Your partner hates you

February 6, 2014

It’s not just mild dislike. It’s loathing. Our five tips could save you

Photo: Shutterstock

You’ve landed yourself a supervising partner from hell. Perhaps you even think it’s your fault – you smooched up to this partner because he’s one of the best. You landed a job on his team. And it was all great. Until he started making your life miserable.

You can’t seem to get anything right. When he’s not outright ignoring you, he’s making a point of criticising your work. He sneers at your ideas and belittles you in front of the rest of the team. He’s suggested to others that you’re to blame for mistakes he’s made. Damn it, he’s even complained about your choice of pen.

You’d say it was bullying although you suspect it’s typical behaviour of many law firm partners (is it bullying if they’re arseholes to everyone?). You’d even start looking for another job, before he destroys your reputation, but you fear you’ll just find yourself in the same boat elsewhere. What do you do?

Is it bullying?

Workplace bullying in the legal profession is nothing new. According to Law Society research conducted a couple of years back, as many as one in six solicitors claimed to have been bullied at work.

Nor are law firms immune to discrimination/harassment claims. A well-publicised case last year was that of Truro firm Follet Stock, which was taken to court by female solicitor Kate Baker for sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal. As part of her claim, she described a firm with a ‘culture of bullying, oppression, and lack of good systems and support for the employees.’

The firm settled the case out of court. And then ended up folding altogether in late 2013 after it failed to pay an outstanding tax bill. The two may not have been in any way related but it’s probably fair to say the discrimination claim didn’t help.

As for your situation, it may be that you have a nightmare partner who really does have it in for you. His behaviour may too reflect wider problems in the firm, that he is taking out on you (the managing partner stamping on his back, for instance). The tricky bit, though, is deciphering whether that’s the case, and whether the behaviour is unreasonable or whether you’re just being a bit over-sensitive.

Bullying in itself isn’t illegal. If you wanted to bring a claim against your firm, you’d have to do it for harassment or discrimination related to sex, disability, gender, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation.

But what if your partner’s behaviour doesn’t neatly fit into any of these categories? What if he’s just an arrogant old bore who thinks toughening up is some kind of invaluable rite of passage to one day filling his gargantuan shoes? Some would say that this pretty much sums up most of the partners you’re ever likely to meet.

Don’t worry – do this

As a first step, let’s assume the latter. In this case, here are some coping strategies that might help:

  1. Understand the nature of partners. They’ve got big egos. Don’t bruise them by suggesting that their work, views or behaviour is anything but exemplary. Keep your head down until you’re a big fish yourself.
  2. If a partner blames you for a mistake they’ve made, assuming it isn’t career threatening, then lap it up. At least in the short term. Being a junior means accepting you’re a handy scapegoat. If you’re lucky your partner will appreciate your loyalty and reward you in good time.
  3. Try and ally yourself to other associates in the team. Make a point of joining them down the pub or at other social gatherings. This will give you a better sense of whether everyone is in the same boat (in which case there is a comfort in numbers), or whether you really are being singled out for abusive treatment.
  4. If it’s really bad, see if you can align yourself with any other partners in the firm with a view to shifting to another team.
  5. Keep your eye on the goal – dealing with this partner may be painful but if it gets you where you want to be then ultimately you too will look back at it as nothing more than a difficult rite of passage. You’ll be stronger for making it through – although try not to join the cycle of abuse to become a nightmare partner yourself.

Pressing the eject button

If, however, all of the above techniques fail to work, then it may be that you are contending with a more serious bullying issue. If you feel that you have been isolated for particularly unfair treatment that is prolonged and persistent, and that is threatening your career and/or your health, then it might be time to speak up.

Initially, you could start making a record of your conversations and interactions with the partner concerned. This might help clarify in your own mind whether the treatment is unreasonable, or give you a basis for an official complaint. You should talk to your HR team, who should have a grievance process in place – and who should be keen to help if only to protect the firm from a damaging claim.

And ultimately you can consider taking your firm to court for discrimination/harassment or unfair dismissal if it gets that far.

The reality is, though, that most associates are not going to take this more drastic course. Despite increased awareness of workplace bullying issues, the fact is that most employees don’t want to take their employers to court, for the damage it might cause to their career prospects.

It is unfair, but if your partner is an out-and-out bully who is stamping on your career and generally making your life hell, then it might be time to brush up your CV. Life is too short to stay in a job that is making you miserable. And there are other firms and partners out there who are a whole lot nicer. Honest. CP

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