On being ... bullied

By Ingrid Sapona

One of my consulting services is creating seminars. A professional association recently hired me to create one on fraud. My client knows full-well that I’m not an expert on fraud but, based on our discussions, they clearly have confidence that I’m capable of learning about it and that I have the experience and skill to create a seminar on it.

This week I set out to start my research for the seminar. When I’m working on a topic I have little knowledge of, I prefer more research to less. I immerse myself in the subject and then distill the information down to create the seminar materials.

My client had offered to help me gather information, or put me in touch with experts they work with, and I took them up on the offer. One of their suggestions was that I contact another association that deals with fraud (let’s call it Association #2) and they gave me a specific name of someone there (let’s call him Mr. Charming).

The woman I spoke with at Association #2 was very nice. When I told her what I’m working on and the information I’m looking for, she confirmed that Mr. Charming would be a good resource and she gave me his number. She also mentioned that Association #3, which I had not heard of before, may have useful information. I wrote down her suggestion and thanked her for her help.

Then I phoned Mr. Charming. I briefly introduced myself and, before launching into my spiel, asked if it was an ok time to talk. He said it was, so I explained that I’m putting together a fraud seminar for Association #1. He immediately asked when the seminar is being given. I explained that I don’t know, but that my work is due at the end of March.

He then told me Association #2 is presenting a panel on fraud at its conference in September and he complained that Association #1 makes lots of money on its seminars and that the seminar I’m working on had better not be competing with Association #2’s September conference. Hoping to allay his concerns, I explained that what I’m working on is for Association #1’s members only and, as far as I know, it’s not meant to compete with anything Association #2 does or is doing. (I mean, really -- if my client was planning something that would step on Association #2’s toes, why would they suggest I contact Association #2 for help? Of course, I bit my tongue.)

I then tried a different tack, explaining that what I’m working on is a seminar, with lectures and group exercises, which is quite different from a session at a conference. Then, quite argumentatively, he told me that the topic “doesn’t work as a seminar”. We seemed to go around and around, with him simply contradicting everything I said. Because I felt I was representing Association #1, I took great care to remain polite.

At one point he mentioned two other sources of information (one of them was Association #3) and asked if I’ve looked at what they’ve done. I innocently -- and honestly -- said I hadn’t because I wasn’t aware of them before that morning, but that I certainly would check them out. He then ripped into me, saying, “You’re clearly not qualified to be working on this if you haven’t even heard of those sources!”

But his tirade didn’t stop there. He then said, “You know – in my business I deal with fraudsters all the time and I think you’re one. My call display says ‘I Sapona’, but that means nothing to me and the fact that you obviously know nothing about this subject is highly suspicious. I think you’re a fraud.”

What do you say when someone says that to you? I paused and then suggested he look at my web site and I began spelling the URL. But before I could finish he said, “I’m not interested in looking at any web site – I want the name of someone I can call at whatever place it is you claim to be working for!”

So, I calmly repeated my client’s name (which you’d think he’d remember, having expressed his concern that Association #1 is trying to muscle in on Association #2’s turf) and gave him the direct dial number of the executive director, as she was the one who hired me. He repeated a few digits of the number, as though he was writing it down, but I doubt he’d ever phone – it was all just part of his bullying me. I politely thanked him for his time and hung up.

When I finally calmed down, I thought about what a miserable guy he must be to behave that way. It reminded me of folks I worked for as a temp one summer. The group I did secretarial worked for did collections on auto loans. When they weren’t out in the field doing repossessions, they were on the phone talking to “deadbeats” (as they generally referred to them) and they were all very aggressive and nasty. They were some of the most miserably unhappy, negative people I had ever met. I always wondered whether it was their job that made them that way, or whether that type of work attracted that type of person. I couldn’t help wonder the same about Mr. Charming.

Thankfully, I’ve got On being… to help me deal with incidents like my run-in with Mr. Charming. And, having written this, I do feel a bit better. But you know what really makes me feel better? The realization that Mr. Charming’s bullying is just his way of compensating for his really small … mind.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona