My toxic workplace left me broke

I’ve arrived here via an article in the Guardian. I feel like today will end better for me mentally, because I can finally tell someone what happened to me 19 years ago. I haven’t even disclosed to my family and friends the events that led to me becoming another person claiming benefits.

After I left university in 1996 I applied for my dream job in London. It was in the travel industry. I thought I’d interviewed well but didn’t get the job. About a month later I saw the same advert for the same job so I applied again, this time I was interviewed by only one of the people who had previously seen me and he offered me the job straight away. I was on cloud nine! We went from his office into central London and he showed me around the office complex. It was gorgeous. And I was really looking forward to working there.

From day one I should have noted very obvious red flags that all was not what it seemed. Two members of staff who were supposed to be training me had decided to leave the following week. The job was very complicated and involved handling large amounts of cash and creating travel details. Luckily I picked it up quickly so the impact of their leaving wasn’t felt. Within three months I diligently put the company into profit by opening up another line of services that previously hadn’t been explored. The commission we were on started to climb. One of the girls in the office was pregnant. On my day off I received a phone call from work telling me my boss had walked into the office and sacked her. I couldn’t believe it. The next month she apparently hadn’t been paid. Nothing to do with our office as payroll was in a separate building in another county. So again on a day off of mine, she and her boyfriend walked into the office, went into the safe and grabbed a handful of cash claiming it was for her lost pay, and left with it. My bosses reaction was to give everyone a verbal warning and to take the three hundred pounds she had taken from the safe out of our wages. There were three of us by that time. So we all lost a hundred pounds. No one complained.

People came and went and I still worked hard. I was the first one there in the morning, last one to leave at night.

Then strange memos began to circulate. My boss wanted us, the people on the front line, to be responsible for any cash lost by clerical errors. Due to the auditor finding that at the end of his monthly audit there was an £8 ticket that hadn’t been accounted for. Eight pounds from an audit of £145,000. He acted like someone had slid the cash into their pocket and was depriving him of it.

Then I made my first real mistake. My boss decided the office needed another member of staff. By this time I had booked my first holiday. I worked for five years without any kind of holiday. But had made the decision to take a months leave to travel abroad. When the new member of staff was given a job he was told that if my holiday clashed with his already prebooked holiday, his would be honoured. I was confused. I’d made this booking six months before his. I kept my mouth shut. Then came another red flag, my boss had told him he would honour this man’s season ticket for football. And would need every Saturday off to follow his team. This meant that weekends for other staff was curtailed. No more long weekends once a month for us. I was angry. And I made my annoyance known. My bosses reaction? He raised my wages by 50p. Yes fifty pence per hour.

When I booked my wedding he refused to allow me to have a break after my wedding to go on Honeymoon. He said it was too busy. And I hadn’t accrued enough time. So I offered to take unpaid leave. He would listen to that either. Red flags continued to appear but I ignored them. I had rent to pay, bills to meet and soon we would be having fertility treatment. During this time I took on two women. From pretty much the first week I had problems with them. One was an unashamed poisonous gossip. The other had sued no less than four of her previous employers for different crimes against her. I kept a professional distance from them. But, it started to feel uncomfortable every time you came back from the toilet, or left the office, they would stop talking when you returned. But I shrugged it off. I was concerned with getting pregnant, a fact no one but my husband and I knew about. Had I fired the gossip I am certain I would probably be a manager there now. Well the gossips, gossip got her the attention of the head office. And a memo was sent to us regarding talking about other members of staff. She read it without any kind of reaction, clearly not understanding it was her.\

I got pregnant. And I decided to do myself a favour and take all five months’ maternity leave. My boss made it clear that any prenatal or maternity hospital appointments had to be taken on my days off. Which I diligently followed. I worked through my pregnancy. The whole 41 weeks. No days off. And preparing for my brief departure by making sure that everything in the office was in place, all stationary and incidentals ordered. My boss gave the gossip my job for the five months that I would be away.

I had my baby at 2am at 8am that same day I got a tearful phone all from a staff member. The gossip had fired her. I told her she couldn’t fire anyone. So I had to call my boss and sort this out, hours after giving birth. My boss said he was fed up with arguing women and told me to tell them to get a grip on things. My boss, by the way, was an inordinate coward when it came to firing and giving staff warnings. It was left to me to do. And I had some harrowing moments having to do it. So on the day I gave birth work had managed to interfere with my happiness.

Five months passes and I am due to return the following Saturday. I get a call from my boss asking me to come to a pre-return to work meeting. I arrive there that afternoon, my baby in her pram. I’m my naivety I think perhaps he would like to see my beautiful baby. In my bosses office the gossip is sitting there looking glum. They accuse me of starting a rumour that the gossip is a thief. That she is stealing money from petty cash and falsifying sales sheets and pocketing that too. I just stare at them, I cannot believe what I am hearing! She looks like she is going to cry. She then names a staff member who she says I had said this terrible thing to. The staff member she names is someone whose sister worked briefly there, but my boss had made me fire. So I expect she had an axe to grind. I could not defend myself. I was so shocked and blindsided. I just shook my head and tried to defend myself. But the gossip was an accomplished liar, and my boss didn’t want new mothers working there. I was seen as a problem, the gossip had gave him ammunition and he went for it. He wouldn’t sack me though, he was clever. So I went ‘on the sick’. Had notes from my doctor. But the truth was worse. I was in in the pit of a terrible postpartum depression that would see me try to take my own life a year later. I ended up just handing in my notice and leaving.

I had to ‘sign on’. And I was absolutely the rarified they would find out I was on the dole. It was shameful. A year later I was buying baby clothing in charity shops and in receipt of state benefits. We were now poor. Everything changed. No social life, no eating out, no cinema. No new clothes. Budgets and no holidays. I had our child and I adored her. I also lost all my travel passes. And my pension plan and my shares.

About fifteen years later I was walking through the town centre and for the first time in fifteen years there stood my boss. I squared up to him, determined just to yell at him publically, call him the C word. But as soon as he realised it was me standing in front of him he curled up and looked terrified, and that was enough for me. I am happy to note that he died suddenly last year from a heart attack. I almost high fived the woman who told me, I was delighted he was dead. How terrible is that? He turned me from a middle class person into a poor person. And he did it deliberately.

The company did worse to another employee who was stricken with breast cancer. She was strong though. Took them to court. She was sitting outside the court waiting to go in to give evidence when they suddenly turned on their heel and offered her a large amount of money to step down. She took the money.
I bumped into the gossip last year. It was the first time I’d seen her since my daughter was three. My daughter and I had been waiting at a bus stop and this woman approached me smiling widely and waving acting like I was her long lost relative. It took me a couple of minutes to realise it was her. My daughter. A lovely, caring, loving child threw herself into her, kicking and punching her. I was embarrassed, she’d-never done anything like that before. But now I believe she was probably feeding off my energy.

So last year I bumped into her and she immediately launched into stories about everyone, how everything had changed since my boss’ early death. Then went silent. And said she had a new boss now. It was a woman, she didn’t like her, she was stirring things up. She was going to head office to see if she can file a grievance against her. And would I be a character witness? I politely declined.

The mental turmoil this life changing event had one me could never be monitised. It was all I thought about for a decade. These people who had put me in the poor house. But ultimately I should have been a better advocate for myself. I simply wasn’t. I was hormonal, depressed, vulnerable and incapable of defending myself


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