Lessons Learned: You can’t cure crazy with kindness – The Story of Cindy

The first time I moved to the Los Angeles Area from Northern California was a ridiculous adjustment for me. Moving from Texas to San Francisco had been off-the-chains culture and sticker shock but I fell in love with the Bay Area almost immediately. The breathtaking beauty, the friendly people and all those diverse cultures and lifestyles in a 60-mile radius won me over in no time flat. I only left the Bay Area because the tech industry had gone bust and jobs were few and far between. Me and my three best friends went from spending $100 a person for Friday night dinner to potluck and a DVD on Sunday afternoon. We were all laid off and competing for the same 2 jobs. After one afternoon when I sat with 72 other applicants for one job, I knew I needed to do something different. After some research, I sent out resumes in SoCal, lined up interviews and headed on down Interstate 5. (For the record, I hate that drive. Hate, hate, hate.)

I was hired to be Senior Recruiting Manager and Associate Human Resources Manager at a large entertainment/publishing/media company that had just been purchased by Rupert Murdoch. (Should have been my first warning) Anyway, I reported to the Director of Human Resources, Cindy. From our first interview, I wasn't 100% comfortable with her. I felt she was only telling me half the story and she was slightly off. But they met my salary requirements and I really, really needed a job so I ignored the voice of reason telling me to run the other way. Very quickly, the friction started. She wanted to be sure I knew who was in charge. Nothing I did was right even though my work product kept showing up in the CEO's hands. (I took to putting my intiials in a watermark in the footer of everything I did). She picked arguments when no one disagreed with her. She started out as generally unpleasant. I just stayed out of her way. My saving grace was that my office was way on the other side of the floor from hers and we didn't have to interact face-to-face.

Her terrible behavior got a whole lot worse very quickly. Cindy was a screamer. Yes, as in yelling at grown-up folks. She screamed at the top of her lungs at her staff. People cried. I remained stoic and tightlipped. That seemed to make her more angry. She was a crier as well. She would sob in the middle of meetings. She decided to move my office next to hers and give me more responsibility (read: she decided she didn't want to do her job anymore and I should do it for her while she took the credit). She came in late (her daughter kept running away), she left early (her husband was threatening divorce); she went through administrative assistants like Kleenex. The joke became whether they would come back after lunch. Some of them didn't even make it past the first coffee break.

I decided that the best way to handle Cindy was to play nice, just kill her with kindness. I bit back more words, re-wrote more emails, ran more interference with the executives and the team. I came in early, I left late. It was to the point that I was literally running 80% of the department. We had Wally in Benefits and Lu in Payroll but everyone from the six subsidiary companies were coming to me for all human resources issues. I was hiring, training, doing employee relations and writing company policies... to name a few things. I was swamped, stressed, and miserable. My hair thinned and broke off. I slept fitfully and I ate constantly. I looked and felt like twice warmed over shiggitty.

Let me illustrate Cindy's kind of crazy. She would kick my door open (yes with her foot) and scream at me for having it closed. In the middle of a conversation, she took her arm and swept everything (computer, phone, etc) off my desk to the floor then wrote me up for having a sloppy workspace… it was very Mommie Dearest up in there. We shared a common wall and when she wanted to speak to me, she would bang on the wall with her fist repeatedly until I showed up in her office. She flung a stapler at my head, missed and it broke a window. She threw the three hole punch at me in a meeting, I dodged and it hit Wally. He needed stitches in his cheek. I started documenting EVERYTHING all the time.

I dreamed of running her over in the underground parking lot. And by dreamed, I mean I planned where to rent a non-descript car with cash (no ID needed), where to dispose of it "after" and figured out the timing of the security cameras on levels B & C of the parking garage. I even had an all-black outfit and a blonde wig picked out. Just. In. Case. I always woke up with a smile on my face after that dream.

