How to Deal

Rescuing Your Reputation from a Prior Employment

By Lily Garcia
Special for The Washington Post
Thursday, September 24, 2009; 12:00 AM

I work in a field where word gets around about people. I also work as sort of the right-hand person for my boss. I've been hearing lately that neither my boss nor my organization has a good reputation. Nothing illegal, but definitely I've heard through the rumor mill that past consultants say to others that my boss is "crazy" and difficult to work with, and doesn't know what he's doing. The thing is, I can't disagree. Which is why I'm looking for a new job.

But given that my field is small and I'm mostly known through my organization I'm very worried about my reputation. I know it's very unclassy to sandbag either a present or immediate past employer to outside parties. But I'm in the process of working with a consultant now who I've heard told others she won't work with us again... although she could be a very good contact for me. How do I go about separating my reputation from that of my boss? I don't want to go around saying things like "He doesn't know what he's doing, but I sure do," although I would dearly love to say that!

A great way of separating your reputation from that of your boss is by looking for another job. Given your boss' well-known shortcomings, I am guessing that turnover for your position has been relatively high and that people watching from the sidelines of your field don't spend much time wondering about the reasons.

Unless you have adapted your work style to reflect that of your boss, I am sure that the unfortunate consultants who have worked with your organization are easily able to tell you apart. And they are probably wondering how long it will take you to finally make the decision to leave.

I have found that the tendency in narrow fields is not to ostracize people who have been victimized by unstable leaders, but rather to welcome them as refugees. The motive behind this practice has more to do with rivalry than with altruism, but the outcome should make you feel more confident about your job search.

I don't think that anyone is going to eliminate you from consideration based upon your past employer. However, you should beware of interviewers who try to goad you into divulging uncharitable war stories. When you are asked why you are leaving, you should not hesitate to say that the job was not an ideal cultural fit or that you would work more productively with a different style of leader. But you should resist the temptation to blame your departure on problems with your boss or your organization or allow the conversation to devolve into a gripe session. It might satisfy the prurient interests of some interviewers to hear the inside story on how badly your boss is doing, but it will tarnish your image as a dignified and professional applicant.

Meanwhile, you should start to network with current and past consultants and others in your field regarding potential employment opportunities elsewhere. Establish your own relationships with these individuals outside of the context of your job. Let them know your qualifications, including the many things you have surely managed to accomplish in your current position despite your obvious challenges. Since you do work in a narrow field, you should be careful not to cast a net so wide that the news of your job search prematurely reaches your boss. At the same time, however, you can leverage these communication networks to your advantage in ensuring that the right people become aware of your interest.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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