So then...

About Me

Welcome to my blog. My pen name is Eva James. I'm an aspiring writer paying the bills working as a legal secretary. Relentlessly bullied by my former boss, I looked for another job but the recession hit. Feeling trapped, I recorded everything in this blog, which serves as a revealing insight into workplace bullying. WEEK 1 starts the story and, as the weeks progress, you'll note what starts as banter soon spirals out of control. Sadly, it's all true. Whilst along the way I've found alternative employment, my passion for blogging about workplace bullying remains. Trevor Griffiths, legendary theatre, TV and film writer said at the outset, "I like the writing a lot: smart, cool, placed. If you were prepared/able to take your prick of a boss on, you'd marmelise him."

Saturday, 30 January 2010

WEEK 34 Boutros Boutros Ghali

I really hoped, given my pay rise and extra responsibility, things might work out. My desk move happened quickly, nobody made a fuss and HOWARD was pretty quiet. For the first time in my life I thought about sitting the ILEX exams.

Sadly, yesterday HOWARD was back to his old self. I couldn’t escape from it at lunch either. I still had to answer the overflow telephone calls from reception. Trying to cheer up, I told myself things would get better. My heart sank again as I looked at my desk. It was peppered with Post-It reminders. I’d planned to be more organised and I’d completely forgotten to use the Dictaphone I’d bought. While HOWARD was chatting to the PM after making himself a coffee, I tried to understand the manual and how to work the machine. I’m not great with technology. I’d just about given up anyway when HOWARD returned. Knowing he’d laugh at my incompetence, I chucked the Dictaphone in my bag.

The remainder of the day was horrible. Before going home, he said he could say and do whatever he wanted to me now. When I asked what gave him that idea he reminded me there are still no jobs around and that I can’t match my new salary anywhere else. Look what happened to OLLIE’S secretary, he said.

I don’t need reminding. For a week, my feet have been knocking against a box of her personal possessions. PHILIP, who’d never warmed to her, had bullied her into a breakdown - then threatened to sack her if she came back. I’d boxed up her things, figuring I’d deliver them at some point. She’d been replaced with an equally tearful temp. Last I heard, OLLIE’S hard working ex-secretary was about to sign on and desperate to keep her rented flat.

I was counting myself lucky.

It was only when got in I realised the Dictaphone had been recording. I didn’t know what or when, but it registered 37.33 minutes. I assume it was like the time I’d got a new mobile phone which dialled people if my bag touched against the buttons. My handbag works technology better than I do. It shouldn’t have heard anything from the inside of my bag but I was curious so I plugged it into Windows Media Player.

It was 37.33 minutes of my lunch. There’s nothing at first… then HOWARD’S voice telling everyone I’m gay. He tries to convince them for about 10 minutes. Everyone’s laughing. I deny it. I tell them I was married. I tell them a few months ago I went on to find a boyfriend. HOWARD changes tack, talking about how ugly I am. The PM and Employment Lawyers laugh louder. HOWARD tries to persuade them to agree. Again, I repeat over and over that I’m not gay and I’m not ugly. Scornful, he asks a series of personal questions about my family, which I’m reluctant to answer. Are they are as ugly as I am? Or are they uglier? He calls me ugly for about 15 minutes while I try to eat lunch and answer the phone.

Then HOWARD tells me, over the Employment Lawyers giggling in the background, that I’m not to get upset later because he says I’m ugly. He’s sick of me crying about it. He does his new impression of me as Beaker from The Muppet Show.

“I’m sick of you getting upset” he says, “and I have to do my Boutros Boutros Ghali bit.”

I’m so humiliated. How on earth did it get this bad? I think somehow I’ve become too used to laughing it off.

Not wanting to hear more, I switched off Windows Media Player. It was a mistake to listen to it. How naïve was I to think I could be a fee earner or to think I have a future with this company? I’m taking the Dictaphone back to Argos. It’s one of the stupidest things I’ve done. I don’t know if you can imagine. What I’d heard gave me nightmares last night. I woke up after one bad dream where HOWARD was pressing against me, holding my wrists down against the desk and telling me I’m sacked if I don’t type what he tells me. He leans on me and forces my wrists down harder so I can’t move…I woke up shouting for him to leave me alone.

I have to find another job soon.

So much for Boutros Boutros Ghali.

Eva x

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

WEEK 33 Eternal Optimist

Yesterday a new temp gave me a contact at a recruitment agency.

“Sasha’s great,” she said. “You have to ignore the recruitment sales talk – but they’re all like that. Sasha’s fantastic, truly fantastic. Tell her I recommended you. I’ll vouch for your character.”

