TW: Bullying, suicide
There is a narrative in academia that administrative (admin) and academic staff are two different camps/classes, with a ‘them vs us’ attitude across the sector. There are stories of academics shouting at admin and admin stifling academics with bureaucratic processes. But there are also different stories, which show that while bad behaviour can come from any direction, so too can support. I am writing about one of the support stories. I am an admin, writing this so that others don’t feel alone, to raise awareness of this dynamic, and to thank my academic colleagues.
Surviving not Thriving
2021 will mark a growing number of years that I will have been surviving at work. And I mean just surviving. It all started with a piece of work that landed in my team with a short deadline – not uncommon in higher education (HE). Everyone I asked to help scurried away, telling me it was impossible in the timescale. Many advised that I just had to be “as helpful as possible – if you’re not, you’re beaten with that ‘stick’ later on for not being supportive, even if you know the project is doomed”. I worked all hours, drawing on the help of strangers to pull it all together, and through a collective effort, we met the first deadline. At that point, a peer wanted to take it to the final deadline because they were ‘more qualified/experienced’ etc. I happily obliged, as this meant less work for me. The project failed in the last round of the competition, a shame given how much effort everyone had put in.
That was when I learned about another ‘stick’ – one wielded by my peers, not management. It was emerging that the ‘more experienced’ peer blamed me for the failure of the project. Post-mortem meetings (to which I was not invited) discussed my role in the failure; sector colleagues told me of the negative comments and stories they had heard in meetings and social spaces; and people were actively warned not to hire me as I tried to progress my career. I was dumfounded that my colleagues and people I thought of as friends had been so active in the ‘blame game’. I tried to confront the source but was gaslighted and told I was being paranoid. We know from the stories of others that bullying is common in HE settings, and it was happening to me.
The academics I worked with tried to have my efforts recognised through a small bonus but I learned that the peer had fought vociferously to block this. They later claimed I had been ‘interfering’ and not delivering on work I should have been during that first phase of the project. I was literally being beaten by two ‘sticks’: (1) I was the convenient institutional and (2) peer scapegoat. Only the academics spoke to me.
Wearing Down, A Day A Time
Over the years, more and more colleagues have been turned against me. People I worked with across the organisation started to use the exact same wording and phrases that the peer used; that I was ‘interfering’ in projects they had asked me to get involved in just days before. It was explained to me that if you were not ‘with this person’ then you were ‘against them’ and so it was safer for people to side with the peer and follow their lead in who they should and shouldn’t associate with – even to the point of not responding to my ‘good morning’. Academics were not aware of why I was slowly erased from the projects/meetings they had asked me to help with but I couldn’t say anything because I no longer had ‘license’ to speak to them – plus it would look like I was difficult to work with or was badmouthing colleagues. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I was adrift and bewildered, trying to understand what I had done. While there are some things you can do when you experience bullying, it can be hard to put these into practice.
It’s been particularly hard that peers who I considered friends for many years now wouldn’t even look at me if they had to talk to me in a meeting in front of seniors – as if we had never had a drink after work and built each other back up after a tough day. I once tried to pluck up the courage to ask one of them what happened between us after a meeting, but I got such an icy look as I drew breath to speak to them that my courage just withered.
Years later, I still don’t know why I’m so hated – so hated. I wish I could attribute some of my peers’ behaviours to absent-minded transgression, but effort has gone into them; they have required active thought in the decision to target or isolate. My peers took every opportunity to remind me how much they don’t like me or how much I do not belong.
It is two years since suicide became an inviting option because of how worthless and lonely this treatment makes me feel. I am doing all I can to hold on but every little thing I do is invisible or misconstrued in some new way; my achievements are side-lined or credited to someone else; and if I contest or question this, it seemingly reinforces how difficult I am to work with. I have given up trying to find a new job, as my reputation has been so destroyed and my confidence is in such deficit, I don’t think it can ever be repaired. Ironically, they want rid of me so much, they have destroyed all the avenues available to me to get out.
Small Acts of Kindness Go a Long Way
While the rot spread among my peers, academics would increasingly email to let me know when someone else had taken credit for my work, quietly alerting me to the injustices and sending me unprompted words of encouragement after an event. They had heard me being mocked by my peers and, having had a positive working relationship with me, wanted to bestow some kindness my way. I’ve had academics pair up with me at events when my peers would scarper to avoid being stuck with me. I’m writing this partly to tell those academics that they’ll never know how much their words and gestures meant, and still mean to me. I keep their emails to remind myself that I’m not useless in the work I do. The small and simple gestures of sitting next to me or treating me as a friend remind me that not everyone hates me.
Because the way I am treated is so public and has gone on for so long, a lot of people have shared their experiences with me of a very similar dynamic; someone has acted with the best of intentions but attracted the wrath of a powerful peer and their life is made a living hell. Some have support elsewhere, for example, excellent relationships with academics, while others are isolated and terrified. My message to academics is: please keep sending these thank you notes and extending kindness to others – you don’t know how powerful and important this kindness is.
For this to be a useful blog it should perhaps end with some ‘calls to action’ or advice, but all I can say is:
- Treat others as you would like to be treated
- Forget the ‘them vs us’ between admin/academics – remember that we are all in this together
- Get both/all sides of a story before passing judgement.
- Remember: we are people too. It’s so often forgotten.
For me, in an admin role, academics have been my source of support and kept me going through this hell. Those who perpetuate the ‘them vs us’ narrative perhaps don’t see the kindness and support transferred across both sides of the divide between those of us that care and choose to work together harmoniously with mutual respect. So I want to say thank you to academics for being there for me. Your awareness, diplomacy, and kindness has meant so much and I’m doing all I can to keep being there for you so you can keep being there for others too. For those of you struggling, remember: bullying may come from any direction, but so can support.