“If I were you I’d hire a bodyguard because people are going to show you what it’s like to live in an uncivilized country.”
It was clear by her tone that my colleague wasn’t saying this out of concern for my safety but rather a desire to see me taught a rather violent lesson.
She wasn’t the only one.
The previous day her husband, who also happens to be an employee at the company, left a comment below a recent blog post I’d linked to on Facebook.
“I was in States 3 times. Nothing special. Shitty food and fake smiles.
You crying like a little bitch in your story, that what I see)))”
It must have been special enough that you came back twice, I wanted to reply, but I thought better of it and said nothing.
More outraged comments followed. One person threatened to follow me home from work and beat me up, others demanded that I leave the country and never come back. Clearly, I had hit a nerve.
Unable to sleep, I had gotten out of bed at 5 am the previous Sunday and written the post that had started it all. Titled “Leaving Civilization”, it was about my experience on a flight from Denmark to Ukraine and consisted of me wondering why I continued to return to an environment and country that had often felt hostile to me.
I used a good bit of hyperbole in an attempt to be humorous — writing, for example, that it would have been better for the plane to crash in the Baltic than land in Ukraine. Whether my attempt at humor failed is something I’ll let you decide for yourself by reading the original post here.
Later that morning I asked my girlfriend— a Ukrainian — to look it over. She read it, told me it was fine, and later that day I posted it.
I had written numerous posts expressing similar sentiments before, but this one had managed to earn the ire of nearly all 500+ employees at the social games studio I worked at in Kharkiv, Ukraine. On the bright side, I had never before had so many readers.
I had also never had so many Facebook friend requests. All those people who had failed to add me on Facebook when I’d joined the company nearly four years ago — or who I had deleted in the meantime — were now clamoring to be my “friend”. I could sense their desperation, their desire to join the melee and condemn me so that they could in return receive a pat on the back from their colleagues for doing their patriotic duty.
“Friend” requests indeed …
Other Ukrainians I knew came to my defense, but every negative post came from someone who worked at the company.
Was I as terrible as all my colleagues claimed? As an American who’s lived abroad for more than 7 years, I’m more than used to hearing people criticize America. This doesn’t offend me, I often end up even agreeing with much of it. But in a fledgling democracy ridden with corruption where the legacy of the Soviet-era is still evident, both in conversations with the citizenry and on the skyline, perhaps it’s only understandable that people are a bit more sensitive.
That’s not to say that everyone who worked with me was eager to land a blow. Some of my colleagues messaged me to say that they agreed with me, but were too afraid to say so publicly. As the week went on, it became all too evident which way the wind was blowing and, as befits a former Soviet republic, dissent would not be tolerated.
On Friday, five days after publishing my post and three days after the negative comments started rolling in, I was called into my boss’ office. During our conversations that week, no mention of the offending post had come up. So when he sat across from me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that this would be my last day, I was surprised, to put it mildly.
You have managed to piss off the entire company.
Everyone now hates you.
You haven’t breached your contract, but people have come to me refusing to work with you.
I listened to him and my mind flashed to the David Lynch movie I had recently watched. Would I soon wake up and find this to be nothing more than a dream or drug-induced haze?
But I didn’t do drugs.
When I did manage to regain my composure I asked him whether it was legal to fire — errr, let go of — someone for writing a blog post.
A blog post that:
- Did not mention or allude to the company
- Did not mention or allude to any individuals at the company
- Did not talk about work or my job at all
“I can fire you anytime, for any reason.”
I was informed that had it only been one or two people who had complained, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
But it wasn’t one or two people. It was “the whole studio”. Or, at least, the two people who mattered most: the head of the Localization Department — the department we worked most closely with — and the colleague mentioned at the top of this piece who, not-so-coincidentally, also happens to be the sister of the general manager of the entire studio, the daughter of the Head of Security, and the wife of the fellow who works in the Event Department and left me that first negative comment.
In offending her, I hadn’t just pissed off the wrong person, I had pissed off the wrong family. If the first two things Ukraine is known for are mail-order brides and radioactive soil, the third is nepotism.
But was it the blog post that angered her, or something else?
