It was December 2015, a little over two years ago.
In my dream I woke up in the middle of the night, next to my girlfriend. There, at the foot of our bed, was Mr. Pebble,* the director of the EMEA branch of Dot, the event app company I worked for as the design manager. His face was crunched into a grimace, his squinty eyes lost behind his round spectacles as usual, his hands reaching forward.
I woke up from my nightmare with a small scream.
I was in Korea, half a world away from Switzerland, where Mr. Pebble had spent six solid months bullying me at Dot, while he maneouvered with the board to be named global CEO. I was covered in sweat. I was shivering.
Mr. Pebble was a serial bully, attacking one colleague after another, working to consolidate control in the European branch and oust the global CEO who was based in our American branch. My role within Dot’s denuded marketing department was global, and I reported directly to the US. I became his prime target. My hair was turning grey and falling out. I had trouble falling asleep. Trouble concentrating. Suffering from depression and fatigue.
Early in February 2016 I found out that Mr. Pebble was about to succeed in his plot to take over the company. That same night I wrote and sent a resignation letter, to avoid ever reporting to my tormentor. Because it was my own decision to leave the company, I lost over 15,000 USD in benefits, but I kept my dignity.
On the last day of March 2016, I returned all company equipment and left Dot, after exactly three years and two abusive bosses.
I will never have a good word for either Mr. Stick, the odd CEO and founder under whom I joined, nor for Mr. Pebble, the manipulative COO, who became the company’s third CEO in three years the day after I left Dot.
Until the last days I had tried to fight for my coworkers, to boost morale, to create a good product and a good company. In the end, I lost money and health from that bargain, but I also learned the hard way how a company should never be run.
Heed these lessons, and you will be making your teams, companies, and lives better.
Lessons Learned From Startup Abuse
TL;DR: People are people. Treat them like people.
- Sexual harassment is bad. Do not ignore reports of sexual harassment. Do not unblinkingly stare at your female coworkers’ bodies for over a minute. Do not ask your coworkers’ about the pubic hair of their girlfriends. Do not spend company dinners with your eyes glued to the bosoms of coworkers’ wives. It’s disgusting. It’s also sexual harassment.
- Names matter. If you respect your coworkers, learn how to pronounce their names. Even if it’s hard, make a best effort. Not knowing how to pronounce somebody’s name after three years is pathetic.
- Rage is not productive. Do not scream at your coworkers. Do not call them names. Do not refer to them as lowly. If you shout abuse at your coworkers, you are an asshole. It is also, literally, abuse.
- Lying is bad. Do not lie to your coworkers. Holding one on one meetings so you can tell different people different stories is nasty and manipulative. It creates conflict and demoralizes the whole team.
- Be a decent human being. Do not make fun of coworkers’ misfortune. If they were conned into paying too much for their car insurance, this is not an opportunity for you to boast about how much better a deal you got.
- Follow labor law. Uphold working hours, overtime, holidays, and get air conditioning for the office if indoor summer temperatures exceed 30ºC (85ºF) for two whole months. And please, do not exploit coworkers who have migrated from another country, just because they do not know their rights as well as their Swiss colleagues.
- Use telephones, email, and messaging apps responsibly. Do not call your coworkers on the phone in their private time. Especially, do not scream abuse at them or threaten them with legal action over the phone.
- Be reasonable in your expectations. Do not assign your director of marketing to set up your corporate website in WordPress because “it’s simple,” without teaching them how to do so. It is stupid, humiliating, and a waste of money.
- Think about job titles. Do not give your coworkers stupid job titles, like “Beauty” or “Voice”. It is demeaning.
- Setting up coworkers to fail is bad. Do not give your coworkers tasks with due dates a week ago, so they can take the blame from clients.
- Do not hire a freelancer to do a coworker’s job in front of said coworker, telling them, “I am trying to figure out if I made a mistake hiring you.” It’s stupid, rude, and demoralizing.
- Own your responsibility. Do not canvas your coworkers for their opinions on a colleague’s project right before you turn around and fire the colleague because, “everybody agrees you’re not good enough.”
- Respect your clients. Do not make fun of your largest client, or any client, after you get off a call, or walk around boasting about how much they overpaid for your company’s services. This is unethical and bad for office culture.
- Respect privacy. Do not gossip to the board about coworkers’ miscarriages and other family tragedies. It is such a horribly asshole move, that I can’t believe I even have to say you shouldn’t do it.
- Honour your agreements. Do not go after your coworkers with lawyers to avoid paying their termination fees after you fire them. It’s horrible.
- Stop boasting. Your coworkers don’t need to know their chairs were more expensive than their paychecks, or that you bought 300 USD steaks for a dinner party, while telling them you can’t give them a raise.
- Gaslighting is bad. Screaming at coworkers, then telling them it’s just business and they shouldn’t take it personally, is manipulation. Every business done by a person is personal.
- Identity theft is illegal. Do not use your coworkers’ identities to carry out actions on the company Salesforce or intranet without their knowledge. With money and responsibility involved, you may be framing your coworker and exposing them to grave consequences. It’s wrong on so many levels.
Memories of My Coworkers
TL;DR: I saw what was happening. I never had the power to save you from an abusive workplace, but I am glad we met.
In the months and years since leaving Dot, I have agonized and thought and pondered.
In the earliest months I agonized about leaving my coworkers in an abusive situation. I veered from survivor’s guilt to wallowing hours of depression, from spiking intrusive thoughts of self-harm to fantasies of revenge, and then to thoughts of how I could save my coworkers and other employees in abusive labor relationships.
On the day I quit, I also quit drinking alcohol. I did not want to dull my pain or my ability to process what happened. A week after I quit, I visited a psychiatrist. I could not tell whether I was just imagining things, or whether I truly had been abused and bullied. My pain poured out, but I knew it would still take months to heal.
I was wrong, it took years.
Eventually the pain and the outrage subsided to a dull ache. The guilt abated, the sadness came and went. The thoughts of revenge and justice lessened. Those two horrible bosses, Mr. Stick and Mr. Pebble, receded in my mind.
And I realized, I feel for the suffering of all my coworkers of those three years. All the dedicated, passionate, excited people from different countries and walks of life, so keen to create something new, before they were ground down and spat out, if they were lucky, by the abuse machine that was the 11-year startup of Dot.
I saw you, my coworkers. I tried to do as much as I could to make our collaboration fun, and interesting, and successful, and kind, and amazing. I failed more often than not, I never had the power to protect you, but I tried.
In the end, I can only reiterate: I saw you.
I saw you, the business developers, trying to sell a chimera of a product that kept shifting and twisting, even as you tried to close a deal.
I saw you, the event managers, balancing jetlag, wonky software, demanding clients and yelling bosses.
I saw you, the developers, hidden in your fish-tank room, assailed by waterfalls and agiles and half-secret product requirements. And never enough time to finish the core.
I saw you, the office managers, who tried to keep the circus sane, while the ringmasters roared.
I saw you, the project managers, who tried to keep the startup engine running, while juggling hot potatoes between the office and the field.
I saw you, the interns, who came for experience, and got overloaded and harassed, and thrown into the deep end to sink or swim.
I saw you, the executives, who tried to turn the startup into a regular company, only to get cut off at the knees by the grey-faced board and the smell of Swiss secrecy.
I saw you, the freelancers, equipped with only a week of training and no protection, then sent out alone to face Fortune 500 clients and pretend you were experts at your job.
And I saw you, the marketing team, that kept getting hired and burned and fired around me. I saw you struggling to comprehend as the CEO kept changing what the product was, as you were ordered to spend thousands, then tens of thousands, on Google Ads that nobody in their right mind ever clicked.
I saw you all.
I never could have saved any of you from the mobbing or harassment, and I am sorry that was how we met. But I am glad we met, because you were decent people all.
I hope you are getting better.
*All names are fictionalized.