People don't crumble in a day!
Christina Maseko was chatting excitedly about her weekend as she opened her e-mail in-box on the Monday morning of another promising week. She suddenly winced, lost track of what she was saying and became disoriented. Her shoulders immediately hunched and she looked like a vulnerable animal cowering in an invisible cage.
Her office mates, always a captive audience, were interested in the story she was telling, but knew they would not hear the end of it. This kind of reaction, followed by disorientation, had become a common occurrence when talking to their colleague, although they did not understand it. Initially when it started, they assumed she had received bad news, perhaps a death message about someone she was close to. They waited for her to offload her burden but when she kept silent, they assumed it was private and she was not ready to open up.
It was now three months since the cowering started, yet she had not confided in any of them about what was happening in her life. The three ladies who shared an office with Kiri at Save the World International, were concerned about their friend but thought it best to wait until she was ready to open up to them. Her office mates, Diana, Tendai and Silibaziso, however, noticed that the cowering and subsequent brooding had become more frequent. They also noticed that the reaction occurred when she either opened her e-mail or answered the phone. In addition, they noted her reluctance to join group activities with some of her workmates. Her contributions during meetings had also become less frequent and she tended to stammer.
Her office mates also noticed that Christine, affectionately known as Kiri, would deliberately avoid visiting certain sections of the office building. This was unusual for a sociable person like her who had often done rounds through the office to check on everyone’s well-being before she sat down to work. Now, they noticed, she was glued to her chair and would get up to eat or use the toilet and only out of absolute necessity. They began to suspect that if she could avoid coming to the office, she would gladly do so. She also started reporting for work late and sometimes appeared disheveled. The once passionate Kiri became somewhat listless and sometimes missed deadlines.
Kiri had suddenly become a distant stranger and a dour person. Often, when the episodes started, she would recoil and immediately lose confidence. This, again, was unlike the highly assertive Kiri. A usually robust and chirpy character, she was always full of laughter, exchanging jokes from office to office and colouring the environment with her exuberant personality. She was also very open and anything that entered her mind was immediately poured out through her mouth. They knew if something about any of them was bothering her, she would tackle it fearlessly. Kiri was not afraid to face problems head on and was never unnerved by confrontation. Everything in Kiri’s life flowed that way, an open river that took everything in its current.
An achiever by any standards, Kiri had beat the odds to earn her first and her masters’ degree in Economics. She was already working on her PhD and well on her way to being doctor Maseko. Anyone who met Kiri thought everything was going well for her. Younger girls often looked up to her as a mentor and example of what they aspired to be in future while older women envied her as she mirrored the dreams and ambitions they could have achieved.
An activist by nature and profession, Kiri could take on anyone. She could challenge a government minister on national television without flinching. That is how she had earned her reputation as the iron lady. Kiri had ventured into territory that even her boss would flinch at. Under normal circumstances, no challenge was too great for this larger than life personality.
Although her mates could see something was wrong, they could not help her so they watched her disintegrate. A tough cookie turning into a biscuit that had been soaked in milk. The iron maiden was melting and no one could see the furnace except Kiri who was feeling the heat of the hell she was living in.
It was therefore difficult for anyone who knew her to understand why the chocolate complexioned beauty with a curvaceous body, a successful career and great educational opportunities would suddenly crumble at the sight of an e-mail or the sound of a voice on the phone.
Unknown to her office mates, Kiri, had become a victim of bullying in the workplace. Her abuser, however, chose his tactics well. Being employed by an international organization, all members of staff were trained to avoid abuse in the work place. Violation of the basic standards by any staff member spelt instant dismissal. Her tormentor was well aware of this and made it a point to avoid anything that would raise alarm.
It was not surprising therefore that it took Kiri’s mates three months to notice that something was amiss. Even then, they could not quite explain what was happening to their friend. Anyone who heard that tough Kiri was being abused by a colleague would have scoffed at the prospect of such an assertive woman being pushed around. The subtlety of the abuse made it all the more difficult for Kiri and her employers to recognise and diagnose the problem.