I uploaded my CV. Ten minutes later Sasha called. She had the perfect job for me - a secretarial job with the local university. It had only come in yesterday morning. “In fact,” she said, “I’ve just been telling them about how experienced you are. This job will be made for you. Come in tomorrow after work and fill out the forms!”

I was reeling. The new temp beamed at me as I thanked her from the bottom of my heart.

So today I fixed the photocopier five times in a row – no complaints; I filled up stationery; held open doors; made rounds of coffee. Mostly, I thought about how best to leave HOWARD up to date. I was, in my way, saying a cheerful goodbye to the place because, without a contract, I only have to give a week’s notice.

I arrived at the agency this evening telling myself I’d earned this job after what I’d been through. Six recruitment consultants were screaming with laughter at the far end. One of them signalled they’d seen me. I perched on a bright red reception chair, telling myself it was probably only like this because it was late. A thin blond girl ran over, introduced herself as Sasha and unleashed her lengthy recruitment patter. Then she told me to sit next to a young boy, threw a pile of forms at me and ran back to her friends.

Was it me or did they look and sound more like 18 - 30 holiday reps?
I studied the forms. They wanted my full residential history, employment history, references and personal details. This was horrible. Sasha had taken my CV and I hadn’t thought to bring duplicates. Why were these people so noisy? I couldn’t concentrate. The boy looked at me aghast. “I’ve filled my form out wrong,” he said...”I’ve done it wrong.” Uncertain, he repeated it again louder. The girls giggled, but nobody moved.

What about the university job, I thought?

Sasha came back. “Let’s swap you two around, huh?”

The boy and I looked at each other.

“She’s got to do a typing test” Sasha said, jerking a thumb at me. “So she’ll have to sit there.”

“Typing test?” I said. “No-one said anything about a typing test!”

Every one of HOWARD’S typing insults sprang to mind. I’ve been typing full-time for almost a decade but my hands still trembled with nerves.

“Can’t you tell me about the university job?” I asked, as she logged me into the test screen.

“Well,” she said, frowning at the PC, “I may have given you the impression that there was a job available now...that’s not to say that there won’t be soon. What I meant was...I told the university all about we had someone of your...experience on our books and they were quite interested.”

“There’s no job?”

“But there could be...They were very excited about you.”

The typing test started. I’d been so desperate; so happy. I tried my best to copy type as the words swam. My shaking hands wouldn’t type what I told them. Ringing phones were left unanswered and the recruitment consultants screamed with laughter.

I didn’t finish the test. I sat there – staring at the screen. They showed me out.

All the way home I cursed our temp. I should have guessed what was in store after her annoying comment yesterday as she'd gave me Sasha's details.

“Good luck. It must be difficult for you working with HOWARD,” she said. “Has he always been obsessed with you like that? It’s romantic really.”

They've decided to keep her on for a bit, but it's a good thing. A few months with our firm will do wonders for her optimism.

See you soon.

Eva x

Saturday, 23 January 2010

WEEK 32 The Sign

The minute I prepared for my desk move they postponed it for a week due to a phone connection problem.

I put my two postcards of New York back up. What aspiring writer doesn’t want to see New York? I dream of a long visit, perhaps noting ideas for a novel whilst staying an old Brownstone hotel. I dream of peering up at the Empire State; hot dogs and pretzels; dodging yellow cabs; stopping to rest and sip coffee on a bench in Central Park. Yes, I want to be a tourist.

I’m grounded enough to realise, of course, that New York is a distant dream when I can’t escape this office or even relocate to the other side of the room without technical problems.

In the meantime, HOWARD told everyone he’d extended the hand of charity by giving me a pay rise and the promise of a better job. When he approached the PM with a sheet of A4 and she laughed after reading it, I knew it wasn’t good. Perhaps my New York postcards had given him the idea, but he’d made a sign about me including the Statue of Liberty inscription. He hung it above his desk in full view of the office.

Think of this whenever Eva speaks:-

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless,
The tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The humiliating sign remained there till yesterday. It read like a hindsight history lesson for dreamers. For the majority of those ‘huddled masses’ hoping to leave hard times behind them, New York turned out to be more of the same.

I’m worried it’s a sign of the same, or worse to come, from HOWARD.

Eva x

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

WEEK 31 The Other Side

HOWARD frightened me last week, but on Monday I wondered if I’d over-reacted as he joked with the PM about replacing me with digital voice recognition. He’s all for battery operated machines replacing humans. Then he thanked my sex life for giving him the idea.

