We've all, almost certainly, had a boss we didn't necessarily get on with at some point, but that doesn't necessarily make them a bad boss.
People are different, and sometimes view points collide, it's an inavoidable risk of putting distinct personalities into a group and asking them to spend their days together.
What makes a true bad boss is when the power/influence they exert is mis-used.
In my career, I've had one particularly bad boss (I hasten to add - I'm not working there anymore!), not only did their behaviour ruin my enjoyment of my role, but they (in my opinion) deliberately went out of their way in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to severely tarnish my reputation and my name. Their attempt could also have had a devastating effect upon my quality of life.
In this post, I'll be taking a broad overview of what happened, and examining what I learnt from the experience, and (with the benefit of hindsight) what the early warning signs were.
The events I'm going to discuss occurred a number of years ago and I always planned to write about it, but wanted to leave it long enough that I could be truly objective. As a result, I never quite got around to writing about my experiences.
Being a denizen of a number of internet forums, I've seen others post about experiences they're currently going through, and some of them really ring alarm bells for me - so it seems like the right time to get around to writing about it.
I'm not going to name names, as that isn't the point in this piece. I've tried to keep it as brief as possible, but being quite complex it's not as short as I had originally hoped.
The full background is quite long and complex (if you want to skip the background, go straight to what I've learned), but the full details would take forever to type out, and even longer to read. Some of the finer details have been skipped for brevity.
During the course of that employment, I had three different line managers.
- My first line manager: very good, but got promoted to another position within the organisation around 2 years after I started.
- The second: An acting line manager. He wasn't as good, though there were no personality issues whatsoever. Didn't seem that interested and (as it later turned out) could be somewhat feckless when it came to handling and processing paperwork.
- The third: An acting line manager, who some of us had had some minor dealings with in the past. A number of the staff suffered under her reign, though it seems fair to say I got the roughest treatment.
During the tenure of our second line manager, I went through a few personal issues, not least of which was discovering I'd developed an addiction to the prescription painkillers I was on at the time (Tramadol, for what it's worth).
As a result, I went through a period of depression and was signed of work by my GP before being brought back on a graduated return (half days at first, then half weeks of full days before a full on return).
It wasn't a particularly pleasant experience, but it's fairly run of the mill and I kept communication with my line manager which helped keep things smooth. Doctors certificates were provided etc. It's probably also worth noting that I didn't begin withdrawal until I'd returned to work (Doctors advice) and despite being advised to, didn't take any further extended time off to deal with that particular unpleasantness.
We had a second change of line manager early in the year, and I quickly began to feel a little be-sieged. It almost felt like she was going out of her way to cause me grief. Most of it was trivial though, so I dealt with issues as they arose and tried to get on with my work.
Several months after the change, I submitted an informal request to adjust my working hours - the aim being to work the same hours in fewer days and reduce the cost of travelling to work ( the cost of travelling was now just too high, and it was either that or find another job).
My request was refused. So I re-expressed the reasons behind my needing to make the change, and placed a formal request using my statutory right to request a flexible work pattern.
I fully expected to receive a 'no', but had to have at least exhausted all avenues. I simply wasn't expecting, or prepared for the response I actually received.......
The Disciplinary Process
At 16:55 on the day I'd submitted my formal request, I received an email from my line manager containing only an attachment. When I opened it, the first words I saw were "DISCIPLINARY INVESTIGATIVE INTERVIEW".
The letter stated that several discrepancies had been identified in my Flexitime, Sickness Absence and Annual Leave sheets and I was invited to attend a meeting to discuss (slightly picky note - at her office some 40 miles away.....).
Once I'd crowbarred my jaw back off the desk, I replied and stated that I'd be in attendance (the meeting was a few days later) and asked for a list of the dates at issue so that I could look into them as well.
All the documents will be available for you on Wednesday and you will be given time to go through them
After repeatedly explaining that I'd like time to investigate the dates thoroughly, and requesting that I was at least provided a rough date range, I was eventually given, on the day before the meeting, a date range that encompassed 12 months.
I would later find out that the range provided wasn't even correct.
In the meantime, I'd performed my own audit and had investigated any apparent discrepancies I found (there weren't very many, and they were all obviously genuine).
I also emailed my previous line manager (the 2nd one) to see if he still had any emails relating to me, absences etc. Thanks to the paltry storage we had on our mailboxes, most of my emails from that period were gone.
