He treated me like I was worthless.
I read a statistic the other day that claimed more people leave their jobs because of a bad boss or manager, than because of the actual job itself, and that’s true with most of my experiences.
When I was in my early twenties, the recession hit and my friends were losing jobs left and right. I had a college buddy who’d graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and still ended up working at Ikea for a year because no one else was hiring. I considered myself lucky to have a steady job with a salary. I’d been hired right before the recession hit, and through some mysterious blend of witchcraft and what I mistakenly labeled as a kindness from my employer, I wasn’t out of a job.
But that didn’t mean I was getting paid what I deserved, or even regularly. As is the case with an unfortunate number of women, I was putting up with abuse fairly regularly from my boss.
He owned three extremely different companies, one of which was a psychology practice. He had a degree, and though he frequently shirked his duties by cancelling appointments or foisting off clients on another doctor in the clinic, he certainly used his skills to keep me in line.
I was his only assistant in the building and was kept isolated from everyone else he worked for. I started working for him at $10 an hour and was expected to stay on the clock 24/7. If he emailed me, I had to answer. He’d send me text messages (on a phone line he didn’t pay for) at midnight asking what I thought about some new copy for a direct mail campaign for one of his businesses, or an updated logo for the marketing firm he was building. Despite not giving me a raise or a bonus during the three years I worked for him, he frequently had me help him wrap up or ship out the bonuses and holiday gifts he was sending to all of his other employees.
And I never even assumed I deserved better. While I was helping him apply for credit cards in his mother’s name so he could keep his businesses afloat, while I was watching him issue paycheques to me and his other employees that bounced the week before Christmas, all I could think was, ‘I’m better off than so many people. I don’t have the right to complain. There are so many people who are unemployed out there, I should be grateful I have this much.’
Meanwhile I couldn’t afford to keep my lights on and would spend weekends sleeping in my office. I even brought up a TV and some old VHS tapes to keep myself occupied as I slept under my desk. I spent so many late hours in that office the security guards didn’t think twice about seeing me there at 2AM on a Saturday.
It took what it takes for a lot of us to snap me out of where I was at: a good, long look at my life through someone else’s lenses. My boss was able to keep me under his thumb for so long in part because I was the only one around; I didn’t have anyone to compare my situation to or complain with. When he started up his third venture, he brought someone else into the office, and we started talking. I found out a lot of little things, like the fact she’d started off at a salary that was $10,000 a year higher than what I was making.
It turned out I was making less than anyone else by a substantial amount – and that everyone else was getting vacation time and bonuses. She was livid on my behalf, and that rage was catching. I finally worked up the courage to set up a meeting with my boss, and I requested a raise. I wrote out what I thought was an incredibly reasonable proposal that weighed my experience and industry, printed out some statistics and went into my meeting.
He laughed. That’s the first thing I remember. It was a low, dry laugh, almost more of an exhale than anything with actual feeling in it.
“You’re a really bad assistant, you know.” He looked on at me with sympathy.
“I just don’t feel right firing you knowing that the economy is what it is.”
My jaw dropped. Years of working hard for this man, often without pay, doing work well outside the scope of what my job should have been, and this was how he thought I deserved to be treated? I still remember the day he had me driving around town buying glow sticks and fabric for his birthday party. He’d made me set aside the entire day to sew curtains so he could hang them down from his second story window and tie them to the Roman pillars that marked the entrance to his home. I’d run his Google AdWords accounts, balanced his personal cheque book and weathered hurricanes to keep him in business.
I didn’t even put in a two weeks notice. Less than a week later, I packed up my things and sent him an email from home, and I copied the payroll department in on it too. I told him I quit, and let him know where to send my last two cheques. True to his nature, he tried to make me come up and pick them up in person. He also tried to get me to agree to do extra (read: free) work from home for him. It took four weeks and a threat to take him to court for non payment, but I finally got my money from him.
I no longer let bosses treat me like I’m an unimportant cog they’re just keeping around because they’d feel bad about firing me. Because, newsflash: that doesn’t happen. No boss just volunteers to give out free money. He wanted to keep me around because I was cheap labor that’d do any weird task or assignment he gave me; all the junk no one with any self respect would agree to do. And you know what? He was wrong.
I left that job, and within a month was hired by a major international firm that adored me. Every time I got a glowing review or overheard my new bosses brag about how good I was at my job I sent a mental middle finger to that ex-boss of mine.
The more I share this story the more I learn how this sadly common it is, especially among women. Maybe it’s because we’re conditioned from a young age not to make a fuss. Maybe it’s because we’re desperate not to be the kind of female coworker we overhear being described as “that ball-busting bitch” at the water cooler. Whatever the reason, as terrible as that job was, it gave me something I desperately needed: a sense of self worth.
Images via 20th Century Fox and favim.com.
Comment: Have you ever been used and abused by an employer? What did you do about it?