Red flags and the toxic topless boss

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Katie Kelly is a B2B Marketing Consultant with 15 years experience and founder of No Wanky Bollocks.

Biggest fuck up

Strap in for a bumpy ride through fuckup town. 

The following is an account of the many stories I’ve kept quiet about for years. I originally started No Wanky Bollocks to tell these stories, but fear got the better of me. After nearly seven years, I finally thought fuck it. 

My biggest fuck up is being colour-blind when it comes to red flags. All the signs are there, but nothing registers. I cheerfully walk through the front door, sit at my new desk, and await the inevitable. 

I’ve wondered why I’m like this. Why haven’t I learnt? Did I do something terrible in a previous life? Do I think it will be a challenge? Am I a masochist? Answers on a postcard, please. 

The following experiences have tainted my view of work and played a large part in how I see the world. Several of these events/themes have also occurred in my personal life, reinforcing the idea that this is just how things are. 

I’m scared to write this. While I’ve told family and friends or warned close colleagues, I’ve never publicly said this stuff. I sent the draft (originally much longer) to my parents, and they suggested I save these stories ‘for my autobiography’. But it’s this “keep quiet” culture that lets bad behaviour thrive.

I’m scared because of what the people in these stories might say or do and what you might think of me. But putting it out there feels cathartic and unburdening. These are my experiences from my perspective.

So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of some defining career moments where I repeatedly miss those red flags.

The toxic topless boss.

This boss interviewed me in a vast empty office with a group of young women sitting on beanbags around him. The women didn’t speak throughout the interview, and I don’t think I was introduced to them. At the end of the short interview, the boss offered me the job but told me I had to accept it there and then, or the offer was off the table. No going away to think about it. 

At the time, I had a first-stage interview lined up with an agency I really wanted to work for, but I decided to take his offer. Within the first week, I knew I’d fucked up. 

Said boss would strut around topless after coming out of his private office with his PA, who gave him sports massages. He would decide on a whim who our new department head was, much to the surprise of the incumbent. He insisted on doing shots during meetings and told us we should come to his house for a movie night. Another “perk” of the job was the booze trolly pushed around the office by young women.

I quit in my second week. 

The good boss who stood by and did nothing. 

While in a meeting with the office landlord and my boss, the landlord slapped me on the arse and told me to “be a good little thing and get on with my work.” I shudder, thinking back. I stood there in silence, and so did my boss. I said nothing and just walked away. I couldn’t believe what had happened. My boss later told me that it wouldn’t be good to call him out for his behaviour because he had cancer. I ensured the rest of the staff knew about this incident and told them not to be alone with him. 

The jokers.

I dreaded going to work. Comments made about me made me feel like shit, but everyone laughed. I felt like I was back at school, trying to keep my head down to avoid getting picked on. But it was always ‘just a joke.’ Couldn’t I take a joke? 

Like the jokes about how fat and ugly the client was, or the time a senior staff member did blackface in the office ‘for a laugh’, or when a stripper arrived as a “funny surprise” for someone’s birthday. I’m still disappointed with myself. I did and said nothing. 

The scary boss.

This boss had a temper. He yelled at everyone and banged his fits on the table. 

The boss had asked me to take on a new remit. I said yes, but only if we could agree on a salary increase as it was a lot more work and responsibility. He said no pay rise but still wanted me to take on the role. 

So I decided to hand in my notice which was petty in hindsight, but I’d had enough. Another senior manager came to me to say the boss was now willing to offer me a raise on hearing I’d handed in my notice. But by this point, I had made my mind up and said he was too late.

Hearing this, he called me into his office. He paced around while ranting at me while I sat there.

He told me I didn’t know how lucky I was, there were fridges filled with free drinks, and I got great work benefits; what more did I want?

To this day, that sentence still makes me laugh.

I held onto the tears until I was back at my desk and broke down. Having seen what had happened, HR came over and tried to apologise for his behaviour and suggested that rather than working my notice, I leave there and then. So through tears, I packed up my stuff, said goodbye to my colleagues and left.  

I could go on. But you get the picture. 

These bosses were all people with power. Wealthy, some muli-millionaires, MBEs, board members, charity founders, and respected by the industry. Some have since gone off the rails; others are facing trial, but most continue to run companies, business as usual. 

I feel broken and a bit damaged from these experiences. And while I know these things happened, I can’t help but think did I make a mountain out of a molehill? How come other people worked in these places without trouble? Did I lack a sense of humour? Was I just not good enough? I’ve made mistakes at work. Did I deserve it? 

My biggest fuck up is putting myself in these situations time and time again.

Rant 

Generally speaking, I think the idea of a three-year degree at university is outdated. Sure, it might have been the perfect pastime for the ancient Greeks or a necessity for modern-day science students. But for marketing graduates?

It doesn’t take three years to explain Maslow’s hierarchy and learn what PESTLE stands for. It’s too long, cripplingly expensive, and doesn’t prepare people for the real world. 

University doesn’t teach you practical skills like how to moderate an online community, how to brief a designer, or how to measure marketing campaigns. They don’t teach you how to be a good manager or how to network.  

I wish we could rethink how and what we teach the next generation of marketers and ensure university isn’t the only option available. 

Personally, I’d rather hire someone who took the initiative to promote themselves, network and get a job where they learnt the ropes. They are likelier to have the skills and experience necessary for an entry-level marketing job than someone who went to university. 

Employers and recruiters are the ones who call the shots here. But we should all consider the implications of insisting candidates have a marketing degree. Who are we excluding? Why are we insisting the next generation starts out in debt—and for what?

Useful advice 

Get therapy (or a coach or whatever). Even if you don’t think you need therapy, everyone can benefit from having someone offer objective feedback on how you respond to situations. It helps develop emotional intelligence.

Through what I consider the most wankiest moment of my life—getting a ‘life coach”, I realised how negatively I talked about myself, how it impacted me, and the impression it gave others. I thought it was polite to be a bit self-deprecating. It wasn’t until it was pointed out to me that I realised every word out of my mouth was negative. No matter how wanky I thought it was, it really did change how I act and behave for the better.

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