The story that truly indicates Cindy's crazy: I was at home with the stomach flu to end all stomach flus. The first day she called me 32 times in nine hours. The next day, I unplugged the phone. Around noon I heard frantic banging on the front door. It was my building concierge. Cindy had called my apartment building (12 times) and threatened the concierge until he came to tell me I had to call her back RIGHT then. That was followed by a messenger bringing me a laptop and a fax machine with a note: you can work from the toilet. People, you can NOT make stuff like this up. I started sending out my resume like a fiend.

A next clue to leave (quickly!) came when I received a collect call from Cedars-Sinai hospital at 7:30 am on the morning we were doing Open Enrollment. Wally, the Benefits Guy, had been admitted with chest pains and diagnosed with acute anxiety disorder brought on by stress. He resigned by faxing a twenty-five word handwritten note sent from the Cardiac Health Division fax machine: Michele, Can't do it. She will kill me. She is crazy. Get out if you can. I'm never coming back. Good luck. Call me… Wally. Cindy had a replacement there before noon. By 5 pm, that person had quit. Last I saw that poor girl, her long blonde hair was all over her head, tears were streaming down her face and she was running for the stairwell – didn't even want to wait on the elevator. The next replacement started the next morning. She had been out of work for eighteen months, had worked with Cindy before and knew what she was getting into.

The last straw came after my vacation. I had just spent seven glorious days in Maui. MAUI! The most relaxing, stress-free place on earth. I was tanned, healthy, and at peace. I took an extra two days after vacation to ease my mindset into going back to that place, to that woman. I was driving on the 110 passing Dodgers' Stadium when I suddenly felt light-headed. I flushed hot and then cold and couldn't catch my breath. Pains were shooting around my chest. Not a good thing at 70 miles an hour in rush hour traffic. I made my way over to the shoulder and dialed my older brother – the trauma surgeon. I told him I was having a heart attack. He told me I was not since I was dialing and talking and sitting upright. I described my symptoms and he told me I was having a panic attack. Impossible. I don't panic. I'm Ms. Cool in a Crisis. I'm not the sort to have panic attacks. "And yet, that is what you're having." He said before telling me to go to a doctor… immediately.

I called in sick and went to see my physician at Cedars-Sinai. He gave me a survey to test my level of stress. After reading the results and hearing that I was fresh off a Maui vacation, he prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds and told me to get a therapist, a new job and a relaxing hobby – not necessarily in that order. What?! Stress, Depression, Therapy? I ignored that and decided to self-medicate instead. The after dinner glass of wine became a half a bottle. Mix that with anti-depressants and you are basically just walking around fuzzy and druggy all day… but hey, you're not stressed! I only made it a week on the wine and pill diet before I knew that wasn't the answer. Blissed-out zombie was not for me. I started planning my exit.

I spent a month gathering evidence, interviewing for other positions and lining up my allies. Six weeks after the panic attack, I faxed in my five page resignation later detailing every single thing she'd ever done, peppering the letter with catch phrases like "hostile work enrivonment", "discriminatory behavior" and "malicious acts". I faxed the letter to her, the CEO, the CFO, the Board of Directors, the head of the legal department and just for good measure - the California Labor and Workforce Agency.

Two weeks later I was contacted by the company's attorney but I had already filed my "that chick is crazy" paperwork along with affidavits from Wally, three former admins and our doctors with the State of California. The state investigator came to my home and was so traumatized with what I told her that she cried. I had to pour her a glass of wine so she could go back to work. Long story short, I received a "sorry you went through that" check from Cali (thanks!) and a "please don't tell anyone what she did" check from the company. I took two weeks off and started my new gig at twice the salary.

She, on the other hand, took a "stress leave" and was eventually given a package to never return. She was forced to undergo psychological testing and was diagnosed bi-polar (no, really?). Since I had named her in state employment claim documents, she had a rough time getting work in the Human Resources field and ended up raising horses somewhere near Fresno. I feel for the horses.

Today's lesson learned: Listen to the voice telling you to run the other direction – it's so much easier to go with your first mind. Oh and crazy is crazy 24 hours a day… no matter how pretty you smile at it.

Any crazy co-workers, bosses to talk about? Hostile work environments? Thoughts, comments, insights? The floor is yours.