So although I'd not been given the information I needed to prepare for the meeting, I attended thinking I'd managed to find the answers I'd need......
What were you doing 13 months, 3 days and 7 hours ago?
With the exception of one date (we'll come back to that) none of the dates I'd identified were actually at issue.
I was given no preparation time, and although I was told I'd be given time to check emails etc to answer questions, none was given. I found myself sat in a meeting room with three other people (one to take notes, two to question) being asked where I'd been/what I was doing at specific dates and times that were more than 12 months ago.
Some of the dates were, in theory, easily explained - they related to my period of authorised absence.
The problem, though, is that it turned out my 2nd line manager hadn't submitted my doctors certificates to the HR department, and so there was no record of the doctor authorising either my absence or my graduated return. Gallingly, when I'd submitted them, I had thought about photocopying them first, but then wondered why I'd need copies of them.
The one date that we'd both identified was a day I'd had as leave, but hadn't been recorded as such on the system.
I mentioned that I'd come across that date during the course of my own audit, and that my Line Manager had said that she would record that days leave for me. Following the protestation that she'd never agreed to do so, I calmly pointed them to the appendices of the document I'd brought with me - an email chain where she had confirmed she'd do exactly that.
Eventually I was asked to leave the room whilst they discussed the situation. I knew I'd struggled to answer some of the questions, but also knew that I hadn't done anything wrong. I figured if I was given opportunity to check my records I could soon straighten it out, but when I was called back in, it was clear I wasn't going to be given that chance.
On the strength of not being able to recall specifics from over a year before, I was suspended on full pay pending investigation.
It took me by surprise somewhat, in advance I'd been re-assured that it was just a simple discussion and it hadn't even occurred to me that it might end in a suspension.
Now the fun really starts
A second meeting was scheduled and then delayed (until a month later, as my line manager had decided to book some leave!).
Having been suspended, I got in touch with my Union rep and we arranged to meet an hour before the meeting to discuss in depth (although we had various discussions via phone and email in the run-up).
Now that I had a list of dates, it was easy enough to go through my records and find the answers they'd been wanting. Some were hospital or doctors appointments, one was a funeral. All had been cleared with my previous line manager, and were correctly recorded on the flexi-sheet - not always on the HR system though.
I put my findings together in a report ready to provide. Given the missing medical certificates, I obtained a copy of my medical records from my doctor and provided those as evidence (each relevant appointment noting that a certificate had been provided).
The second meeting, should, therefore have been a simple formality.
My pre-meeting with my Union rep never happened, it took me an hour to get past security because my Line manager hadn't informed them I'd be attending site that day. We just about had time to have a quick chat over a cigarette before going in.
I handed a copy of my report over, expecting to go through it and answer any questions arising.
The report was put to one side and questions were asked about different dates - short periods where I'd signed out of the building (we'll come back to these).
Needless to say, that meeting didn't go particularly well either. We all agreed I needed time to look into the new set of dates, and they needed time to review the report I'd given them, so (although we didn't set a date) a further meeting was planned.
And the point in the notes was?
Having my Union rep present at the meeting was a good move, though the real benefit of this wasn't apparent until a few days after that second meeting. We were emailed a copy of the notes taken during the meeting, and I believe both used the words "What the fuck?".
The notes were not only inaccurate, but completely biased. As an example, my Union Rep had, in the meeting, stated that it was her belief that the allegations were untrue, and that the correct process for suspension had not been followed. The notes, though, read
"TU Rep did not believe that the deliberately taking off of non-entitled leave should have lead to Mr Tasker’s suspension"
Who, for a minute, would believe that any Union Rep would make a statement like that? It reads as 2he did it, but you shouldn't have suspended him for it."
Sadly, this was not the only, or even the worst error in the notes.
A number of points and discussions were completely missing from the meeting notes. Curiously, they all seemed to be points and discussions that were important/helpful to me. Many of those that were there, simply weren't accurate representations of what was said.
I'd previously expressed my concern to my Rep that the investigation wasn't necessarily what it seemed, but at this point I realised for certain that it wasn't just paranoia.
Investigating the new Dates
It had been promised that a copy of the sign-in/sign-out sheets would be posted to me, but the meeting notes made me realise they either might not arrive at all, or more likely would arrive on the morning of the next meeting.
I used to make good use of a calendar though, so I began using that to look into why I'd left the building at those times.
It was all work related - escorting BT engineers on site, that kind of thing. One coincided with a late afternoon that the entire building had been sent home for safety reasons. One really stood out, though, I'd left the building to attend a course that my Line Manager had booked me on.
