It is March 2020 and I am currently sitting at my desk in my home office. I have a hot coffee beside me, my husband is working in the next room, and my children are happily and wildly playing around the house. Sounds simply idyllic, right? Not so much. We are all home, not of our own choosing, but because we are self-isolating, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread across the world. We are all social distancing, staying home and trying to keep everyone we know and love healthy and safe.
This has been a time for perspective. A time for shifting priorities. Who do we want to be? What do we want out of our lives? Am I doing what I love? Am I happy? Again, while my life is not perfect, the answer is yes: I am happy. I am healthy. And I am content in my career. I get to go to work (well, hopefully I will be going back to the physical office shortly!) and surround myself with thoughtful, intelligent and supportive people. Not everyone is so lucky.
I have been a lawyer for almost 10 years. After practising at a firm for many years, I decided approximately two years ago to leave private practice. I loved what I did and I loved the people I worked with. But looking back (though admittedly I did not necessarily realize it at the time, or at the very least the extent of it), I was subjected to years of workplace harassment and bullying. Most lawyers are.
The harassment can come from senior partners, from co-workers and especially from clients. It is almost inevitable in legal practice; you are expected to be at the beck and call of senior lawyers and clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. After years of this, I had a panic attack and decided to quit my job, without the comfort and security of another job lined up. I just knew one thing: I deserved to be happy.
A colleague told me I was being irresponsible; that I should go back to work and look for a new job while I was there (she also told me to never use semicolons, so clearly I do not always listen to her!). She was not wrong. I knew I would have no income for a period of time. But I knew that I could not do it. I could not take one more minute of being hounded with multiple phone calls asking where I was at any given hour of the day. One more instance of being criticized. One more suggestion that I should not have any more children so as not to disrupt my colleagues and my clients’ cases. One more minute of disrespect. I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. I did not endure any physical harassment or abuse. But it took an emotional toll on me, nevertheless.
While it might have been scary, and it might have been fiscally irresponsible, I am glad I did. I learned a very important lesson: I do not have to tolerate harassment and bullying. And neither do you.
So as I sit here now, with my coffee not as hot as it was when I began writing this, I hope that others can be strong and daring, and stand up to the bullies and harassers. Workplace harassment and bullying is so commonplace, it permeates every aspect of our society. It is the secret indignity of the legal world. But it is not limited to our world.
I recently read a new book by Denise Koster, Refusing to Accept the Unacceptable, The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of Workplace Bullying and Harassment, which chronicles the stories of people who have endured bullying and incivility as well as those who have lost their lives through violence at work. Everyone should read it. And everyone should take the time, while we are currently social distancing and self-isolating at home, to think about who we are as people: are you the harasser? Are you the harassed? And more importantly: what are you going to do about it?
Rachel Goldenberg is a content lawyer at LexisNexis Canada.
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