career

'Groped in the office and bullied mercilessly: How a toxic workplace stole years of my life.'

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

I was just shy of 18 when I got my first office job as a receptionist in a local accounting firm. At the time, I didn’t necessarily want a corporate job with nine to five hours. But I had expensive and grand ambitions of taking a gap year to backpack around Europe.

I knew I’d be earning minimum wage, but at the time, the idea of a steady income seemed like my gateway to getting what I wanted.

I was a fish out of water in the corporate world, having graduated from high school just weeks beforehand. I had never mailed a letter or banked a cheque and I didn’t even know what the skinny lattes I was constantly ordering tasted like.

I didn’t own any corporate-wear so I borrowed some of my mum’s old ’90s office attire. I’d never really worn makeup but I purchased an expensive foundation and a nude lipstick that I thought made me look 10 years older and (I hoped) more mature.

I was just desperate to fit in.

At first, I believed that work would be a small fraction of my life. I thought I could go into my job every day and then leave it all behind at 5pm in favour of my social life. But I quickly learned that I was wrong. When you’re spending eight hours a day with people, toxic energy in the workplace and tension with your colleagues takes its toll.

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Things weren’t great from the outset.

Coming into what seemed like a small, tight-knit firm at such a young age was tough and often left me feeling excluded from the elite milieu. Everyone was older than me by at least 20 years and working beneath much older people had its challenges.

The older women were like hyper-critical mother figures, constantly hovering over me and pointing out my mistakes.

They offered judgement on everything from the condition of my acne-prone skin and the length of my skirt, to whether or not I actually had the intelligence to be university educated.

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The belittling remarks were downplayed with the justification of ‘workplace banter’.

“You don’t strike us as the university type,” they would snicker.

“How do you get through a degree when you can’t even do simple tasks here correctly.”

“Your role is the most easily replaceable. They just need to find another one of you.”

My male colleagues and bosses were not much better. Because of their superior positions, they played into every stereotype of the macho, dominant boss-man. I was constantly being reminded that as long as I worked for and beneath them, they owned me.

They asserted this position through sleazy remarks, inappropriate innuendo and uninvited butt squeezes as I walked by them in the kitchen.

When I wasn’t being objectified I was enduring this patronising air of paternalism through their coddling and delicately cloaked ‘sympathy’.

They would console me with unsolicited comments like, “Don’t worry, the other ladies are just jealous that your nipples don’t point south,” which only left me feeling more ashamed and degraded.

Who could I really turn to?

Without knowing the full extent of rules around workplace misconduct, my family urged me to be resilient. “Every office has problems,” they assured me.

Not one to give up easily, I accepted the heavy criticism as constructive feedback and smiled, nodding my head submissively as they unleashed on me. I saved my tears for the bathroom at lunch time.

In the starry eyes of an 18-year-old who didn’t know any better, all of this abhorrant behaviour was actually just…normal. I watched on as other young women got bullied out of their jobs and just assumed that it was justified; that this was what all workplaces were like. All I could do was pray that I wasn’t the next one to be pushed out of the door.

As the years rolled on and I advanced in positions within the company, I kept my head down and worked tirelessly at pleasing my colleagues. Even as I was becoming their equal, I always saw them as my superiors. And they believed that I was still answerable to them.

By 21, I was in the final year of my second university degree and suffering from crippling anxiety and low self-esteem. In spite of acquiring a communications degree that opened me up to a world of opportunity, I refused to quit, fearing that if I had it this bad here, it could only be worse elsewhere.

I was trapped in a hamster wheel and filled with self-doubt, and I was afraid that getting off would only make it worse for me. So I persisted.

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Eventually, I became immune to the feeling of humiliation and intimidation. After years of being chastised, belittled, gossiped about and unjustly accused of committing crucial mistakes, I finally reached a turning point: I came to realise that I wasn’t actually weak. My colleagues’ contempt was driven by their own insecurities and inadequacies.

As a young, ambitious woman with lots of opportunities for growth, I know now that their resentment toward me was more about them. But back then, I saw myself as being at the very pits of the pecking order – why would someone be intimidated by little old (inefficient) me?

Now I’m older, I feel such deep regret for the many years of my life that I wasted in that place, feeling that way.

The day I quit, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. The most valuable thing I walked out of the doors with was not a glowing reference or healthy bank balance, but invaluable lessons in self-worth and fortitude.

As I rebuilt myself, I realised that sometimes you have to stop crawling through the shadows to truly appreciate what it feels like to stand in the sun.

If workplace harassment is affecting your mental health, support is available via Beyond Blue. Call 1300 22 4636.

Have you ever experienced a toxic workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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