“So what you’re saying is that this is not about my commitment to my job or the college, my performance in my position, or my attitude?” The final question was asked after I danced around others, being careful not to trap myself. “This is a question of whether or not I can accept these terms as explained in this email.” My hand pressed against the printed page on top of my stack, fingers tense and pushing against the cool sheets, as if the palm of my hand were trying to pull away from the insulting words directed towards me. Around the room sat the HR director, my supervisor, and my VP. After rescinding my contract, insulting my intellectual abilities, insinuating that I do not produce adequate work, and attempting to manipulate, bully, and intimidate me, there were no other words from the other side of the table, except, “Yes.” It came down to a decision I would have to make to sacrifice my integrity for job security (although for how long would be uncertain). I was given until the end of the day to make a decision.
You kind of expect things to be different. It was somewhat surreal in that it was like watching a movie. Some stubborn worker bee sticking up for their rights against a bunch of people that don’t want to get sued. An underdog that’s tried to do the right thing against an entity whose ethics are overshadowed by legality, proper wording, signatures, and betting on the broke underdog to be unable to afford to go to court. Ethics don’t have a place in contracts and agreements. At the climax of our conversation that morning, I hoped for someone to walk through the door and say, “Yes, I hear you. This is wrong. We’re sorry. Let’s make it right.” Or for my supervisor to look me in the eye and tell me I wasn’t crazy. Or for my VP to trade in her empathetic eyes for a power pose, and tell me how this is so wrong and she won’t stand for it. But they couldn’t. And the attorney present made for a reminder to them how sympathy could result in consequences. No hero ever came. I couldn’t even be my own hero.
I walked out of the building and into the hot sun on that July afternoon, wondering what I would have been working on after lunch had I been able to concentrate. I didn’t know who I should call first. My therapist? No, she may not be my therapist much longer if I lose my job, home, and health insurance. I’m in conservation mode now—I need to make every move count. I call my father. “Hi, Pa.” I say, with a tone that surprisingly doesn’t let on to the emotions I have going on.
“What happened?” He asks.
“Well, they basically said quit or suck it up.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“I think I want to come home.” I didn’t even hear myself say it. I didn’t know if that’s what I was going to do. It just came out. I only knew it came from me because he said, “Then come home.” I’m so lucky to be in my position, all things considered. I had a choice. I told him I still needed to think, and I would let him know tonight what happened. It was good to know that I at least wouldn’t be homeless next week.
Looking over everything, my contract was rescinded pending my agreement with something I did not agree with, and so I assumed my contract would not be renewed. I would have liked to stay at SVC, but it was flat out unhealthy. Mentally, spiritually, professionally, personally, emotionally, physically damaging. Therapy interfering. Life interfering. That evening I saw clearly that the events that led to my departure weren’t a result of the last week, but it was an answer to tearful prayers over the past few months, I suppose.
Things were wrong for a while. I was working too much. I let myself work extra, but it started off not too bad. Beyond my 40 hours, I didn’t mind doing things that contributed to relationships with my students. I still had boundaries, but I was willing to be more flexible. Inside the office, I enjoyed staying after the front door closed for the day to work on things that would improve our processes for students, or things that would make department assessment easier. After a while though, working extra was expected of me, and it was a nightmare. I was constantly overworked. At first I thought I just needed to change things with me. My first year, I worked too much, and it’s because I didn’t say no. I was excited to take on new tasks or projects, wouldn’t mind attending a committee meeting on someone’s behalf, and loved helping out when it came to meeting with a student for whatever reason. I started to cut back on that, and tried to deny tasks that I did not need to do. But it didn’t really work as well as I thought it was.
As a recovering procrastinator, I know the best way to figure out time wastes is by doing a time audit. Over a year ago, I did. I found my basic tasks were eating up a ton of time, and I started looking into ways to maximize my time, cut out unnecessary wastes, find tasks to help me focus, and used other strategies. Things were still off. I needed to say “No” even more, and so I did. Still working more than necessary. Starting July 1, 2013, I started tracking my hours of work long term. When I totaled them up in April, the number I saw made me cry. 71.5 hours a week on average, including in my vacation time, holidays, weekends… I was working two jobs. Additionally, I took more sick time in that 10 months than I had ever taken ever in my life. My migraines were back almost weekly. I had panic attacks. Dizzy spells. Looking at this calculation of my time usage, I felt… robbed. In that 10 months, I had tracked, also, when I said “No” to colleagues. More than once I was told, “Just get it done.” When I said, “I don’t have the time,” I was told to “Find the time,” “Make the time,” or, “It’s Student Affairs, you’ll find time.” And when I tried to say I did not have the ability or time to add on a new responsibility to my job, with a laugh from the speaker I was told, “Other duties as assigned.” It was wrong. It was not funny. My life was a joke. It was a toxic environment. These comments are so much of what is wrong with the mindset in our jobs.