Later, HOWARD phoned to say he’d put two packets of paracetamol in his top drawer in case I felt low. The PM said to ignore him. “Let it go in one ear and out the other.”

He asked colleagues if they’d mind chipping in to the spring/summer floral bouquet he’s planning for my funeral. He knows what he’s going to write on the card. “In death she remains as she lived – entirely alone.”

I wasn’t coping well. It was relentless.

Yesterday was a new low. Having poked fun at me all morning, HOWARD drew a picture of me naked, being menaced by a shark (him) and saying “Help, help – I’m a vulnerable person”. Then he added a penis to the picture of me, before tearing it to shreds and putting it in the bin. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t forget it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s terrible, but last night I was consumed with thoughts of suicide. I couldn’t stop crying. Desperate, I phoned The Samaritans. The floodgates opened.

“I try to ignore it,” I sobbed to the voice on the phone, “but he’s destroying me. I don’t know why…maybe I am that ugly. Maybe that’s why I’m on my own. I can’t face people. I can’t sleep anymore. Last week I thought I was in danger…I don’t know… It’s easy for other people to say ‘walk away’, but I’ll lose my home – for the second time. I can’t face living at my mother’s again. I can’t take the humiliation and I haven’t the strength for another ‘new start’. I’m not going to make it. One of these days they’ll wonder why I’m not in work…and he won’t care – he’s collecting for the funeral. He won’t take responsibility. I’m only here for my mum…but I can’t do it.”

They listened while I cried myself out. They tried to help me see some hope beyond the exhaustion and depression. They gave me a few ideas to help me relax. When I calmed down I decided I had no option but to quit. I’d find a temporary shop job until secretarial work picked up. If I was lucky, I wouldn’t lose my home.

I handed my notice this morning. On my way to a meeting with HOWARD to explain why, the PM warned with the CVs coming in every day I’d probably lose my bedsit if I didn’t think it through.

We had our meeting. HOWARD said sorry for his insults, especially those he’d made that morning before realising I’d quit. He admitted he had no right to tell the new temp that I couldn’t afford a car and my ex-husband was right to get shot of me the way he did. He didn’t know why he said these things. He promised he’d try and stop if I’d stay. He’d also speed up the pay rise and the promotion to legal assistant he’d told me about last week. Everything would be alright.

The PM was delighted when he confirmed I’d be staying and said I mustn’t take any notice of his insults. “I told you,” she said. “Let it go in one ear and out the other.”

I wanted to ask why it had to go ‘in one ear’ in the first place. Five minutes later, HOWARD sent me an e-mail saying, “You are now going to be sitting opposite me.”

The shark image floated up again.

“This’ll be good for you,” he said as he signed his post. “You should be very grateful. You’re only underachieving because you’re ugly. Pretty people get a hand up the ladder. It’s your face that’s been keeping you at blue collar.”

“Is that so?” I said, exhausted.

“You also have BO.”

So much for him trying to change. Too tired to think - I was defeated. I looked at my new desk across from his knowing there’d be no-one to overhear. I’d be alone. He could say anything.

“You’ll have to stop thinking like a secretary too. You’ve got to start thinking more like a fee earner. Maybe one day, you’ll be on the other side of the Dictaphone.”

“Sorry?” I said, waking up.

“The other side of the Dictaphone.” He showed me his hand held recorder. “At some point you might be dictating for an ugly secretary of your own.”

I made a round of coffee for everyone before going home. I told myself things could be worse. I might be HOWARD’S assistant, but it will mean a pay rise and new things to learn. I’m going to treat myself. I’m popping into town this weekend to buy a Dictaphone. The one I want is £40 in Argos. I know I won’t need it for typing yet, but they take time to get used to and it’s like a new toy. I can dictate memos to myself to help me remember my new tasks.

Perhaps they’re right. Before I know it I’ll be letting things go ‘in one ear and out the other’ as I work opposite HOWARD “on the other side of the Dictaphone”.

See you soon,

Eva x

Friday, 15 January 2010

WEEK 30 Mr Kipper

When I was new and keen to make an impression they asked me to stay in and answer the phone through lunch. I didn’t mind. It didn’t ring all the time, plus it saved me money because it stopped me wandering around the shops. When HOWARD realised he could spend his lunchtime tormenting me I dreaded being trapped at my desk. Today, in the middle of my eating my soup, he returned to his favourite subject of rape.

“Eva’s going to spend the weekend walking down badly lit alleys hoping to meet a rapist.”

HOWARD recommended I try around pub closing hours. He asked a female colleague to agree that I had the look of a girl asking to be raped. When she appealed to the PM on my behalf, the PM replied, with a mouthful of sandwich and a helpless shrug, that it was his favourite subject when it came to me. I try to ignore it.

