“How can you be so stupid?” he said, agitated and angry. This man, who I saw in church every week, whose house I cleaned and kids I watched and phones I answered.
This was not the job I signed up for. I had been promised an entry level sales position at his company, but that job never materialized. Instead, I regularly cleaned up after his many children and dealt with his verbal abuse at his office.
On this particular day, I found myself trying to learn QuickBooks so I could fill out several years of his unfiled tax forms. He had dropped the project on me an hour earlier and when he found me reading the Quickbooks manual, he lost it. In his mind, I was wasting his time.
After letting him rant and sputter, I stood up, told him to shove it, and walked out.
I was done.
Nobody ever intends to end up in an abusive relationship. That bewildered 20 year old believed that if she kept working harder, eventually he would be satisfied, eventually he would give her the job he promised…eventually she would be recognized for all of her patience and hard work. Luckily it only took her a few months to realize that was never going to happen.
It only took a couple of months because I knew the signs all too well…I just wasn’t expecting them from my boss.
As I said, nobody intends to end up in an abusive relationship. In fact, in my experience, an abuser is usually quite charming at first, all smiles and eager to please.
My first experience with an abusive boyfriend started with the attention of a talkative boy following me home from high school. Despite my reluctance to indulge him, his persistence eventually paid off. And then things started to change. At first, it was subtle … I would look so much better if I changed my hair or my clothes, and then, I really should work out because I was getting fat, and then, why couldn’t I look as good or be as cool as some other girl in our class?
My ideas weren’t good enough. My friends weren’t right. I was too uptight and uncool. And then there were accusations—where had I been? And with who? And the inevitable distrust and punishments, followed by feigned remorse and gifts. But even then, he would keep track of how much gifts or dinners he bought me cost him and sometimes demand the return of some gift I “didn’t deserve.”
I would love to be able to say that when he started yelling at me, calling me stupid (or worse) or any of the other indignities I allowed myself to suffer, that was when I left.
“He grabbed my arm and called me stupid so I told him to shove it and I left.”
Unfortunately, that was not the case. But eventually I did come to my senses. And when I recognized that behavior in subsequent boyfriends, I ran.
I say all of that to say this: we like to make a lot of judgments about how people end up in abusive relationships, how they are weak or have poor self-esteem. Why can’t they save themselves? But on the job, I have seen dozens of people put up with insane levels of degradation and not walk out. And I include myself among them.
In my professional career over the last 15 years, I have had screaming bosses that throw stuff, bosses that undercut the self confidence of everyone around them, lying bosses who think everyone must be as dishonest as them, bosses that sexually harass or say racist things to those who report to them, and bosses that berate coworkers in front of their peers. I could go on, but I think you get the point. And what happens to these bosses? Most of the time, nothing. No one calls them on it, no one quits and no one reports them.
Why do we put up with something from a boss we would never tolerate from a friend or significant other? Is it simply the paycheck or is it something else? I asked myself this question and often the message I get is, “Stick it out.” If I want to get ahead, I need to follow through and pay my dues. If I can’t take the heat, should I be barefoot in the kitchen?
The last time I walked out on an abusive boss, he had called our team in after work and threatened to fire us all for screwing up a project. When I arrived (still in yoga clothes because I was on my way to the studio), our boss was not there. He was hopped up on painkillers and calling us every name in the book by phone. He did not fire us that day, although he made us work for several hours to “fix” a screw-up we continually denied. Only later did we find out that we were right and had not messed up the project at all. It was all just a misunderstanding.
Unlike my 20-year-old self, I never told him to shove it. I gritted my teeth, smiled, thanked him for employing me, and put in my two weeks.