I complained to my support system, but drove them crazy when I had a response for every suggestion. They offered helpful tips that I’ve tried, and I tried again. They sent me articles to help me re-frame my mindset. They prayed with and for me. But nothing really helped. Eventually, every one of them told me that I need to talk to my supervisor, and I told them that talking to my supervisor wouldn’t help. A few suggested talking to HR, but with the political climate at my institution, that seemed an even worse option. I turned into a paranoid weirdo. Eventually, my therapist just bowled me over with tough love and for about 2 minutes in one session, only said “What’s the worst that could happen?” to anything I said. I just had to bite the bullet and have the conversation with my supervisor.
There was a point where paranoid speculation became the truth. For months and months, I explained conditions to my support system that I don’t think were right. After role playing with my therapist, and then chickening out twice, the third time provided a perfect opportunity, and I took the chance on discussing I grievances with my supervisor. The heartbreak was that I ended up being right about it all: I explained everything, and I was told that nothing could be done about it. Nothing. “There’s no money in the budget… We can’t hire someone else… Things have to get done… There are constantly new initiatives that require more from everyone… You’re the one putting the extra pressure on yourself… Everyone has a lot to do…” But not everyone was doing the time I was, and not everyone had the same expectations…When you realized I was right about it all, there was no glory in this vindication. It stung and burned deep in my chest, and it expelled itself in hot tears streaming down my face.
So the question then became, “Now what?” There wasn’t much more from my department’s end of it that they could do, they said. I was told, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I just had to manage my anxiety, which didn’t really work out too well. I took my vacation times, but got panicky whenever I had to come back. My migraines became more frequent. It took me over an hour to muster the strength to get out of bed in the morning. I was nauseated in the office. I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. I couldn’t even think of anything work related outside of the office or I would spiral. I applied for other jobs, but my job applications were fruitless, and while my father said I could always move back home and work for him, it would be at least a year until he could have something official and steady for me. I felt trapped. And so couple weeks later I was asked to agree to something that wasn’t right, and in a weird way, it was an answer to my prayers. Not a door, but a window out.
There’s a lot to more to say about this situation, but I think I’d just like to wrap up by sharing a few lessons…
- Negotiations aren’t just for job searching. If you want something more, ask for it. If you say you have too much on your plate, and you need some taken off, ask for it. If it can’t be done, then maybe consider leaving (if you’re able to). As scary and uncertain unemployment is, working for something that drains your soul is unsustaining.
- No matter how much you love and enjoy something, it is entirely possible that it can also be harmful to you. It’s amazing that I could have that conversation with people in rough relationships, but couldn’t take my own counsel. Don’t let the good times get in the way of your health or blind you to reality.
- No amount of money can make up for the spillage on your full plate. No money can fix lost conversations with your friends, or not being able to negotiate time off because of mandatory work days and missing a birthday party. Not that I was offered any additional compensation, but I had to ask myself what it would take to stay, and not even doubling my salary would’ve made it worth it after mucking through my last week.
- Don’t be a fucking martyr. Seriously. I wish I could go back and tell myself to quit bitching.
- Document everything. If you’re feeling worried about how things are going, make sure you keep track of it. Keep anything and everything that’s related to your job. Basically, do assessment work like you would for your job, but about your job. (There are apps to help with this)
- If they take any negative action towards you, leave. My situation would have been a lot different had the other party sympathized instead of threatened. Treated me as a valued member of a community instead of something disposable and replaceable. In the grand scheme of employment, we’re all replaceable, but it doesn’t make it ok to treat people poorly, insult, or threaten them. You don’t want to work for someone like that. Do you?
- Access is real. I am so lucky to have had a place to go. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but overall, my scenario had options, and some people aren’t so lucky. This whole thing made me think about how sometimes there are no options. There’s nowhere to go for some people when they have to leave their apartments. I would not have been able to sustain the life I had just on a mental level. But if I didn’t have anywhere to go, I wouldn’t have had a choice. It made me think a lot about the students in a situation that may parallel mine. When some students struggle, they can transfer or take a semester off, etc. Others, though, can’t transfer for whatever reasons—money, health, sanity—and are trapped and then become our at-risk students that usually don’t make it to attend another year. If there’s any reason Higher Ed needs to take a role in social justice issues, this is it.
- Don’t take it personally. I felt trapped, humiliated, and sometimes felt pushed out, but I can’t blame the other side of the table or the absent heroes. There’s not going to be someone to rescue you or advocate for you or make it more comfortable to you when you’re speaking up. That’s ok. You can’t expect other’s to put themselves on the line and at risk for your cause. It’s a lot to ask, truly.
I can see that my tone may sound bitter or angry, but in truth, I am feeling grateful. I had the opportunity to work with some inspiring students that were one of the only sustaining things about my job, I met my partner there, I met lifelong friends there, and I felt like I was a part of something when I was there. The founder of St. Vincent College called to his brothers to join him in his mission, “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward!” and I tried to always remember his call. It became my time to go forward from my old institution, though I will continue to keep my growth and journey close to my heart.
As always, thank you for reading.