HOWARD continued, “She probably wears a badge saying, “I’m an estate agent” or “Has anyone seen Mr Kipper?”” I didn’t understand. He reminded me of the murder of Suzy Lamplugh. He said he had an alibi. He’d only been 14 and had been on holiday at the time.

I couldn’t help wondering why a solicitor, with no connection to criminal law, would be so knowledgeable about Suzy Lamplugh. He told me she’d disappeared in July 1986 and was later found dead. Her skull had been relentlessly beaten in with a brick; shattered like eggshell.

“I’ll say one thing.” the PM said when lunch was over, “He gives me a headache the way he goes on.”

A headache is the least of my worries. He’s always pretending to stove my head in with a brick.

Half an hour later I think he realised he’d gone too far. He sent me an e-mail saying he was just joking – it was just the way he was. Joking or not, I was on the verge of tears. My hands were shaking…my stomach was knotted. I couldn’t make sense of it. The e-mail went on to say that I’d soon be moving desks to sit closer to him and that I was going to be given a small pay rise.

Forty five minutes later another e-mail arrived. It was entitled “Sexual Offences Rape” and detailed how the law had changed. He commented that oral activities are now classed as rape by a 2004 amendment and he’d been unaware of this fact. Later he e-mailed me on the same topic to say, “There is no excuse for not acquiring knowledge.”

Today I’m certain of one thing – I’ve seen and heard enough of HOWARD to know I’ve learnt too much.

See you soon – I hope,

Eva x

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

WEEK 29 Resurrection

Yesterday, OLLIE and I arrived at work at the same time. As I settled in, my mobile phone rang.

“That’s got to be your mother,” he said. “No one else would phone you.”

Just as annoying as being insulted by HOWARD is being insulted by OLLIE doing a poor impression of HOWARD. He routinely resurrects HOWARD’S jokes. I answered the call. It was OLLIE’S secretary saying she’d be late in. Happily, I passed on the news.

“Eva, your eggs dry up by the time you’re 35. How old are you?”

“You know I’m 36, OLLIE.”

“Older prima gravitas!” he announced. “Medically you are an old woman. What’s the point of you being alive? Nature intended you to have children young.”

Yeah, yeah, I’d heard all this from HOWARD the day before, only he was worse.

“Thinking about it,” HOWARD had concluded, “its nature’s blessing. You’re the type of person who should be chemically castrated to prevent them from having kids.”

Ignoring OLLIE, I was more concerned about the recent Carry On style e-mails I’d been getting from a high ranking solicitor who worked near HOWARD. Another e-mail arrived asking whether I wanted to be ‘slippered’ over a red velvet cushion or a floral poufee. I wanted to be left alone.

By yesterday afternoon, as I put his files away, HOWARD’S behaviour worsened.

“Do you dream about being raped, Eva? I bet you pray for it…wishing - if it has to be rape – please let it be a gang one!”

“I bet when you’re watching Jodie Foster in The Accused you think, “I wish that was me…I wish that was me...”

HOWARD asked me if I lay awake at night, scared at every sound outside my door. He wanted to remind me that, though I may think I’m too ugly to be raped, there are some deeply sick men out there for whom this wouldn’t matter.

I threw the files in the correct drawers and returned to my desk, only to be followed by HOWARD. He carried a letter which needed the address changed. Looking thoughtful, he asked for a pen. I handed it over. He scrawled something across the letter. He’d done this before so I knew it was offensive. He took his hand away and showed it to me. I was losing the will to live. I just stared at him. Seeing me at a loss for words he covered the letter up and scribbled further. Again, pulling his hand away – he’d written about my private parts drying up like an old prune. Underneath he’d written how I think women who are raped have all the luck.

At the same time, another soft-porn e-mail arrived from HOWARD’S colleague - something off the internet. I didn’t open it. This place was disgusting.

HOWARD showed me everything he’d written. Then he whispered, “I’d better shred this.”

“That’s the best place for it, don’t you think?” I replied.

He pressed the letter to him so no one could see it until he’d safely fed it into the shredder.

“I know you made that mistake about the address, Eva,” HOWARD announced for the PM’s benefit. “But, I’m not going to mention it again. I think we should put this whole disgusting matter behind us.”

This morning I arrived half hour early. Checking the coast was clear, I jammed the thankfully small amount of shredding into my carrier bag. It’s going to take me some time to stick the letter back together, but OLLIE isn’t the only one who can resurrect things HOWARD has said or done the day before.

