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Home | Got a Minute | Bullying and harassment | No. 115 – I feel like a punching bag at work. My boss wants me to toughen up

No. 115 – I feel like a punching bag at work. My boss wants me to toughen up

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12 July 2023

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: a junior staffer dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour at work, a notice period conundrum and an older trainee looking for a mentor.

I’m a junior lawyer working in a government role, where I deal with police and other lawyers. While most are decent, there are times when I experience passive-aggressive behaviour. It’s not necessarily personal, but it’s not OK either. My manager thinks I need to be more resilient, but I’m tired of being a punching bag. What should I do?

No one should feel like this at work; it doesn’t matter what your job is. Your manager seems to come from the old school thinking of “I had to learn to deal with this, so you must too” but that fails to take leadership responsibility for addressing workplace behaviour which is no longer acceptable. I think you are well within your rights to raise this issue, if not with your manager then with someone else in your organisation, and seek support.

I would start the conversation by reinforcing how much you love the work you do and how you hope to have a long-term career in the industry. You can then offer examples of how the way you are being treated is causing you to question your role altogether. I would reinforce to them, as calmly as you can, that you are not someone who is unable to manage this kind of behaviour if it arises as a one-off. However, you can say you have boundaries about what you are prepared to put up with day after day, and treated disrespectfully in an ongoing way, is not sustainable. Focus in this conversation on asking them for strategies on how to end this behaviour, not just survive it.

I signed an employment contract that says I have to give six months notice. After giving the job a fair go, I’ve come to realise the company isn’t for me. However, it’s tricky looking for a new job when I have to give extended notice. What should I do?

Under your contract, you are obligated to give six months notice before leaving and depending on your seniority, many prospective employers will understand this period of time needs to be factored in to your start date. That said, six months is on the longer side of reasonable notice periods, and you might be able to come to an agreement with your employer on a shorter timeframe once you find another job. Just be aware, if you were to get a job with a competitor company, your current employer is less likely to waive any notice period.

I’m late in my career but have a desire for change. I have undertaken appropriate courses to qualify myself academically, but I also require training under a mentor. How would potential employers feel about mentoring an older trainee?

It’s a common misconception that mentoring is only for younger people starting their careers. We never stop needing mentors, and the older we get, the more we perhaps need to be mentored by those much younger than ourselves. Hopefully potential employers will see the advantage of having someone with your life experience, and new academic qualifications in the field, join their organisation.

The fact you may be older than others being mentored is unlikely to be an issue to a mentor, provided you show yourself eager and willing to learn. And don’t forget, in a mentor/mentee relationship it is for the mentee to make sure the relationship works. Prepare well for your sessions together, be clear on the kinds of questions you would like to ask and the areas to cover. Many mentors volunteer their time, so make sure you are respectful and do all you can to help the mentoring relationship succeed.

Send your questions about work, careers and leadership to You will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited.

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