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  • Writer's pictureTaural Rhoden

An Abuse of Power


“I’ve had it! Enough!” Jeska shouted. I sat back in my chair, shocked at the sudden outburst.


“The absolute nerve. I’ve had it.” She stood up, slammed her laptop closed and was struggling to pull her coat off the chair.


Everyone in the room was dangerously still, watching.


“I’m sorry,” I said, leaning in to make eye-contact with her. “perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding.” Something had gone disastrously wrong, and I was not sure what it was.


“No, I won’t have it. I will not have it.” She was looming over me in rage. “I am the client, and you will do as I tell you. Full Stop. Do you understand me?!”


I nodded, murmured agreement and for the next 10 minutes I continued nodding and agreeing as Jeska tore shreds off me.


I was the focus of her withering scorn, her anger, her frustration. I was the villain; the bad guy and she was done with me. None of the other 15 people in the room said anything during her tirade.


I would like to say that her sudden, violent outburst aroused a deep-seated empathy in me, that I had a genuine concern for her well-being for having lost it so thoroughly. It didn’t. I got angry. But I couldn’t do anything about it, which made it worse.


Had Jeska and I been acquaintances, friends, or just two people meeting on the street, it would have gone differently. I’d have had more latitude to be able to speak up for myself, to try to calm her down, and failing that, to have walked away. But that wasn’t the context of the situation. This was a workplace event, where I was the services provider, and she was the client.


If I raised my voice in response to her in front of her team, or walked out of the room, there would be significant consequences to me personally. I’d almost certainly be removed from the project. It would impact my yearly performance review. My reputation in the company would suffer. I’d have fewer opportunities. I’d likely be forfeiting a sizeable commission which I’d worked hard for, and which my family needed.


Beyond the personal impact, standing up for myself would also likely have a negative impact to my team. They’d worked their hearts out in the past 3 months doing amazing work. Their combined efforts could be binned if I walked out. There’d also be reputational damage to my firm if I responded.


Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the many rippling impacts to me, my colleagues, and our firm if I defended myself. But she was fully aware that there was a natural power-imbalance between the two of us and she was all too keen to use it as a cudgel to mistreat me.


So, I sat back and took it.


My anger turned to embarrassment and then to humiliation by the time she’d slammed the door to the conference room behind her. It was utterly surreal, and I was left feeling lightheaded. What had just happened?


The anger and shame this memory from several years ago still feels fresh. Professionally, it was an inflection point, changing my trajectory in my firm. Personally, it’s a memory that comes back in times when I’m feeling low.


Ironically, Jeska’s academic research and thesis dealt with institutionally ingrained power imbalances. Philosophically, she was against people in positions of power abusing those without. On paper, she was a champion of equity.


Neither she nor I came out of the event unscathed. The day after this event, I was removed from the project. It impacted my performance review. My reputation in the firm suffered and I lost the sorely needed commission. I left the company within the coming months. Jeska left the university and a promising career a few months later. The whispers about her persisted within the team, long after she left.


For better or for worse, our workplaces have ingrained power imbalances. Many at the managerial level use these imbalances in ways that are morally questionable. An undertone of fear is the ambient sound of the toxic workplace, and none of us escape unscathed.







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