A few days later, the sign-in/out sheets arrived in the post, so I took a quick glance through those as well. That was the only point in the entire process that I felt truly angry.
During the meeting, I'd mentioned that I would generally scrawl where I was going just next to my signature, but that I probably did forget occasionally. I assumed that the dates at issue were ones where I had forgotten.
So imagine how pissed I was when I found that every single date/time they'd raised had a little note next to it, even the one where we'd been sent home. To this day, I still feel they deliberately threw those dates at me, knowing the answers.
The next report I raised swiftly dealt with the dates they'd raised, providing whatever additional evidence I'd been able to locate, and then proceeded to tear the process they'd been following to shreds - from the failure to allow me time to prepare through to the inaccurate and biased notes I ripped their case apart.
Having learnt from the previous meeting, I sent the report through, via email to all involved (including my TU Rep, who had already seen it).
An Informal Meeting
I was then invited to an "informal meeting" comprising of myself and my line manager. Not being terminally stupid, I made sure my TU Rep was going too.
Essentially I was given a choice between two options:
- Compromise and accept a lesser (and minor) charge of 'Failing to follow laid-down procedures'
- Proceed with the investigation as it was and face a major charge
During the meeting, both myself and my TU Rep had to constantly point out to my Line Manager that things she was saying were incorrect, and the procedures weren't being followed (for example, why had my suspension not been reviewed by a senior manager as required?)
A formal meeting was scheduled, and I was told I'd need to have made a decision before then.
In my notes on that meeting, I wrote
Meeting gave distinct impression that they feel they lack the evidence required to proceed.However [organisation] has recently released a zero tolerance policy on fraud, so proceeding to hearing could be very risky if there's any possibility that a charge could successfully be made.
I knew I'd done nothing wrong, but ultimately had to countenance the risk to my family - the experience thus far had shown me that I couldn't necessarily rely on due process being followed.
A Hard Decision
I won't lie, I absolutely struggled with which option to take.
On principle I wanted to pursue it to the end, but that entailed putting my job on the line. I knew, outright, that I could win at tribunal if it came to that, but that would not help with supporting my family in the meantime.
In the end, I wrote two letters - one accepting the minor charge, and the other rejecting it. I put them into separate (discreetly) labelled envelopes and took them both to the meeting.
I'd decided to face the major charge so that I could clear my name, but wanted the ability to change my mind at the last minute if needed.
As it turned out, the time deciding could have been better spent doing almost anything else.
I wasn't asked for my decision at the meeting, my Line Manager simply proceeded down the minor charge route. I was to return to work within a week, work non-flexitime hours for a few months and then we'd review.
As we walked out of the building my TU Rep said well, she played that very cleverly......
My Return to Work
I went back to work (after 4 months of suspension on full pay) and followed my instructions to the letter.
Friends and family think it's conveniently coincidental timing (I think it's just luck) but I won £1000 on the staff lottery the first week I was back.
I was also awarded (by my LM) a special bonus of £60 for a report I wrote a month or so after coming back to work.
It's fair to say, things weren't quite the same though, I was still focused on getting my work done, but was acutely aware that I needed to cover my own back. I couldn't escape the feeling that my line manager was just waiting for an excuse, and it completely ruined my enjoyment of the job.
It was clear my colleagues had known from the outset that I would never have so much as considered doing the thing I was accused of. A few of them had been experiencing their own issues with our manager too. I very nearly had to pipe up in one meeting to stop our LM from laying into one of my colleagues in front of everyone else.
Unfortunately, two months after returning, we had our review meeting and my Line Manager started talking as though her plan was to try and re-start proceedings (I've still no idea why).
Thankfully, I'd gone into that meeting knowing I had news of my own; I'd been offered a job elsewhere and so gave my notice (response: I wish you'd interrupted me instead of letting me say all that....).
As a final farewell, she made a mistake on my leavers form and the accrued leave I was owed was in fact deducted from my pay.....
Learning from the experience
That's the background handled (albeit with quite a bit trimmed for brevity), now for the important bit - lessons learnt and experience gained;
Things I did right
Ironic really, given the accusations, but the one thing that really saved me was my record keeping. By good fortune, during the turbulent months surrounding my depression, my GP had encouraged me to keep a diary of when I was in pain, when I'd taken painkillers etc.
