A PR office sometimes resembles the set of a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" production. There are good, competent supervisors who pitch in to help when needed. Those are the Dr. Jekyll pros.
Unfortunately, our business has too many supervisors without the experience or talent to help communicators in need. They are the Mr. Hyde overseers. Screaming at employees and threatening to fire them are the tools of some of these incompetent managers. Whether they realize it or not, these Mr. Hyde supervisors are verbally harassing staff. Though this is much more difficult to prove than physical, religious, race or gender harassment.
Good PR jobs can be difficult to find. So, many PR pros complain to colleagues about verbal harassment, but meekly accept this bullying.
If the harasser brings in money for the firm, or is a drinking pal or lackey of someone in management, there's a good chance complaints will be filed in the Looked Into folder and dropped.
That’s why it’s important for communicators working under Mr. Hyde-type managers to keep a detailed record of verbal harassment, as you'll see below.
Let's assume you like your job and want to stay. One way to handle verbal harassment is arranging a face-to-face with your supervisor.
But before you do, prepare. (Caveat: The steps below should not necessarily replace legal advice.)
Do the following prior to your meeting:
- As noted earlier, keep a detailed, day-to-day diary of how you are treated and why you think the abuse is unwarranted
- Keep a detailed record of your contributions to the firm
- If verbally abused in front of others, record their names
- Ask the abuser for specific suggestions about how to correct issues
- When an executive you represent compliments your work, ask for a note saying so; cc it to top management and ask H.R. to put it in your file
- If you have a good relationship with a company you represent, tell its executives why a 'good-work' note may help your situation; ask if it can be cc’d to agency brass
- Some clients are not permitted to write notes singling out a PR pro; so, keep a detailed record each time someone at the company you represent compliments your work
A Frank Discussion
After you done the above, or most of it, schedule that frank discussion with your supervisor. If the abuse continues during it, ask for a transfer.
If, after the discussion you receive no satisfaction, consider taking your detailed history of abuse to top management. But before you do, consider:
- Spending a few hundred dollars for a lawyer's advice. Make sure it's an attorney who represents employees in disputes and is well known in labor relations. It likely will cost you more money than going to a garden-variety-do-everything lawyer, but your company will take you much more seriously if the attorney is well-known.
- Joining others on your team who are abused in filing a combined complaint to management.
Preparation for Top Management
And as above, preparation is critical. For instance, never complain to senior management until you are certain that you have enough evidence to support your claims. You’ll probably have only one opportunity.
Depending on how the C-suite responds, you’ll know whether or not it thinks you are valuable. If management doesn’t take your situation seriously, it’s probably time to think about another job.
And very important: Don’t sulk while deciding what to do. If you have any hope of convincing management that you are correct, make certain to continue working at a high level. And if you decide to leave, do so gracefully.
If you decide to test the waters elsewhere:
1) Explain your situation to friendly companies and media contacts and ask if you can use them as references.
2) After you land another job tell now-former client contacts how much you enjoyed working with them. Begin with a phone call and follow up with a note. Your former employer will not be pleased, but clients appreciate receiving thank-you notes.
Ours is a small world. You might want to use friendly clients as a reference in the future.
Arthur Solomon was SVP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and a journalist. He is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. Reach him: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com