angry ex told my boss I’m a drug addict, manager lets employee insult me, and more — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. An angry ex emailed my boss saying I’m a drug addict

I had a great job as a systems analyst working remotely, but this job coincided with some drama in my personal life. I was dealing with a messy breakup with my ex-partner — I ran a background check on him and learned that he had lied about much of his past, and pretty much everything else. I asked him to move out, and he eventually did, but not without a fight. In a moment of stupidity, I decided to send a group text to about 10 mutual friends of ours and let them know that he was a fraud and a liar, essentially everything I had discovered from the background check.

As a form of retaliation, I suppose, he then emailed my boss and the HR director at the company I worked at and told them I was a drug addict who was goofing off on the clock. He also said that when I was in the hospital, I actually wasn’t, which was a lie. But the whole thing changed my boss’ tune about me entirely, and they began to ask questions.

The reason my ex had their email addresses is because I was in the emergency room a few months prior and I gave him their contact information. I thought it would show that I really was incapacitated, because I was, and my partner could help communicate updates to my boss. Big mistake there.

When my boss started asking for documentation on the hospital visit, I provided it, but then they noticed that my hospital visit was only for three days, but I was out for five days. I needed a few days to recover, so I don’t see what the problem was, but they became very suspicious and in a moment of stress and pressure, I “quit” for health reasons.

How should I have handled that differently? I asked for my job back a few weeks later, explaining that my ex was trying to ruin my reputation, but they didn’t seem interested in taking me on again.

Your boss and HR suck. People generally need additional time to recover after whatever caused a three-day hospital stay; it’s very common to need to be at home for at least a few days after being discharged from a multi-night hospitalization! Even if that wasn’t immediately obvious to them, it should have been once you pointed it out.

I’m curious how things had been going in that job before your ex’s email, and what your relationship with your boss was like. Typically when an employee is in good standing, an email from a stranger with an obvious agenda won’t carry a lot of weight (assuming reasonably competent management — a key caveat), so I’m curious if there had already been any issues that were putting a strain on things at work. I say that not to blame you — you were the victim of a vindictive ex-partner — but simply because I’m trying to make sense of how your boss and HR ended up where they did. Either way, though, their response was horrible. Did they express any concern for you or just move into accusatory mode?

As for what you could have done differently … ideally you wouldn’t have quit, and instead just calmly held firm on the truth: “I was hospitalized for three days and then had two days of recovery at home. I’d be happy to get you documentation from my doctor if it’s needed.” But I wouldn’t second-guess yourself; it sounds like a deeply stressful situation where you had been betrayed on multiple levels by a partner, and then your job started in on you too. Don’t beat yourself up for not making optimal decisions during something like that.

2. My boss lets my employee insult me in meeting after meeting

I am a middle manager in a small nonprofit, having taken over an underperforming team two years ago. I am under a great deal of pressure to perform at a high level while turning them around.

They are not turning. I put the lowest performer on a PIP six months ago and have weekly meetings with the employee and my boss, the organization’s director. We are a small org and she acts as HR.

The HR/PIP meetings are unbearable. My employee spends them insulting me and my boss tells me repeatedly that I cannot respond defensively because that will “affect the process.” One on one, my boss tells me that this process isn’t about me, and my employee has to say her piece. But I can’t imagine repeatedly insulting my boss to her boss and remaining employed. It doesn’t sit right with me. That, and the fact that this has dragged on for six months, has made me question my boss’s actions in this whole matter. Am I correct to question this and should I be looking to get out?

You should be looking to get out. A six-month PIP with no signs of ending? A boss who tells you to sit through meeting after meeting to be insulted so the employee can “say her piece”? She’s said her piece. Repeatedly. PIPs are not couples counseling where everyone gets out all their feelings; they’re intended to be action-oriented — here’s what needs to change, here’s the timeline for when the change must happen by, and here are the consequences if it doesn’t. A couple of months maximum (often ideally less) and with a focus on action, not endless discussions. And on top of that, you’ve been charged with turning around an underperforming team and this is what happens when you try to meet that mandate? And on top of that, the head of the org isn’t willing to act when action is needed (and I’d bet that shows up in a ton of places, not just in managing low performers) — and she wants you to operate in the same way.

Tell your boss (who doesn’t know what she’s doing) that it’s time for the PIP to come to an end and a decision made about this person’s employment. But meanwhile, this isn’t a job — or an organization — structured in a way where you can succeed. Get out and go work somewhere that doesn’t expect managers to manage without giving them the tools to do it.

3. Pressured to sign safety releases against my judgment

The summer I turned 18, I was a junior camp counselor at a sleepaway camp. The campers in my bunk were only four years younger and often out of control (to the point of escaping the bunk repeatedly after curfew). The camp had arranged for their whole age group (multiple bunks of rising high school freshmen) to go on an overnight camping trip, complete with rafting and rock-climbing, organized by our nature counselor but run by a separate outdoor adventure company.

