How to Deal
When a Former Manager and Friend Bad-Mouths You
Thursday, October 1, 2009; 12:00 AM
I have a very odd problem. Here's the situation.
In 2007 I was recruited to a financial services firm by a former manager who was also a personal friend. Early this year, I was one of 30% laid off from my division. I was assured by both my manager/friend and the director of the team that the lay-offs had nothing to do with performance.
I quickly found a short-term contract position. My former manager/friend and I stayed in touch and had lunch a few times. A few months later, I was interviewing for a permanent position at another company and she provided an excellent reference. At the same time, I saw a job announcement with my old team. I phoned my former manager/friend and my former director. When the director returned my call, she said my friend was aware of my application, which I interpreted as "don't call her." The director told me she thought that people who had been laid off could not be rehired for six months. I sent her the pertinent language from the severance documents showing that we were eligible for rehire. She seemed very excited. Another member of my old team applied also. Neither of us heard anything further.
When I received an offer from another company, I sent both the director and former manager an email in case they wanted to talk to me. The director responded with a very nicely worded "No, thanks." I took the position with the other company. I didn't hear from my friend.
About a month later, I ran into my former manager/friend at a local restaurant. The room was empty except for her and her husband, but she pretended not to see me! I walked over to say hello and was completely snubbed. I was polite and friendly, and went to sit in another part of the room to wait for my take-out food. At that point, I wrote her off as someone not worth my mental energy.
Since then, I've heard from former colleagues that she is saying negative things about me professionally. I have an excellent professional reputation and a pretty extensive network; she has a much smaller network. I'm uncertain how to deal with her behavior. I'm not planning on a confrontation, of course, but don't know how to respond to people when they tell me of her badmouthing me. I haven't said anything negative about her, or related her behavior in the restaurant to others. I usually say something like, "Wow, I'm surprised to hear that." Is there a better way to respond?
When someone tells you that your former manager, who was once also a friend, is disparaging your professional reputation, it is hard to react with anything other than surprise and disappointment. It hurts to hear that someone you trusted not only has a negative opinion of you, but also has decided to share that opinion without any apparent regard for your wellbeing. "Wow, I'm surprised to hear that," is a perfectly acceptable response. But you should also ask for details about the context in which your former manager has been making comments about your performance. Has she been voicing her opinions openly in a mixed group setting or has she been more selective about when she talks? What, exactly, did you do that your former manager is now assailing?
Gathering this information will help you to get a sense of the impact of your former manager's behavior. If she has confined her comments to a small group, like a hiring committee, that has a legitimate interest in hearing about your shortcomings, then her behavior is less worrisome than if she is telling stories about you in the lunch room. Similarly, if her comments relate to her opinion of your professional effectiveness, then you should be less alarmed than if your former manager is impeaching your ethics and honesty. Your former manager is entitled to her opinion of you, even if she never gave you the slightest hint that anything was wrong. It is how and when she expresses this opinion that determines whether she is acting appropriately and whether you should consider doing anything to protect yourself.
I am left to wonder why you completely dismiss the idea of talking to your former friend and manager about the things that you have heard she is saying. You have nothing to lose by writing her a note telling her that you have heard about her dissatisfaction with your performance, that you are genuinely surprised, and that you would welcome the opportunity to talk to her about her concerns. If she accepts your invitation, then you will have a chance to ask questions about what went so terribly wrong in her assessment of you. You will be able to explain your side of the story and you may even gain insights to help you establish stronger supervisory relationships. Even if your former manager does not agree to meet with you, this diplomatic gesture might make her less likely to speak ill of you in the future.
Suppose you determine that your former manager is being entirely malicious and inappropriate in the nature of the comments she is making. Although her network is small, I think that it is not far-fetched for you to be concerned about the effects of her gossip on your economic situation. She may have been willing to serve as a positive reference for you once in the past, but what will she say when someone calls her next time around? Although I don't mean to suggest that you threaten your old boss with a defamation lawsuit, you should be aware that this is the type of behavior that defamation lawsuits are made of.
At your option, you could always get tough about preventing your former friend and manager from smearing your reputation. Your severance agreement may contain what is known as a "mutual non-disparagement" clause. This is a paragraph in which you agree not to defame the company in any way and the company, in turn, agrees to provide either a neutral or a positive employment reference. You could suggest to your old friend that her behavior violates the spirit, if not the letter, of your agreement. You could also explain the situation to your former employer's human resources department and ask for their assistance with damage control. I would be surprised if your former employer did not snap into action at the suggestion that one of their managers was exacerbating the transition of a laid off worker by spreading rumors.
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 HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.