Thursday, August 31, 2017

"When You Find a Hill to Die On": A Tale of Workplace Toxicity

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A US librarian recently approached me about doing a guest post on the topic of workplace toxicity. I was honored, especially since I've been reading and writing more about workplace culture in my attempt to continue to foster a healthy working environment for myself and my team. They wish to remain anonymous.

CW: Sexual harrasment.

Can we talk about toxic expectations and working environments in public libraries? You know, the ones that tell librarians that we are meant to live for our jobs and that being a librarian is a sacred calling that must be honored by keeping our criticisms of the field very kind and positive.

Public libraries have a long history of building on a foundation of unhealthy cultures and they tend to be breeding grounds for harmful concepts in the workplace like a culture of poor boundaries and expectations of personal sacrifice. It creates an unspoken pressure to perform tasks outside your job description, to work up to and through burn out, and to shape our personal plans, like vacations, around the needs of patrons. It makes us more likely to sacrifice our personal time to work more than 40 hours a week. It sets us up for occupational martyrdom and there are very real dangers that lurk around its edges.

I have experienced an extreme version of these issues and, as a natural result, extreme consequences. When we’re reluctant to see problems and to raise concerns with our employers, they gain a false sense of their progress as leaders and they can easily start to think of poor working conditions as normal and necessary. This was my disaster and it led me to a place where, in addition to a lot of other minor abuses, I was expected to place myself in physical danger without complaint. I was a solo librarian (with backup from paraprofessionals) for a system made up of small town and rural branches and, as part of my position, I sometimes needed to work alone in a building. This standard of solo librarians is still so common in rural and small libraries, but even some urban libraries are built on the idea that staff should face physical danger and unhealthy working environments for the sake of work and our patrons. Maybe you haven’t faced working alone, but I bet you can relate to feeling the pressure to give endlessly because, well, you love your job don’t you? You want to provide the very best for your community, right?  (For more on this concept, check out Fobazi Ettarh’s blog post where she coins the term vocational awe.)

I feel so strongly that these kinds of toxic cultures need to be addressed that I want to share my personal experience with trying to do just that.

Exactly one year ago, I was leaving a job that I loved dearly. On some level, I’d always known that I was giving my job more of myself than anyone should have to in order to earn a living. I was frequently working more than 40 hours a week, I was scrutinized if I asked for more than a few days off or wanted to take a break from programming, I was expected to take on much more physical labor than was comfortable or realistic for me, and I had to work every single Saturday. But working alone was the most extreme abuse I endured with a smile on my face. My job was my life and that, coupled with my supervisors’ rewards for taking on all of this, made me feel like I really shouldn’t question the way things were.

As a result (and I’m skipping a lot of details here), I went through a really terrifying experience of being sexually harassed and feeling threatened while I was alone in a building with no other patrons around. At first I didn’t really process what happened because I came out okay, but over the course of a couple days, I digested just how easily it could have turned out differently--how easily I could have been assaulted, injured, or even killed.

I didn’t mean to talk to my teammate about it, but I did. She was a woman I came to trust more than anyone else in my life and I told her the story in a “guess what weird thing happened to me” kind of way. I thought that we would vent about it together and we did, but we also did more.

As I told her the story, our conversation gradually moved to her experience working for the library. She began to tell me about her long history of working completely alone as a branch manager and as the weight of that hit me, I was speechless. I felt this horrible, horrible shame wash over me because I was her supervisor and I’d never thought to ask if she experienced danger like this in the past. I felt like, on a woman’s level, I’d failed her in some way. I asked for details because I wanted to understand and share that burden and she went on to tell me about men who cussed her out, patrons who were seriously injured, multiple occasions of being sexually harassed, finding the library robbed, and generally experiencing a total lack of support.

She was someone who meant a lot to me and this conversation changed me. It was a point of no return. Until this event, I was wearily, but willingly, sacrificing the needs and safety of my body. When I heard another person talk about experiencing the same thing for almost three decades without anyone even so much as asking her if she was okay, I freaked all the way out. I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t be another silent martyr and I would not enable that employer or any other to continue abusing its staff. The cycle was going to end with me or I would quit and leave them with the consequences.

Acting on the information I had was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It left me emotionally raw for months and even the joy I felt in working with beloved patrons took on a kind of aftertaste of pain. Part of me wanted to go back to the feeling of ignoring the problem and focusing on the positives so that I could continue to serve my communities in relative peace, but I kept my mind on future librarians who would inherit my position and I felt a duty to them to do all that I could.

I began by sending a very firm and unequivocal email to my supervisors. I let them know that my safety was something I couldn’t compromise and I wouldn’t back down. I was disappointed that our library system hadn’t sought a solution earlier and I wouldn’t continue to be a passive part of abusing staff. As a solution, I asked my supervisors to begin planning for the addition of a second staff member to the branch where I worked alone.

When they didn’t respond with, “let’s do that,” I did what everyone has a right to do. I took my concerns to human resources and described what was happening, what I needed, and how I wasn’t getting it from my supervisors. They sympathized and listened, acknowledging that they would feel the same way, but advised me to continue to try to compromise with my supervisors. There were follow up sessions and calls for months as I tried to continue communicating my stance.

Around this time, our county manager surveyed staff about ways to improve our working environment. As you can guess, I responded frankly about how we needed to change our expectations on staff and make sure that everyone’s boundaries and safety are prioritized. He took me seriously, inviting me to lunch and hearing me out in person. He followed up on a few of the issues I raised, but since my supervisors weren’t forthcoming about requiring staff to work alone, he only came back to me with confusion and said I should try to compromise with them.

Finally, after a series of emails that didn’t get me anywhere, I proposed meeting face to face with my supervisors. (Looking back on it, the fact that they didn’t immediately want to meet with me this way, preferring instead to email me non-solutions, tells me a lot about how much they wanted to face the issue.) Our meeting could only be described as icy. When they finally said I could schedule help at the branch when I expected to be alone, it was like I’d taken something precious from them and they were mourning. I knew it was time for me to find another job, but I had peace in knowing that I’d done everything I could short of going to court.

I left the library around three months later, after interviewing with a few library systems and asking them, specifically, about staffing structure and how much they valued safety. When I did accept a position, it was with a system that required at least two staff in a branch at all times and said they placed a high priority on safety.

Upon arriving in my new library system, I went through a sexual harassment training that would have made all the difference if my former supervisors had gone through it. It taught supervisors how to respond to victims, how to support them, and why it was critical to address and try to prevent it from happening again. It underscored the importance of having backup staff and training security guards to respond seriously.

 Do you know how that sexual harassment training came into existence?

A young woman once worked for my new employer, not so long ago, and when she was sexually harassed, her manager blew her off. She was brave, though, and she took the issue to human resources. She eventually quit because of her experience, but this library system learned from that experience and decided to grow and do better. It’s still getting a system ironed out, but it’s in place and every employee knows that they have a right to protection and to reporting because of her.

There are so many untold stories like mine and like what that young woman went through. There are so many people who have been made unsafe by their library employers and they’ve spoken about it and tried to solve the problem. We’ve been called troublemakers, given the cold shoulder, held back from advancement opportunities, criticized and blamed. Many of us quit jobs. Communities all over the country are less vibrant because the librarians who loved them weren’t safe there and had to leave.

Isn’t it time to end the cycle of expecting us to put our bodies on the line in libraries? In 2017, can’t we prioritize safety and boundaries for all staff? 20 years from now, when I have a young co-worker who is learning from me, I don’t want to tell her that the library always has abused people and always will. Do you?

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