That company required legal waivers for every camper. And so, before we left camp, all of us counselors were given the waivers for the campers in our bunk and told to sign them. The other counselors basically did as they were told, but I didn’t want to sign anything without reading and understanding it. (Recall, I’d just turned 18. This was probably the first legal document I would have been signing in my entire life.) So, I read it, and it asked me to affirm that the camper named could do the activity safely and responsibly and that I knew of no reason they shouldn’t participate, and that I would be responsible for anything that happened. And, frankly, I didn’t trust that some of these kids would act appropriately and not put themselves or others in danger.

I was already getting hassled by more senior camp staff for reading the document (they just wanted quick signatures to get the task done, and the senior counselor in my bunk was out that day). I said I wasn’t comfortable signing and explained why. They tried to pressure me into it, multiple ways. They tried to claim it wasn’t any different than what I’d already agreed to by taking the counselor job. (I think the phrase “in loco parentis” was used.) Somehow I held my ground, at least somewhat — I may have signed a form or two, but not for any campers I didn’t trust … and I think ultimately I put up enough of a fuss that they got some other sucker to sign, or did it themselves. I don’t think anyone ever took my concern about the campers’ participation seriously, though … and it was probably luck more than anything else that nothing majorly bad ended up happening on the trip.

What could I have done here? What should I have done? What should they have done? This is bonkers, right?

You were absolutely right to refuse to sign those forms, and good for you for holding firm in the face of pressure — something that a lot of people find hard to do at 18 (hell, something a lot of people find hard to do at 45). People sometimes like to act as if signing a legal document is no big deal — but believe me, if that were the case, then they wouldn’t need you to sign it at all. The fact that they want you to is what tells you it matters, and you should take it seriously.

I also question if you even had the legal authority to sign on behalf of those campers. Those sound like forms that should have been signed by their parents or guardians; I doubt you even had the legal standing to attest to what the forms said, even if you wanted to. The camp should have coordinated to get the forms signed by parents before camp even started.

You did the right thing. You can always say, “I’m not comfortable signing this.”  You were right to refuse — and whoever signed instead of you was probably in the wrong.

4. Navigating small social/networking circles as a manager

I’m a mid-level manager in a professional field that requires a significant training period that’s historically relatively conservative and male-dominated; my particular niche still is heavily weighed to men, especially in leadership roles.

I found my current job when Petunia, a woman I did my training and was friendly with, reached out when a staff opening happened. I was then promoted during the pandemic, so I became Petunia’s boss.

Another woman, Iris, also trained with me and Petunia and works in the same field but a different company. She started inviting a group of women in our field to meet at local restaurants monthly to discuss life over dinner. We talk about work stresses and it is helpful to hear shared perspectives; it has been going on for maybe a year and a half at this point. It’s really nice because there aren’t many women to meet and not any women managers nearby.

Iris knows Petunia, my direct report, is now going through a divorce with small kids at home and wants to invite her too. I feel conflicted. Iris and I are good friends. My answer to Iris was that she can definitely invite Petunia but I should probably bow out of the group as I don’t want to give the appearance of favoritism since I’m the boss. Truthfully, I’ve always been careful about what I’ve said in this venue anyway but would feel totally unable to talk about things, as I’m very private at work and furthermore, even if I wasn’t her supervisor, I wouldn’t want to hang with Petunia.

Iris opted to not invite Petunia so I could come. Now I feel guilty. Did I mess up?

No! You’ve been a part of the group for a year and a half. You explained that you couldn’t continue to participate if they invited Petunia — for very sound reasons — and they opted to ensure that you, an existing member, could remain in the group you’re already in. That’s reasonable. You also didn’t demand they not invite Petunia; you explained what it would mean for you, and they made a decision from there. That’s also reasonable.

That said, if this is practical, maybe you could encourage Petunia and other junior women you work with to form their own group. You could explain the value you’ve gotten from the one you’re part of and suggest they might do something similar.

5. When should I disclose MS?

I have recently been diagnosed with MS. I have a lot of social credit saved at my current workplace so it is not begrudged if I need to take time for a flare. I don’t have many symptoms and rarely need to take time off, but that could change at some point in the future.

If I decide to move jobs, when should I disclose my condition and is it dishonest to “hide” it until it becomes a problem?

You don’t need to disclose it at all until/unless there are specific accommodations you want to ask for. And even then, you generally wouldn’t need to disclose the condition itself, just that you have a need for medical accommodations. (Some people prefer to name the condition, figuring it helps people to have context and understand what’s going on, but that’s completely up to you and your sense of what will be easiest in your particular workplace.)

That’s not dishonest; your personal medical information isn’t your employer’s business.

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