A week earlier, I had refused to accede to her and another team lead’s demand to give money to send a Ukrainian child to Spain to compete in a chess tournament. The boy’s chess skills had been touted in a segment on local television in which he appeared alongside the city’s major. The company, always eager to prove how charitable its employees were, had agreed to front the costs of sending the boy to Spain.
This was by no means a first. There were numerous events throughout the year where employees were expected to give money. Chipping in to buy a colleague a present for their birthday or company anniversary was tradition here, as was buying presents for local orphans at Christmas. It had been made plain to me in my time at Plarium that contributing towards these events was compulsory, for our department at least.
On occasions when I had protested this forced charity I was derided as being cheap. Nevertheless, I had still participated in every birthday, every Christmas drive, but sending a child to Spain to play games was too much.
Could my refusal, which clearly irritated the husband-wife tandem who partially ran the studio, have laid the kindling for the blaze that would soon erupt? Only two days later I’d published the offending post, in which I’d expressed opinions I’d given online and in person on numerous occasions before, and been purged for it.
Back in the U.S.S.R. indeed.
While the sentiment was the same, something else was different. I had told my boss a couple of weeks prior that I would be leaving the company. I hadn’t handed in my official resignation letter yet or settled on a precise date of departure, but I wanted to be back in the U.S. in time for the holidays.
Arriving at the decision to leave Ukraine after nearly four years is one of the things I alluded to in my controversial post. The knowledge that I was leaving had leaked, and people were now especially eager to see me off.
That I was essentially bullied out of the company was a rather fitting end as I had been bullied from quite literally the day I’d started. Being told by my colleagues that I was “slow”, that I had “shit ideas”, and that I was a “fake American”, had stung at first — then it became routine. The only real question I was left asking myself was, why had I stayed so long?
It was the fear that kept me. The fear that, having never previously worked a desk job before, that they were all like this. The fear that, if I left before a year or two had passed, it would look bad on my CV and make it difficult to find anything else.
More than that, after being told so many times that I was stupid and incompetent, I started to believe it. I started to believe that I was worthless and that working at a social games company in a Soviet backwater was the best I could do.
Other colleagues, more forthright than I, had spoken out and left when no action was taken — disgusted by what was ultimately a toxic, cult-like atmosphere. I had been urged numerous times to leave as well.
But I had stayed.
It became a kind of endurance test. How much could I put up with before I finally broke? Sometimes I even thought I liked it. I’d convince myself, for a few days anyway, that these people were my friends. But I was only lovable so long as I remained a punching bag that didn’t strike back. The moment I stood up for myself, the moment I said no more, the gloves really came off.
One colleague who had worked at the company for three years was finally fired after multiple warnings, largely for verbal abuse. I had been one of those to complain, as I was the primary target of her abuse. After she’d left, my boss told me that I shouldn’t blame myself for her being gone as there were a number of other factors in the decision to release her.
I’d rather have heard that yes, it was her treatment of me that had been the catalyst because no one should speak to anyone, much less a colleague, in the way that mine spoke to me. But that wasn’t said and things improved only nominally from that point — she was gone, but only one of the Hydra’s heads had been chopped off.
My former company, like many social games and IT companies generally, makes a point of offering their employees an office that they can play in. There’s a game room, a cinema, a chef that provides free breakfast and dinner to anyone working outside of normal office hours.
Employees can wear shorts and t-shirts to work. They’re given branded clothing. There’s even a slide connecting two floors.
Maybe it isn’t a surprise that a company that encourages employees to dress and act like 12-year-olds fosters an environment where employees really do behave like they’re in middle school. Maybe toxicity is endemic in the games industry, or maybe it’s allowed to prosper only because people are afraid to speak out for fear of being purged themselves.
I know that in writing this I risk being written off as just any other disgruntled employee. And I am disgruntled. I spoke up too late. But I hope that by writing this now I will be helping to eliminate some of the toxicity that is not just endemic at my former company but at other companies.
While I believe in the old adage that you shouldn’t “burn your bridges behind you”, there comes a time when going back would be worse.
Some bridges must be burned.