During my depression, every little thing was written down. If I'd had a crap day, or if I had a hospital appointment etc. It took me a long time to fall out of the habit of making notes in those little books, which ultimately meant I had a resource detailing more or less where I'd been and what I'd done in my private life.
Although I had an electronic calendar, I used to print a monthly sheet and keep it in a Poly-pocket on the wall by my desk. If I had any appointment, work related or not, I'd write it in. The idea was that if I was away from my desk, anyone looking for me (I used to get queues from time to time) could easily see when I was likely to be back.
For whatever reason, at the end of the month, rather than throwing the sheet away, I'd been sticking the sheets into a binder. I still have no idea why I didn't throw them out, but they were a valuable resource when trying to figure out what I'd been doing on the fairly arbitrary dates that had been thrown at me.
I got the Union involved
I should have done this earlier, and had I known what awaited in the first meeting would have done. I'm pretty capable and could probably have defended the case on my own, but having the Union involved does give you some extra sway and provides you with support when it's most needed.
For a start, without my Union rep present, the bias and inaccurate meeting notes would likely have been taken as a true record - it would simply have been my word against theirs.
It was also useful having someone involved who could read the reports I was raising and give me feedback on what I'd written.
I took the gloves off
In every report I raised concerns with elements of the process that was being used. In my very first report, it was simply that I hadn't been given sufficient information to prepare adequately.
My second report went a little further, but the gloves didn't truly come off until the third. Whereas I'd briefly raised concerns in earlier reports, report three is 14 pages long, the final 8 of which are concerned with correcting mis-statements made in the notes, during the meeting or raising issues with the process.
122. Had the dates raised been thoroughly checked by the Investigating Officers, it would have been very clear that most did not necessitate further investigation. Especially in the case of appointments attended by both myself and colleagues, including one arranged by [Line Manager] herself.
123. I also note with concern the numerous inaccuracies in the record of this meeting, many of which are misleading in a way that could be prejudicial to my case. Important points are misstated or omitted. Due to the length of the meeting, I am unable to recall everything that was said and so it may be that even with correction, important points will remain unrecorded. This is absolutely unacceptable in a case where gross misconduct has been alleged.
Much like getting the Union involved, I should have done this much earlier.
Researched the Disciplinary Process
I should have thoroughly researched the disciplinary process before the first meeting, but was somewhat tied up with running a thorough audit of my own paperwork.
After that first meeting, however, I researched the process in intricate detail - the organisations intranet being available on the Internet was a hugely useful resource.
Aside from confirming that processes were not being followed, it allowed me to recognise bullshit for what it was; Your Line Manager informing you that your case has been viewed by the organisation's Fraud Awareness Unit could be quite intimidating - Unless, of course - you've read the processes and therefore know that if the FAU felt there was any merit whatsoever in the case, it'd be one of their guys you'd be sat opposite.
I never found out whether the FAU really had been consulted, but know for a fact that if they had then they'd thrown it right back as without merit.
Things I Did Wrong/Badly
Missed the Warning Signs
In retrospect, there are a few things I should have picked up on earlier. They may not have averted the course of events, but I would, at least, have gone into that first meeting less blindly
In the run-up to these events unfolding I had been constantly harassed with trivial issues and concerns. I chose to deal with these on an individual basis, as and when they arose, rather than looking at the bigger picture. My main focus was on getting my work done, and I figured she'd eventually just let me get on with it.
There's a world of difference between your boss not liking you, and your boss having it in for you. I'm pretty sure one of my first bosses thought I was a complete prick (I was a teenager at the time, so he may have been right), but it never impacted on our working relationship.
Note: Never forget though, the problem still might be you. Receiving constant grief might also be a sign that there's a problem with your work or your attitude.
Failure to Disclose Information
The failure to provide me with a set of dates before the meeting rang a few alarm bells for me, but it was more irritation than anything. Similar failures occurred throughout the investigation, usually with a flimsy excuse given for the information not being provided.
In hindsight I can see it as potentially a very easy way to make sure you're on the back foot.
Reputations are sometimes deserved
You should never judge someone solely on reputation, but it's foolhardy not to take it into account. When others who have had dealings with someone warn you strongly about them, it's best to take heed.
Make judgements for yourself, sure, but don't open yourself up to attack from someone who has a reputation for playing dirty.
Ignored the earlier Issues
Not only were the earlier issues a warning sign that I should have taken more heed of, but they also represent a missed opportunity to address the issue before it occurred.
