Blinding Light: This came when I sat down across from the Marketing consultant and she said “People have to like you”. At that moment I felt I was seating, strapped down in a chair in a darkened room, across from an Interrogator who was flashing a bright light into my vision. I had previously set up as a Project Manager and waved my Microsoft badges about previously, with a web site that trumped up my expertise. “Hey, I could write up outcomes, measure ROI and deliver on KPI”. “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But I had to look for Marketing support because there had only been a trickle of enquiries and no clients after three months of setting up shop! My mind snapped back to the consultant facing me patiently, watching the clock and assured of her payment. I grimaced at my predicament of hiring a consultant to use my watch and tell me the time!
I explained, in a condescending matter, “I have a product that will increase their efficiency, save them money and enable business growth. It’s strictly business proposal, so why make it personal? There and then, during the ensuing conversation, I had the flashback that took me “Down the rabbit hole” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Down the Rabbit Hole: My path to self-employment has been strewn with road blocks ever since I graduated from University. I remember my shout of Eureka when I returned to Lagos with the Golden Fleece (Portable PC) in 1986 and declared my IT gateway. Of course, parents and family scorned me and I had to back track and enter the corporate world working with established Multinational firms. After a decade of this, I once again jumped ship and set up a consulting firm, which promptly failed within two years.
Being the same arrogant, stubborn person I promptly bailed ship and took flight back to United States, with a diversion in the UK to retrain as a Microsoft Engineer. My stint as a contractor in the USA was short-lived because, within a year, the Twin Towers were hit in September 2001 (9/11) and then I rumbled back to the UK to start all over. Obviously, while I was running on the treadmill of missed opportunities time had not stopped. “Time and tide wait for no man” – Geoffrey Chaucer
The span from 1985 to 2001 was a yawning crevasse of failure. So I buckled up to face the new challenge of Ageism in the IT sector, scrounging for a job in my forties. However this was to no avail so I settled for an Administrator role in the UK Civil Service. And this was where I became unstuck!!
Civil Service : I settled down in 2002 to the Civil Service, not realizing this aspect in my life would herald the cataclysm. My first position was in the Operations Research Department working in an administrative role to support a team of Analysts who were highly qualified, minimum qualification being a Master’s degree in a quantitative subject. This was my remit since the field was close enough to my engineering background and I could up-skill myself in the eddy of the workflow.
I was lucky to have good line manager, who shared my traits about goals and objectivity but the warning signs, which I did not see, appeared when he gave me a downgrade from 4star to 3star on my second half-year assessment. Since we had a good relationship, I was able to query him and his answer was that he would have given me a 4star but was advised to grade me 3star by the Division Head, due to my lack of ‘soft skills’. Well this feedback bounced of my thick hide and I simply went about working even harder.
Hey, everyone will use a willing task horse so I was assigned more responsibilities; my line manager backed my grant to study at the Open University. I also passed the promotion board on the second attempt, due to great support and encouragement from him.
Civil Service Reality: I was thrilled to be promoted but the consequence was that I had to leave Operations Research and move into the Business Division as an Executive Officer. And there began my travails. Apparently the backbone of the civil service is made up of those who enter with GCSE, basic qualifications, and through the years (decades!) work their way up the grades.
This also alludes to the ‘The Peter Principle” which states that a person who is competent at their job will earn promotion to a more senior position which requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for their new role, then they will be incompetent at their new level, and so they will not be promoted again.
Fast Track: The dilemma was that I was too ambitious for my own good. I was soon plotting for another promotion to Higher Executive Officer and stepped up to HR to follow the procedures. My new line Manager was a bulwark of establishment, having worked his way up grades and tenured after 30 years! Well, he quickly put obstacles in my way and I soon found myself the “lawn tennis ball” when I was bounced between himself and the Department’s Director. I got poor appraisals and had my probation extended and my protests to HR were squashed, although the Divisional Director actually had to step in at one stage. I belatedly found out that my promotion was unexpected by establishment standards, since many staff actually stay on the same Administrator grade till they retire!!
