to adapt her duties when he employed her. Again I explained I was both physically and mentally capable of completing all duties (well maybe not carrying buckets of water!). He never once asked me how my condition actually affected me, nor did he ask what it actually was. I’m assuming he knew the stereotype version of Bipolar I.

What he said next still shocks me to this day. Apparently, because I didn’t order my pens in straight lines I was lying to him about having OCD. If I was lying to him about that, then what else could I have lied about on my CV!

My next failing to him was that I’d bought a hot beef sandwich from the local cafe and sat and ate it at my desk. This was incredibly inconsiderate of me and disrespectful to the team to be smelling out the office with hot food. I remember sitting there, fighting back my tears, thinking about the fish and chips and KFC the team had just days before. In fact I could still smell the fish in that meeting space.

From here on out I was picked apart on everything I did. I mis-spelled things (I had decalred at interview I was dyslexic and he told me the most creative people are), I didn’t pay attention to detail, I didn’t copy him in to emails, I looked at him when he came into the room etc.

For thirty minutes I sat and felt my fought-for confidence being absolutely destroyed. I knew I was being singled out and that he was saying some highly unethical things; yet I was frozen in my seat. I should have fought back, but I wasn’t strong enough. In the end he told me he’d wished he’d offered me a trial like the student intern, but that it was too late for him now. But I knew… if I’d told him I had Bipolar at the interview I would never have heard from him again.

After I got back to my desk I felt emotionally destroyed. I had to escape to the bathroom where I suffered my first panic attack in over a year. I took it all so personally, truly believing that I would never be employed because all they saw was a mental case.

I knew I was not wanted here so I cleaned my desk out, knowing fine well I wouldn’t be coming back the next day. Instead I went to see my GP who recognised I was on the verge of losing all of the hard work I’d put in over the last 5 years. She told me never to go back and gave me a sick note to cover my notice. Sadly, it had a massive impact on my mental health and I became a recluse again for another 2 years.

That remains my only experience of being an employee. I tried to get other jobs, but every time I would go to submit an application I’d be overcome with a panic attack. My doctor would eventually diagnose me with a work phobia and its something I still have to this day. Thankfully, self-employment became a saving grace for me.

For a long time I would think about what kind of boss I would be, if I was ever in that position. I often think of Jack and his company. He strived to be seen as the best, to be seen as having the most devout employees, to be seen as having the best place to work and to be seen to have the best office culture in town. But it was all fake. You can’t make people love something just because you say so. It has to be born out of something you create together; out of something everyone believes in. I swore to myself that if I ever became a boss, it would be a real place to work. Real people, real emotions, real creativity, real dialogue!

I genuinely never thought that one day I could actually be an employer. Now it seems quite likely and it does scare me beyond belief. I don’t ever want to be a person who causes any type of anguish to another person. Because that is what an employee is above anything; a person. Someone with dreams, worries, ambition, ideas, creativity, sadness, secrets and complex emotions. I want to be the kind of person who nurtures every part of them and to not drive them on to a path which negatively affects their life for years to come.

I’ve started making notes about what kind of employer I want to be, what I want to offer and what I don’t want to have happen. Its my worst fear that someone will look back at me as being the dark shadow in their life. I keep being told by people who know me that I’m just not that kind of person and that experiences will have already forged out the type of employer I will be. But it is still something I am so aware of and think about more and more as the time comes closer.


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