How to Deal
Protect Yourself From a Bad-Mouthing Former Boss
Q 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 part of a large layoff, but I was assured that the layoffs had nothing to do with performance.
A few months later, I was interviewing for a permanent position at another company and my former manager provided an excellent reference. At the same time, I saw a job announcement with my old team and sent in my application.
When I received an offer from the other company, I sent both my former director and former manager an e-mail 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 former manager.
About a month later, I ran into my former manager at a local restaurant. The room was nearly empty, but she pretended not to see me! I walked over to say hello and was completely snubbed.
Since then, I've heard from former colleagues that she is saying negative things about me. I have an excellent professional reputation and a pretty extensive network. I'm uncertain how to deal with her behavior. I'm not planning on a confrontation, of course, but I don't know how to respond to people when they tell me that she's bad-mouthing me. What's the best way for me to respond?
AWhen 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 well-being.
You should 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, or has she been more selective? What, exactly, did you do that your former manager is now assailing?
If she has confined her comments to a small group, such as 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. Your former manager is entitled to her opinion of you; 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 wonder why you 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.
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?
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.
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 its assistance with damage control.
I would be surprised if your former employer did not snap into action at the suggestion that one of its managers was affecting the transition of a laid-off worker by spreading rumors.