Bullying: I was certainly glutton for punishment and despite all of bullying, took up arms by taking up a grievance. Hah, I was to find out that the departmental Trade Union chapter had been intimidated by the HR Director and cases were squashed at infancy. But, I was made of stern stuff (then) and full of righteous indignation buoyed by ‘stiff-necked’ (friends would say rigid!) character. “I am sore wounded but not slain, I will lay me down and bleed a while And then rise up to fight again” ― John Dryden
Well I burrowed my way through the Staff Handbook and then found I was actually fighting on two fronts, both the Trade Union and the HR Division. It took a over three years, but I escalated my grievance and the case found went into gear when, after following procedure, single-handed wrote an email direct to the Chief Executive Officer to “cease and desist”. It certainly helped that I had grown up, reading the legal textbooks, that my father had strewn in the study and so my ultimate was on my disability issues.
Heart Attack: Yes, after three years the day came when I was slumped over at my desk with an arrhythmia heart condition!! A staff member, had to drive me home so I could make my way back to my doctor (General Practitioner) and confront her with my condition. I had made complaints the past year of having dizzy spells and feeling exhausted but she had simply taken my blood pressure and found it normal. Better late than never, I was referred to Barts NHS, and specialists arranged for me to have surgery. I also had to go on medication and met up with specialist when my condition after my surgery, led to my having “myofascial pain syndrome”.
Glutton for punishment: Nevertheless despite surgery and sickness, I still fought my case, and by this time the CEO and HR Director had acceded so an External Investigator was called in with the agreement of Trade Union. I did my research and found that i would be “stitched up” since the Investigators were paid by HR Departments and cases showed that claimant (myself) would be found guilty and disciplined after the findings!! “Truly I was born to be an example of misfortune, and a target at which the arrows of adversary are aimed.” ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
Court Case: Faced with an Investigation that was one-sided, I fell back on my “quasi-legal” background, since back in Nigeria I had actually shared office space with an Oxford University trained lawyer’s firm. So I ditched the Staff handbook and dug deep into understanding employment tribunal procedure rules. I found out that I could file the case myself, as a layman, so I honed my research and then prepared and filed my case.
The status quo, at the time was that I was in employment and the usual way litigation worked was that the claimant would leave the employment under claim of harrassment and then file the case. But I was then made of sterner stuff, and looking the gun in the barrel, filed my case at my Office desk.
Just about this time, the External Investigation was being wound up and the findings made me culpable! Hence, it was one brief spell of euphoria when my tribunal claim was received at HR Division. I felt the after-shocks, because the Trade Union staff who had derided my case came swooning about my Office desk!. Hah, but I knew that this was now a fight to the finish and the establishmen would be all-out.
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad” – Euripides
Showdown: A few weeks later, while recovering from the (non-invasive) heart surgery, my case was called at the Tribunal. Following procedures, I actually applied for two-days leave from the Office to go and testify against them. I simply love the English Legal System!! At this time, I had actually appealed against my Trade Union Office and they had sent my case to Trade Union National who stated my case did not deserve a lawyer but that they would send a TU Representative. On appearance, the Civil Service was represented by a team of Four, and even the Judge took askance at the demonstration of iron fist.
The Four being Barrister (Queens Counsel), Barrister (Legal 500), Department lawyer and HR Adviser. Surfeit to say that the legal wrangle would fit another chapter, but alack I had to withdraw my case at the second hearing after receiving legal consideration from the National trade Union Office. CASE CLOSED, but I was still employed, though sick and feeling effects of arthritis symptoms, so I crawled back to my Civil Service desk, and changed to part-time employment pattern.
Riding the Tiger: I had now been thrust in this downward spiral of fighting the establishment over four years and with the Court case settled, I was stuck at a corner desk and used as a trophy to show the futile result of fighting bullies. The Department followed procedure and I was kept under strict watch also reasonable adjustments were carried out due to my disability. However, the psychological damage was really tough, because by this time I was also attending counselling and close to crack-down. And then it happened cause -effect in my personal life led to a melt-down and I knew I had to get out of the Civil Service. “Riding a Tiger and Not Being Able to Get Off ” – Qí Hǔ Nán Xià
However, to resign with out benefits after the long arduous battle would have been a Pyrrhic victory, so I summoned my last efforts and played war-games with the establishment. Being more diplomatic this time and using an ally, I played a scenario to get out by establishing that I could actually start another (frivolous) court case this time claiming harassment on racial grounds. By this time the CEO and HR Director had enough, terms were agreed and Solicitor drew up a Settlement Agreement and I was paid off. The amount was basically equal to my One years salary equivalent but I was relieved to be off the back of the Tiger!!