I Thought I Was Back In High School, But It Was Worse
(Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
I had always enjoyed good relationships with co-workers and even better, I had always worked in places where everyone like everyone else. No one was excluded. There was no gossip and there were really no office politics. So, when I graduated from law school and started articling, I was looking forward to a year of making new connections and even some friends.
It was not to be.
The source of my troubles was an associate lawyer, who I will call "Tim." Tim was a popular young associate and he seemed jovial and friendly with the other articling students. Yet, he took an instant dislike to me. His contempt was not disguised.
Now, I was young, but still an adult and I knew better than to think everyone would like me all the time, but this was nothing like I had ever experienced since, perhaps, junior high school. Tim seemed to make a point of excluding me and, moreover, he made a point of letting me know, and letting everyone else know, that he was excluding me. He was also very active in expressing, directly and indirectly, his contempt for me.
I was, at first, puzzled. Why was this happening? I searched the depths of my memory. Had I offended him? There was nothing. He was just mean and, as time went on, he got meaner.
I arrived at work one day to an office that smelled of something foul. I could not put my finger on it. I searched the garbage can. I searched the drawers to see if the last articling student had inadvertently left something perishable. I even wondered if it was my shoes. But, I found nothing. Oddly, Tim made a point of coming into my office a few times shortly after this started and remarking that something smelled. He brought others with him. "What do you think that smell is?" he would ask, with the slightest touch of mirth on his face. They would laugh and say "yes."
I felt ashamed and embarrassed. It was one more thing that made me feel bad in what was already a hostile environment.
Each day I arrived and the smell was a little worse. And Tim would come to my office and remark on the smell. Once he even suggested I close my door so that others did not have to tolerate my "odour." I felt ashamed.
One evening, I just couldn't take it anymore. I was working late and knew I was alone in the office. I decided to search every inch of my space to see if I could find something.
It took me two hours. I pulled cabinets out from the wall. I looked through every drawer and between every single file. Then, I crawled on my back, underneath my desk. And I found it. There, taped to the backs of the legs of my desk, were 4 "logs" of dog feces. As I looked closer, I saw there was feces smeared underneath the desktop as well. There was no doubt that this was the cause of the terrible smell in my office.
This was not just some practical joke. This was a deliberate act of utter meanness. But what could I do? I felt powerless. If I complained, I knew it would be joked about by the senior partners and associates. I would look like a little wimp who could not take a practical joke. I also feared that they might think that because someone would do this to me, I was not someone who would "fit in" with the firm. So, I just kept crying. I took a cab home. I cried then. I got into the house and tried to conceal my tears from my husband. I was too ashamed to tell even him. For some reason, I felt it was I who had failed. I felt this was somehow my own fault.
I could, of course, blame Tim. Why would this popular, handsome young associate do something so immature and mean. And what proof did I have? I knew he did it, but I also knew that there was nothing that quite tipped the scales to allow a reasonable person to blame "golden boy."
As time went by that year, Tim just got meaner and things just got worse. The other students and the associates seemed to go along with him, or, at best, they did nothing to stop it. I was not only excluded from "lunches with the gang," but also from those informal events invariably connected to firm functions. During the firm ski trip, he arranged for everyone (but me) to meet at a bar for after-ski drinks. Everyone I asked about where we were going responded with a vague "I don't know." Then there was the firm retreat. We were at a resort in a mountain village and Tim was, for some reason, put in charge of entertaining the associates and articling students after the seminars. I overheard him tell one of my colleagues not to tell me where they were going. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I was crushed. Not wanting to look even more humiliated, I made a point of telling another student, within earshot of Tim, that I was sick and I retired to my own room where I cried myself to sleep.
Perhaps the most humiliating event was in connection with the annual "Associates'/Students' Dinner." It was, apparently, an event not to be missed and I was looking forward to it. The day it was to take place, someone left a note on my desk saying the venue had been changed from what was booked (this was in the days before email and internet). I thought nothing of the note, as it did not occur to me that someone would purposely give me incorrect information. As I was leaving the office, however, I ran into another associate and said I would see her at the new venue. She seemed puzzled and said that the venue had not been changed. I think she knew what was going on, and bless her heart, she insisted on picking me up for the event. We arrived together and Tim was, well, a little shocked to see me there. Oddly, I felt horrible and awkward, not vindicated or smug. I was ashamed to be participating in an event knowing the organizer had gone to such lengths to ensure I did not attend.
I knew I had to leave that firm at the end of my articling year. There was just no way I could stay in that environment. While it felt odd at the time to let Tim win, I just knew for the sake of my health that I had to get out. By that time, I was having regular nightmares about him and others. I lost a great deal of weight and I cried every night.
I ran away to another city. I like to think that I "won." I became a very successful lawyer and would have made a great deal of money for that firm had I stayed. Instead, I left and made a great deal of money for members of a firm who treated me with love and respect and, eventually, I made a great deal of money for myself.
Yet, the hurt has never really gone away. When I am in that city and pass by the building where I articled, I get anxious. For some reason, all the success in the world cannot keep me from feeling like Tim can come by and take it all away. It was such a shocking experience and it left me fearful of having it happen again.
That said, as both a co-worker and a boss, I made sure that I included everyone and that everyone felt valued and so I like to think that the experience had positive consequences for my co-workers and those who reported to me throughout the years.