I'd been vaguely considering filing a grievance (i.e. I'd done all the paperwork and couldn't decide whether to file it), but the second I got suspended it became pointless doing so. At that point, any grievance could too easily have been brushed aside as a case of sour grapes.
It's also quite probable that ignoring those early issues (and sometimes taking the path of least resistance in an attempt to get a quiet life) painted me as something of a soft target.
Trusting my Line Manager to follow Procedures
You should feel you can trust your line manager, but sometimes that trust can be misplaced.
I blindly trusted that my second line manager was doing admin as he should (i.e. sending my Doctors certificates off to HR).
This misplaced trust really hurt me, especially as I hadn't retained copies of those certificates, all the more so when that line manager stopped responding to emails (just before the investigation began).
His failure to file my certificates provided ammunition that they wouldn't otherwise have had, and his going incommunicado wasn't particularly helpful either.
I was very lucky in that some of record keeping was, unintentionally, spot on.
Unfortunately, I hadn't taken the precaution of keeping copies of emails relating to things that my LM had agreed to. We were burdened with small mailbox limits and so had to clear emails regularly, and as the absences had been authorised I saw no need to retain the emails.
Keep copies of everything, storage space is cheap and you never know when you might need to refer back.
What Might Have Been
I've never been one to dwell on the what ifs but I think in this case it's well worth looking at what could have happened if things had been different.
I'm blessed/cursed with being something of a cold fish (my wife's words, not mine) emotionally speaking. It's not that I don't have emotions, just that they're not as easily triggered, or as strong as a normal persons (which is why my depression was such a big concern - it was the first time some had seen me show anything but a trace of emotion).
One of the huge benefits of this, though, is that I'm not prone to stress and so tend to stay calm and rational in most situations. I've been told though, that the circumstances I went through would have caused many people a great deal of stress, and I can only imagine the effect that could have had on life in general.
Things might also have been more difficult (or at least more drawn out) if I hadn't kept the records that I had. Being able to answer every date raised with precision and accuracy certainly strengthened my case.
Although I'd done nothing wrong, I was put in a dangerous position - because of the severity of the accusations, had I failed to find evidence for just one date I could have been out of a job.
I've no doubt I could successfully have made my case at tribunal, but it's not a position you want to find yourself in.
I've never been able to escape the feeling that they were perhaps hoping I might quit whilst on suspension, but one thing I staunchly refused to do was to leave under a cloud. I knew the allegations were bunk, and I was determined to clear my name. Quite what my employment prospects would be had I decided to duck out, I don't know.
This is the internet, so most readers will probably apply a pinch of salt when I say that the allegations were absolute rubbish. No offence is taken for that, I'd probably do the same thing, but the main thing to take away from this post is probably the lessons that I've learnt as a result.
The effect on my life and career could have been catastrophic had my Line Manager had her way. I don't (and never will) know what the actual motivation was - she was present when I interviewed for the job, and there were minor interactions before she became my Line Manager, so perhaps I'd upset her at some point? She was many things, but never stupid, and I find it hard to believe that she could ever see any substance in the allegations she was making.
I never let the process get me down, in fact at points their blundering provided a small source of amusement for me, but I can imagine that others could be far more prone to suffering emotionally from the treatment. For me, the period of my suspension actually provided some valuable memories - my son was about a month old when I was suspended, so getting to spend 4 whole months with him was awesome.
The experience has taught me to be absolutely anal about keeping copies of paperwork and conversations.
It's not always your current line-manager you need to worry about, if they get promoted/move-on you may well find that their successor raises issues with something that had previously been authorised - without a record of conversations, you may find yourself on a sticky wicket, through no fault of your own.
You can't prevent yourself from being attacked, but you can take steps to ensure that if/when it does happen you can robustly defend your position.
If you ever go through something similar, you have my sympathy. The main thing to do from a personal perspective is not to let it get you down, aside from fleeting moments my sense of humour remained intact throughout. Something borne out by this little gem I found in one of my reports whilst reading through in preparation for this post
During the meeting, [Line Manager] stated that she had found me “difficult to deal with” at times. I can understand this sentiment, as I've reciprocated that feeling.
Can't quite believe I put that in there....
I've never made a secret of what I went through, and if it was ever requested would be more than happy to provide copies of the documentation I have to a prospective employer.
If you go through something similar, make sure you can walk away with your head held high, never even consider quitting until the you've cleared your name and most importantly, learn from the experience.