We Want You To Help Us Change As Long As It Doesn't Change Anything We Do Or That We Want You To Do
I moved countries for a dream job.
Promises were made to get me on board but before my furniture was delivered, I was already being constructively dismissed out the door.
As my lawyer said, I was sold a bag of rocks.
I thought Mean Girls were out of fashion. Didn’t we decide that it was about Women Supporting Women, Michelle Obama?
This was a smaller network than I was used to, it was more like The Stepford Wives than Mad Men. Cliquey queens with their minions, all outwardly perfect but insecure, competing for attention and possibly a bit dead inside after years of neglect.
The “husbands” (and the bros) would congregate in the headquarters of the Men's Association (aka the creative department). No one knew who to suck up to but it helped if you were hot enough for the creatives to fancy. Women going on maternity leave couldn't be 100% sure they'd have a job afterwards (“she may not even come back”).
It was a cat walk or a plank walk.
There was no clear source of ultimate power in the chain of command. You could be in or out at any moment. The original founders hadn’t worked anywhere else and had a slight chip on their corporate shoulder.
One lady in management told me she had waited 10 years to be given the same senior title I had, it wasn’t the policy for a new starter to come in at the top, “we have to work for it here”, as if I was entry level. I observed there were 4 men, also new starters, who were given the same title. I suggested perhaps she should bring it up at her next review. I was expecting solidarity in return but she replied, smiling, “titles don’t mean anything anyway”.
My first day, I didn’t have a chair or a desk. Was this hazing? It already felt weirdly similar to the first day at a new school. Found out via the mail room, who kept delivering my post to the “wrong desk” that, based on the official seating plan, my desk had been reappropriated (“quick, before she gets here”). I was left with a bench in the corner until someone left and I got their spot.
The culture was fueled by internally manufactured vendettas and conspiracies. Local management in each of the two offices were very different, playing good cop/bad cop interchangeably. There were two of everything (CEOs, Presidents, Managing Directors…). I was blocked at every turn. It was pervasively passive-aggressive. Smiley to your face, machete to your back.
Everyone had to go through an American Idol type process to get management sign off but they would often reject the work for the sake of it, playing favourites to protect their own. Like the kind of people who watch the finale of a long-running TV show because everyone’s talking about it but they spend the entire episode asking who the characters are and suggesting improvements to the plot. A flaunt of their authority, even when they had no idea about the subject matter.
Recruitment was seen as a conquest, poaching top talent from big brand agencies to brag about who made the best hire to the trade press. Once poached, you were totally cooked - as soon as the press release went out.
There was an underlying resentment towards any new person. Less senior, longer serving staff had their backs up. I’d been sold in as someone coming to make the agency better at X, they didn’t see anything wrong with X the way it was.
People who made the place run were uncooperative and contradicted things I had been promised by the head of the company (“he doesn’t know how things really work”). I didn’t expect them to still be arguing about me once I had already joined. I was like the check at the end of a set menu meal, a couple of guests were still complaining because they didn’t want starters or dessert, didn’t choose the wine and weren’t even hungry! No one knew which side would win.
One of the CEOs said he'd noticed a real uplift in “quality of our thinking across the board” since my arrival. Feeling royally righteous, The Originals would retaliate, demanding intern level work from me and “your team” (fyi there was an i in this team of one). I was told I was fantastic one day by the same person who would tell me the opposite tomorrow.
In month two, when one office said they felt like the other office was getting all my time and love, (“we aren’t seeing the value”), I was given “very helpful, clear guidance”: pick some projects to lead by doing ... whatever that means.
Other well-meaning advice here was to keep your head down, look after yourself, watch your back (and watch mine), do good work, just do it even if you disagree it can be done…I was criticised for not “shining” enough. I needed to find moments to “shine”.
I wasn’t sure who I needed to shine to the most - there were so many stakeholders, in different time zones. I needed to be more visible. I wasn’t allowed to visit the other office.
They told me to share what I was doing, to “spread the love”. There was no intranet or distribution list system or even a shared drive. On my first (and last) “sharing the love” group email at pitch time, people thanked me for being timely and helpful just before a Mean Girl manager replied all, questioning my business knowledge. Sending all-staff emails was clearly punishable by death.
Rather than setting us up for success, they made jokes about having breakdowns. There was no emotional intelligence in the place but a lot of heavy drinking. The goalposts kept moving, I became overwhelmed, anxious and paranoid. Everyone did. I didn’t understand their game. There was no one to back me up - my boss was in the same situation. My boss was fired. New friends quit. Anti-anxiety meds were shared openly because no one had a GP (health insurance took a while to kick in). I couldn’t hit the ground running at work and take care of my life stuff, I hit a wall and ran out of medication. I tried to make the best of a bad situation while I was navigating the logistics of a big, bad move.
My “work friends” began ghosting me - worried it would look bad to associate with me. I wasn’t acting like mself anymore. I was obviously not in the cool gang like they thought.
Some stood up for me because I had done it for them.
The managing director said she wished she'd gotten to work with me, right after she eliminated me for not being needed. She had reassured me and called me “babe” the week before. People stopped me in the corridor to “pick my brain” - while I was on my way to the car after packing up my desk (“I didn’t know you were leaving, was there a card”)?!
That still hurts.