You sad little man…You are quite honestly not that important to me.”
Those words were directed at me by my former employer.
The words and the personal attack are supposed to hurt and humiliate me, but they simply sound like the taunts of a schoolyard bully. Words like those might have affected me when I was 10 or 11 years old on the playground, but as a 30 year veteran in the creative field, they strike me as sad.
It’s a fact that in your career you are likely to… no scratch that. You WILL interact with people who are self-important.
Colleagues, Managers, Clients, VP’s and CEO’s. Part of what makes them who they are is the need to lift themselves by belittling others. Working in the creative and media field, I’ve worked with quite a few ‘self-important’ people.
Some will be self-important in public for all the world to see.
Some prefer to do it when nobody is in the room.
Some prefer to do it from the anonymity of their social media profiles.
The goal is to validate themselves at the expense of your self-worth and confidence. They are far more important than anyone else in the room, be they employees, colleagues or clients. And they’re not afraid to tell you.
I’m here to tell you, especially those of you starting out in your career, the words are meaningless. The only way these words have power is if you allow them to. It’s not about having a ‘thick skin.’ That means you’re shielding yourself from the words.
It’s about completely eliminating the power that a person’s words have because they are truly meaningless.
A Personal Attack Means The Bully Has Already Lost.
A personal attack against you or your character generally means the person has absolutely nothing of substance to attack you with. Your actions, your work, your productivity are all where they should be or better. But the bully must still must make themselves superior to those around them. So they attack the person.
Let me repeat that. When someone makes a personal attack, they have already lost. In order to ‘win’ by appearance, they try to hurt you personally.
“Gosh. You really do need help. Let it go. Please. Go away.”
That second taunt was actually surprising given that he’s been in the medical device field for over 20 years. I would have expected some sensitivity towards mocking mental health.
Life and your career is not going to be a straight trajectory where everyone loves your work and you all get along. That’s not life and that’s not going to be your career. You will have highs and lows, incredible teams, so-so teams and everything in between. The one constant in your career, and the only thing you can absolutely control, is you.
You control your actions, your responses when confronted with behavior that either goes against company policy or your own personal code of conduct. When that situation arises, and it will, how should you respond? I’m the first to say, that’s really tricky. While today’s HR and corporate culture is all about inclusion, diversity and ‘zero tolerance for retaliation,’ real-life is much more complicated. Particularly if your issues include senior level executives. While you may not be fired directly, there are ways to ‘encourage’ you to leave the company.
Don’t Do Anything Rash or Too Quickly.
I cannot tell you what to do when situations arise. You are unique. Your situation is unique. You were hired for a reason. That usually includes providing a positive impact on the company and those around you.
What I CAN tell you is to not do anything rash or too quickly. Everybody has a bad day. Unless a person crosses a line that is unforgivable in your personal code of conduct, my advice is to observe, make notes and see if a pattern develops.
Here are two real-world examples and my actions for each.
One: At a previous position in Atlanta, I was directly intimidated by a person much more senior than myself. Just two weeks into the job she sat me down for coffee and said “I don’t know why they hired you, I have no idea why you’re here.” The person was very loud, bullying and abrasive in the office not only towards me but to much of the staff in the department.
I decided to discuss her actions with my direct report and other executives in my department. I was told, “ Oh that’s just ——-, it’s how she is.” I honestly don’t care who you are, bullying and acting out towards your colleagues because ‘that’s how you are” is not something to be tolerated. Ever.
I decided not to approach HR in that company because it was apparent the senior executives would defend her over anyone else in the department. While I loved the creative team in the studios and I did stay almost 18 months in that position, ultimately it was an easy choice to resign from that situation. Upon leaving the company, I did submit a full report, with cited examples to HR. I have no knowledge what happened after that.
Two: With the Florida position, neither the executive, nor anyone else, was never negative towards me while I was in the room. I only observed both he and one other person in the firm using disrespect and other behavior I found objectionable towards others. As a senior executive in that firm, I felt comfortable meeting with and discussing what I observed with the head of HR multiple times over the course of a few months.
While I had positive discussions with HR, it was apparent that the behavior would not change. It was a much more difficult decision for me to walk away from that firm. When I started, the three person digital team was leaving en masse. 9 months later, I left the company with a handpicked team of 2 video editors, director of photography and production coordinator along with a greatly enhanced production workflow and 2 more editors waiting in the wings. I was building an incredible creative team that was turning out amazing work and I genuinely liked the staff in the firm. But as my discussions with HR didn’t change any behavior, I prepared myself to leave the company and became active on LinkedIn seeking out new opportunities 4 months before I took my current role.
The resignation began amicable with me agreeing to stay on for 4 weeks to ensure a television pilot would not be disrupted as well as planned filming in Europe. Again, I provided a full written report to HR with cited examples of behavior and areas that warranted further discussion. With 4 weeks there was plenty of time to have group discussions. The CEO’s response to my written report was to have his senior executives and HR escort me out of the building the very next day. The firm paid me for that week but removed the additional 3 weeks of pay I was promised as part of the original resignation.
Two different positions, two different situations. One where I the target and the other where I observed others. One where I declined to notify HR during my employment and one where I actively engaged HR.
In both cases I made a judgement by observing the situation and the potential ramifications of reporting the issues. In both cases I spoke with colleagues before approaching HR. In both cases I was ready to walk away from the situation. There was nowhere else in either company for me to use my skills. To continue my career, it would have to be elsewhere.
If It’s Time To Walk Away, Do NOT Slack In Your Current Job.
Now here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you when you make the decision that it’s time for you to move on. Do NOT slack in your current job. In fact, quite the opposite. You should absolutely excel in your current position when you’re looking elsewhere. You want your old company to remember you as a positive, solid contributor all the way through to the time you leave. That attitude and character will follow you as you move through your career.
That positive attitude also eliminates the power of the bully. You will be remembered as a positive force who did good by your former employer. Burning bridges and taking a ‘slash and burn’ approach to leaving a company will only come back to reflect on your character as you move through your career.
“You sad little man…You are quite honestly not that important to me.”
Those words are meaningless. Bullies in business are meaningless. You have worth in this world.
Some suggested additional reading: