I was bullied out of my job. Lockdown is a chance to end toxic work culture
A view from Sue Higgs

I was bullied out of my job. Lockdown is a chance to end toxic work culture

What does it say about our creative industry that so many people have a story of being bullied in the workplace?

I’ve been in this industry for many years and for much of that time I’ve harboured a secret. I recently posted an article on LinkedIn in which I shared my very personal, traumatic experience. 

I was bullied out of my job at a big agency nearly a decade ago by a man in a senior position there. Before leaving my job, I was close to having a breakdown. Even though I complained about his abusive behaviour and asked for help, nothing was done and he continued to work at the agency for many years after I left. 

While I was working with this person, I was systematically broken down, sidelined and made to feel worthless. Every day, he would ask me why I bothered coming into work and told the account people that I was useless and warned them not to work with me.

I wasn’t the only one he bullied. HR had a huge dossier of complaints about him, but they told me they could do nothing because he was too senior and had won awards. The stress took a major toll on both my mental and physical health. But I had to stick it out for as long as possible, because I was a single mum with three kids depending on me. I needed the job. I had no choice but to put up with the abuse.

At the time, a person in HR advised me to document the bullying in a diary. It makes me very sad to read that diary now. Even though I’m not going through that horrible experience any more, I still bear the scars. I was a very confident person before this happened. I’m less self-assured now and I find I question myself much more. 

The Covid-19 confinement has encouraged a lot of introspection, and with the Black Lives Matter protests going on and all the inequalities and injustices being exposed round the world right now, I felt inspired to call out this unacceptable behaviour that still goes on unquestioned in many places of work.

After I published my LinkedIn post, I was shocked by the huge number of people who responded saying that they had similar experiences at work. So many people in advertising messaged me with their stories – brutal, raw tales of lives destroyed, mental-health issues, anxiety and self-doubt. I had messages from many women, but also a surprisingly large number of men too. Everyone had one thing in common: their lives had been made a misery by someone in power and it was all hushed up. The more I read, the more I realised just how vast the problem is and how it’s seen as some accepted norm.

But what does this say about the industry we work in? 

Our entire value system is wrong. If we are not holding people in power to account simply because they have plaudits or influence, then we have created a seriously toxic culture. How can an industry that cites creativity as its currency sanction such brutal behaviour? 

Telling my story has felt liberating and cathartic. And my current employers have been incredibly supportive. But what I really want is an end to the system in this industry that enables bullying.

HR needs to be a safe space for people, but it also needs complete independence from senior management and the ability to take decisive action against those who abuse power, regardless of who they are. We need to call out this abuse for what it is. Now that I’ve found my voice, I won’t be silenced and I won’t stop until this behaviour is curbed.

This issue is even more critical now that there is such economic uncertainty ahead. People will be more afraid of speaking up in case they lose their jobs and their livelihoods. The onus should not be on the victims to fight their corner. It is the responsibility of the powers that be at every agency to ensure there is zero tolerance of abuse at all levels in an organisation.

The lockdown has given us a chance to reflect on our lives and what we want to take forward into the future. We could be using this as an opportunity to eradicate a toxic behaviour that has long been ingrained in the DNA of our industry. Let’s start putting the value on the leaders and colleagues who raise the people around them up, not those who grind them down.

Sue Higgs is group creative director at Grey