While chatting with a number of women about their torrid work experiences, I had to fight my own rising anxiety and anger, remembering some traumatic experiences many years ago. It is appalling that in 40 years nothing has changed. There are some corporate bullies – high fee earners beloved by clients – who reign supreme, trampling over anyone who has a different voice or a greater intellect.
This article focuses on women, but this doesn’t mean that men lower down on the professional ladder don’t get bullied as well.
More specifially, this article covers the experiences of women who work for professional firms in the legal and accounting space, where bullying and sexual harassment is rife.
This is not an exaggeration. An investigation by the Financial Times uncovered “a culture of fear at the world’s leading accounting firms”, as outlined in an article titled Betrayed by the Big Four: whistleblowers speak out.
Some women are still suffering from their experience, and I was not able to reach out to them. Others are fearful of having their careers curtailed, and wouldn’t risk chatting with me. Some matters are already in the legal pipeline and are therefore off limits.
The partners who bullied the women I spoke to are well-known.
These partners are high fee earners, and even if they are forced to step down, will be given the time to move to another firm, or into the corporate space, where they will maintain their position in society.
As for the women who speak out, who lay a complaint with the human resources (HR) department, or who take matters further to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), they will inevitably be forced to leave immediately.
No matter the quality of their work, no matter the fees that they bring in. They will be ghosted, and their future careers ruined.
Many victims will not make a fuss, and will leave at the first opportunity, never mentioning the abuse, not even in an exit interview. HR departments have already demonstrated how they will push the victim under a bus and rather protect the firm.
In reading the accounts of the victims below, one would be forgiven for thinking that they suffer from a persecution complex and are non-performers. Not so. They are clever, strong women, and leaders in their field.
When threatened, and gaslighted, anyone can crack.
One victim insisted that she is not a victim, and that she is over it. I asked, really – after you were forced to leave the career you loved?
A common modus operandi in building up a firm is to snap up someone who has built up a sizeable practice in a particular speciality, take over all their clients and contacts, and over the next year belittle them in meetings, shun them and ghost them until they are forced to resign.
It is not unusual for a senior partner to take over a new large client from the person being victimised. Or even all the clients.
You may be strong, but …
Putting up a fight can be time-consuming and harrowing. The partner will be able to send top attorneys to the CCMA, no doubt paid for by the firm. After all, the firm has to protect its image and its fee earning potential.
Is this a tax-deductible expense for the firm? Of course not.
If the firm is paying the legal fees of a miscreant, is this a taxable fringe benefit? Oh yes it is.
The men who bully or sexually abuse are narcissists, confident, outgoing, lacking ethics and empathy. They abuse because they can.
These men are often protected by their clients, who are very often in their social circle, part of the same old boys’ club.
Speaking up will result in the victim being ghosted by corporate SA. Apart from having their names rubbished in corporate circles, they will also become synonymous with ‘difficult to manage’.
Over drinks at the golf club or one of those long lunches, it is so easy to gaslight these women – ‘she is such an underperformer’, ‘her clients are unhappy’, she has a ‘misplaced sense of entitlement’.
Another victim put it this way: “If she tries to fight back, and go to the CCMA, the firm would close ranks and cover up … the woman who raises her voice will get squeezed out”.
Another said: “In short, I was bullied, demeaned, degraded”.
Women’s Month activities should include standing up to toxic workplace culture.
It is somewhat galling that these very firms make a fuss around Women’s Day and Women’s Month, proclaiming to ‘celebrate the successes and strides that women have achieved in the workplace’.
The firms to which this applies should put an end to this meaningless virtue-signalling, and instead address the issue of their toxic culture.
Before they trot out profiles of women who have succeeded, perhaps they should look at the women who have resigned, or were forced to leave without any notice period.
“In a nutshell, it was a nightmare.”
Amy (not her real name) joined as a partner, was given no clients when she arrived, and had to source her own. With no assistance from her colleagues.
When she did find some clients, she was not allowed to visit them. One of her best clients was told not to contact her.
When a senior partner left, she was given all his clients – but she was charged with all the write-offs and all the revenue was recognised under his name.
The firm she joined “is a boys’ club, they play golf together, visit each other’s game farms”.
She was told that staff complained about her, but when she went to HR they knew nothing of this.
“It was a racist, sexist environment. I was a tortured soul. I was booked off for a month.”
After a lengthy period of not being able to take leave due to pressures at work, Emma (not her real name) put in for leave. The manager was sarcastic, accusing her of only taking leave when it was convenient to her.
Emma said the manager was always second-guessing her, an error would be amplified, and the knives were out constantly. She was loudly sworn at and accused of being useless at a company function by a very senior partner.
When asked about HR, Emma said HR is there to protect the firm. “It is complicit in covering up.”
Emma questioned how these men can have mothers, wives and daughters, but in the workplace they put this aside.
She asked if it is necessary to run courses on “how to survive the male ego”.
If a woman outperforms the men, the knives come out. It is worse if she earns the highest fees.
Some men bully because they can – and the stronger and smarter she is, the greater the satisfaction in demeaning her.
Not all victims go away quietly. Some have fought back, at a great risk to their careers. But they will rise again.
Slowly but surely, this toxic culture must be brought to an end.