I Was Workplace Bullied at an Australian Radio Station
“I want you to fuck off and never come back.”
These were my male superior’s last words to me.
I always knew workplace bullying existed, but I assumed adults would not resemble those bigger kids who pick on the small kids in the school garden. Turns out I was wrong. It was exactly the same, except without the swings and slides.
It was the day I finished university, and I can still remember the jitters of hearing the words: “You’re hired!” Flying from Melbourne to a country town in a different state did not seem like a varied transition in the beginning, but I left the job feeling mentally and emotionally broken in just three months from workplace bullying.
When I touched down in what was to be my new home, it was freezing, mid-June; the air was frosty, but clearer than home. The first few weeks as a radio producer seemed like a dream: calling the Prime Minister for interviews, speaking to media advisors and getting to know the locals.
Six weeks in, I made my first error, which would be the beginning of my downfall. Footsteps pounded down the hallway and stopped right outside my studio door.
“Meeting! Now!” my boss shouted, pointing at me.
There I found myself facing a jury of three stern, middle-aged males shaking their heads at me. I had made a spelling mistake in a social media story headline, which sparked some online controversy. My host—the one harassing me—was the eldest of the three; he had squinty eyes that were magnified through his clear-rimmed glasses and his wrinkly skin was a nasty shade of yellow. He puffed at his beloved e-cigarette and looked at me.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” my host snapped.
“I’m sorry – I had to get the story out quickly and I missed that error. It won’t happen again.”
“You know my reputation is on the line and you are fucking it up big time,” was the response.
I nodded, but my lip trembled uncontrollably and I could feel my emotions rising to the surface.
“Don’t nod at me,” he spat, saliva frothing at the creases of his mouth. “You must think it’s easy not having your name plastered on the brand!”
The power of his intimidation quickly ruptured my already weak exterior. Tears streamed down my face, my mascara now smudged. The three men had no idea how to react to an emotional young woman. They sat there silently, giving me no reassurance, nor a way to better the situation.
After the meeting, I approached my program director for advice. He was a man I could be honest with. “The way the media works is this: you’ve got to stroke his ego, like you are pumping his dick hard.”
Okay – so all I had to do was get on my knees and grovel to the man who had spat in my face?
In hindsight, I should have walked out right then and there.
I skipped lunch every day. I worked 10 hours straight in solitude just to earn some brownie points. I thought I had gained my host’s respect by going beyond my KPI for stories and checking my spelling 20 times before publishing. I soon received excellent feedback from the CEO for the quality of my stories. I tried everything to make my hard work visible, and management granted me my wish by loosening their reins.
My host, however, did not. He had a daughter my age who had moved across the country for university, but it made me wonder why he had rarely spoken of her when I pressed him on it, and why he stayed monotone when her name came up. Despite the apparently awkward relationship with his daughter, I knew he would not dare speak to her the way he had spoken to me.
I had to get away just to stay sane. I flew back home to Melbourne every third weekend. I adored the coastal air and the comfort of my family and friends, and I enjoyed a few social drinks to ease my tension. Stress quickly flooded back as I returned to work the Monday morning to even more confrontation than before.
“What did you do on the weekend?” my host asked slyly.
“Not too much,” I replied vaguely.
“Bullshit. I know you fucked off to Melbourne, don’t lie to me.”
I had no clue why this conversation was happening, but I did not like its direction.
“You don’t care about this place; you don’t care about this show.”
I explained to him calmly that I needed an escape to de-stress.
“You think you know what stress is? I vomit every morning at the thought of going on radio,” he spat. I wanted to say that he was in the wrong industry if he felt like that, but I held my tongue.
He kept going.
“You’re a passive aggressive princess!”
I wanted to wave my magic wand and send him to hell. I hated him, but I hated myself more for not having the courage to stand up to him. If I had a tiara on my head, I would have thrown it at his teeth.
“Oh, and don’t bother calling yourself a journalist with those spelling mistakes.”
A few weeks had passed and it was a little calmer around the office, but my relationship with my host was almost non-existent. For the first time since I had started my job, I actually felt excited to be invited to a sponsored event, which was a ballroom dancing competition.
As a ballroom dancer myself, I thought this event would turn things around. I noticed a local newspaper on Facebook had done a live video from inside the venue, showing off the beautiful dancers. I decided to do a live Facebook video as well to prove I was on the pulse of the local scene. Man, was I wrong.
That Monday morning meeting was more intimidating than being put on the stand for a murder trial.
“Who gave you the right to take a live Facebook video of the dancing event?” my host screamed.
“I saw the newspapers did it, so I took initiative and followed suit. You always tell me we have to be on the front foot.”
The three men all glanced at one another with raised eyebrows. My host stood up and banged his head on the table, his forehead bleeding.
“HOW DARE YOU!” he roared. “It has nothing to do with my show.”
I was seriously confused and horrified by his actions, not to mention seeing the blood trickle down his face. I explained how our station had sponsored the event and had given away tickets. My post did well too, ratings-wise.
He stood over me and I started to hyperventilate. I needed my inhaler. I looked out the window and saw bystanders, thinking how lucky they were not to be in this room right now.
All my host needed to do was click his fingers and management would show me the exit. But he didn’t. He wanted to see me suffer first—shock me, mentally bruise me and throw me to the curb. Is he trying to toughen me up? I wondered.
With the help of my work friends (who had suffered similar kind of abuse before from the same bosses), I decided I had to file a formal complaint to management. I walked away not knowing what tomorrow had in store for me, whether I would even be allowed to come into work. I went to the gym—like I did every night—and punched a boxing bag until my hands were purple. My phone dinged.
“Don’t worry about coming in for work tomorrow – just come in during the show for a meeting.”
My stomach flipped. I’m fired. I’m so fired, I thought.
I went into the meeting with one goal—to not break down. I brought a female superior with me to equalise the gender ratio. As I walked into the lavish office full of plants and colourful couches, I was surprised by both men – my general manager and CEO – sitting down on the green couch, waiting to hear my story with open arms. I spoke without any interruptions, and the men nodded when I paused. I finally felt safe to speak the truth.
“Unfortunately, your connection with each other is like a square peg in a round hole,” my CEO told me. “It is not a normal situation and I am sorry this has happened to you.”
They offered me money in exchange for my silence. But it was not enough to keep me entirely silent.
It does not matter what industry you work in: fair work behaviour is a legal stipulation. Since 2010, workplace bullying in Australia has escalated to 9.4 per cent, and our country is sixth in the world when it comes to the prevalence of in-work harassment. It can be associated with too much power, or perceived power, that unleashes inappropriate and intimidating behaviour, and can cause psychological harm upon the victim.
I just hope my host doesn’t treat the next person like he treated me.
Cover by Jonathan Velasquez