Her friends watched helplessly as the life was being sapped out of their once robust personality by what very well could have been an invisible vampire. What they did not realize, was that the problem had started long before they noticed. However, it only came to their attention when Kiri began to crumble and even then, they failed to diagnose the real problem.
Even Kiri herself did not realize what was happening to her. All she knew was that there was a certain colleague who seemed to be on a mission to break her down. When she least expected it, she would receive an e-mail from him that made her almost fall apart instantly. He would occasionally call her phone extension and say a line or two that completely disarmed her.
Kevin, her tormentor, was the last person one would expect to abuse anyone. Whenever a new employee joined the organization, Kevin was the first to welcome the person. He would take a personal interest in the person and initiate joint activities in the areas of the new employee’s interest. Naturally, when Kiri joined the organization, he took the time to find out what she liked. When he learnt of her musical interests, he invited her to a concert and they had the time of their lives. Overtime, he earned her trust and became her confidant. As one who was new to the workplace, she would regularly consult him before making decisions. As they drew closer, he started digging into her personal life. They covered various topics, like why she was single and they discussed her relationships and what had gone wrong. Kiri thought Kevin was wonderful and a blessing to work with. She felt secure around him because his interest was purely platonic. All her colleagues shared those sentiments. Afterall, he treated them all the same way. Kev, as everyone called him, was quite the gentleman. As she became increasingly accustomed to her new environment she grew more confident, although Kev did not seem to appreciate her growing freedom and started being hostile.
The first time Kev let her down, Kiri brushed it off as an isolated event on a bad day. It was during a group lunch with colleagues. Kevin waited until he had everyone’s attention then shared Kiri’s life story with them. It was entertaining and funny to her colleagues, but Kiri was shocked and hurt. She felt betrayed. Her weak protests met with the retort “but you told me! I know your kind, I know you very well!” She later noticed that he would approach her privately and ask questions like a concerned friend, only to use the information to humiliate and embarrass her in public.
Kiri soon realized that Kev did everything for a reason and not out of genuine concern for her. He seemed to have a competitive edge and would pull her down to emerge as the superior being. Whatever Kev did, she was ill prepared for and could not immediately challenge him. Further, he had won her trust.
When the e-mails and phone calls started, she was, once again, caught unawares. He would write e-mails aimed at belittling her or send forwarded e-mails that insinuated that there was something wrong with her. Whatever he did was aimed at shaking her confidence. She could not block his e-mails because they worked closely together. He would send a combination of business e-mails, jokes and abusive mail. She never knew what to expect so she had to open all his mail. Further, because their work was interlinked, she did not want to risk appearing incompetent simply because of the occasional emotionally abusive e-mails.
The same applied to the phone calls. She never knew when he was calling for business or when he wanted to harass her so she was forced to respond to all his calls.
He would also make public jokes aimed at bringing her down. Whenever she was involved in a discussion with a group of colleagues, he would gradually shift the topic from her area of expertise to something she knew nothing about so she appeared like an airhead. When he could not steer the conversation, he would make references to her personal life and try to make everything about her seem negative. He would also criticize her work no matter how good everyone thought it was. He would criticize everything about her, from her wardrobe, to her furniture, her family and anything that she was associated with. When her first book in social sciences was published, he dismissed it as “soft sciences” and a non-achievement compared to what he could do – although she wondered why he hadn’t published any works in his field if he was so good. Whenever she achieved anything, Kev would downplay it and act as if she was overreacting to something small. When she new assets and shared the news with her friends, he would somehow find out about it then wait for an opportunity to publicly criticize the brand, quality, shape or any aspect of the item. If he could not find anything to criticize about the purchase, he would insinuate that she had not bought it herself but was a part-time prostitute and some sugar daddy had bought it for her. What surprised Kiri was that Kev knew nothing about her life but would speak with such authority that his audience believed him because he also created the impression that the two of them were very close. Even when he made assumptions and passed them as fact, Kiri felt that their colleagues believed him because of his claims that “you told me so.” He could weave stories about her that did not have a grain of truth in them and get away with it. She also noticed that none of her friends would stand by her when the attacks began. Kiri understood that they probably did not want to be his next victim, but she could not understand why they laughed and played along. Surely they realized that as long as he had an audience he would continue with his abuse.