See you soon,
Eva x

Saturday, 9 January 2010

WEEK 28 Simon Says

SIMON, a new Employment Lawyer, started this week. Very different from HOWARD, he breezed around the office making friends and engaging everyone in warm introductions. He’s straight out of university and I wondered what he’d make of the office junior’s legal action against HOWARD, coupled with the fact that he was bound to overhear some of HOWARD’S negative banter as he sits quite close to his desk. HOWARD got around the problem by putting words in his mouth.

“Eva, Simon says I should ask if it bothers you that us men think about sex 50 times a day, but you’ve obviously never crossed our minds once?

“Simon says that he’s sure he recognises you from the TV. He’s seen you skulking in the background of that programme Booze Britain, preying on vulnerable drunk men and using them for sex.”

“Eva, I told SIMON you spend your evenings alone in a bed-sit, worrying about rape, but he says it’s more likely you lie there with the door on the latch and your fingers crossed.”

Apparently, SIMON has warned HOWARD about using my name. SIMON says naming secretaries is like naming Christmas turkeys. You don’t want to get attached to them by giving the bloody things names. HOWARD has taken his point, from now on I’m nothing more than a mass of cells that type for him.

When SIMON suggested he should be friendly, more encouraging, HOWARD agreed he would try and that there was no time like the present.

“SIMON says I should be more encouraging, so here goes. Eva, I think you should work a bit faster - you lazy fucking bitch.”

He turned to his new colleague.

“How’s that?”

SIMON laughed and shook his head in faux despair.

As I put files away, ignoring HOWARD’S jokes, our new recruit asked me if I mind HOWARD’S laughing at me.

“Actually,” HOWARD told him, “I’m a law whore and she’s just another client. You think I’m going to look back and remember the names of these girls? Say, Eva, you know that street near here where the prostitutes hang out? Next time you’re walking along and a car pulls up alongside one of them you might think about jumping in too. Then when the guy pulls his wallet out you can make his day by saying, “I won’t hear of it – this one’s on me!”

I looked at the fledgling Employment Lawyer and hoped he’d learn sooner rather than later that when SIMON says nothing - people like HOWARD will do all the talking for them.

See you soon

Eva x

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

All Banter is Friendly

It was a quiet return. Thanks to the office junior’s legal action, HOWARD has been scared to speak to me. After days of peace, without HOWARD’S ridiculing banter, I was content churning out lengthy letters with their over-complicated legal jargon. Often I think how I’d re-write them. It’s surprising how simple law is – when you cut to the chase.

My letters were interrupted by the Employment Lawyer’s delivery of a Staff Handbook she’d written for the firm. The front cover had a place to sign and date. Underneath read the following sentence:-

"Please note the following policies are not contractual in nature".

A quick flick through told me all I needed to know. It was, in the main, an anti-bullying mission statement - the firm’s internal response to the office junior’s witness statement.

“We expect our staff to treat each other with respect and dignity at all times. We will not tolerate bullying or harassment of any staff by any staff”

Put simply, without the legal padding, the company did not condone:-

Harassment related to gender, race, ethnicity, colour, disability, age, religion, nationality, occupation, marital status, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics. There was to be no abuse through e-mail, texts or websites; no invasion of personal space, spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone. There must be no intended isolation or exclusion, stalking or offensive sexual remarks. There should be no public ridicule, sarcasm or humiliation; no abuse of power, position or knowledge. They did not want people to be stressed, demotivated or frightened.

Wow, I thought, that’s great. But I’d forgotten this was written by a lawyer - things are rarely clear cut.

“Nothing in this policy is intended to stop friendly banter between staff.”

I was amazed. I had to read it again:-

“Nothing in this policy is intended to stop friendly banter between staff.”

HOWARD closed his Handbook and sauntered over.

“Eva, do you have any regrets?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied.

“So, you don’t regret not being on the property ladder before the economic downturn; or not having a husband and kids; or the fact that you can’t afford a car and live in a bed-sit? Or the fact that the few times a passing motorist’s beeped at you, you’ve taken it as a compliment because maybe you look like a prostitute, when the truth is they think you have the depressed look of someone who’ll walk in front of their car deliberately to kill themselves.”

I laughed. Good old “friendly banter”, I thought. A couple of weeks and the crying with laughter will turn into, well…just plain crying.

The Staff Handbook waffled on, with its pages of tightly packed legal definitions of harassment and bullying; the carefully phrased meanings and its non-contractual foundation. I thought how I would have re-written it more concisely. The best I could come up with is one sentence with an Orwellian twist:-


See you soon,

Eva x
Bottom Swirl