Another challenge was that Kev would not do anything to support the efficient delivery of her work. Towards deadlines, he would claim to be busy and she was forced to either wait until he was ready, or proceed without his contribution. Either way, it did not create a good impression about her competence.
So, Kiri found herself caught up in a web of abuse that she could not share with anyone. Daily, she endured the emotional and psychological assault from her coworker, wondering when it would end and hoping it would be soon.
To everyone else, Kev was the perfect gentleman and any attempt to confide in her mates about the way he was treating her would have been viewed as malicious gossip on her part. They thought he had a great sense of humour because it was not affecting them. Afterall, Kiri was the butt of his jokes and since she was so chirpy, she probably did not mind. What they did not realize was the toll it was having on her.
Kiri slowly began to recede into a shell. She became shy about her achievements and her life seemed to embarrass her. The once chatty lady became somewhat quiet and withdrawn. She would think about what he would possibly say before she submitted her work. Somehow, he became the center of her work because Kiri wanted to avoid the abuse and criticism at all costs. The only problem was that Kev was not her supervisor and knew nothing about her work. Pleasing him meant compromising the quality standard of her work. The question she kept asking herself was if it was worth it to compromise her work to avoid being bullied. She realized that no matter what she did, Kev would find something to say. Kev had an opinion about everything even though sometimes it was ill informed. The only problem was she did not know what and when he would say it.
She also wondered what she had done to bring this abuse on herself. She had been friendly and cooperative. She tried to be kind to everyone. If Kev needed a soft loan, she was the person he called and she allowed him to repay at his pace, yet if she asked for anything, it would be broadcast and used as ammunition to humiliate her. What had she done to deserve this? That was the question she kept asking herself.
Once during a group conversation with the “girls,” they all realized they were victims of a bully. However, because they all liked Kev and thought his positive qualities outweighed his negative qualities they excused his behaviour. Also, the level of abuse varied by person. It seemed Kiri was getting the worst so there was no hope for collective action.
Kiri was alone in her dilemma. She could not share her experience with her colleagues who thought Kev was the epitome of a modern day gentleman. Her case was clearly difficult to report and besides, the burden of proof was on her. Her tormentor made sure he left no evidence in his trail. Her only evidence would have been the e-mails. However, these could be interpreted in any way and seemed quite innocent outside the context of her predicament. Only she understood what she was going through although she could not explain it to anyone in a rational way.
Kiri was in a quandary. Life had taught her to deal with abuse in specific contexts. As a school child, she had learnt to deal with bullies and as a woman, she had been taught about gender violence. She could handle abuse at those levels, but abuse by a colleague in the workplace was new to her. She had never heard of it and no one had ever prepared her for it.
Having been brought up in a Christian family with values of loyalty, faithfulness and trust, Kiri found it difficult to be suspicious of anyone. She took people at face value and assumed everyone shared her moral code. She did not expect anyone to harm her because she would not do anyone any harm. Although she did not expect everyone to like her, she assumed those who disliked her would leave her alone. This made it all the more difficult for her to deal with people like Kev.
The final straw came when he started visiting her at home. Kiri was not Kev’s friend and they had nothing in common, so what did he want? She suspected that he wanted access to her home so he could have ammunition for his public attacks on her. Although she was not sure of this, she knew the abuse had gone too far and it was time to stop it. Her home was her private space and therefore sacred. She could not let the abuse creep into the only sanctuary she had. Extending his tentacles of abuse to her home was tantamount to rape. She became nervous about being at home during weekends. Kiri needed help but did not know where to turn. How was she to handle these seemingly harmless drop ins like a rational adult? Her problem had moved to a new level, yet she still had no solution!
Her mind screamed the question: “How do you handle and abuser in the workplace?” but came up with no answers. She would not know peace until the issue was resolved.
* To everyone who has noticed a change in behaviour in someone you love. Remember this line from a song by a Christian group called Casting Crowns: “People never crumble in a day.”