Question: I had a fruitful stint for six years in an organisation with a visionary leader. I got promoted and enjoyed a challenging role as a vertical head. Last year, the CEO moved to another city and we got an old-timer as our head. From day one, he showed a strong bias against women, especially the ones with an opinion. I had a few discussions with him about my vertical, which he misconstrued as “an act of insubordination”. He told me that if there is no alignment, then “we will have to part ways”. The atmosphere became toxic. I moved on at the first opportunity. But unfortunately, things did not work well for me. My former boss, with whom I had differences, approached organisations which wanted to hire me and gave negative references. He stalled my joining three organisations. I am at my wits’ end. Please advise.
Saundarya Rajesh replies:
Some jobs and some bosses just don’t work out. No amount of rational justification will ever suffice. So, the first thing I would say, “this too shall pass”. Just hang in there. Let’s figure out how you can get out of this fix and onto a better job.
Since you mention that you were a vertical head, I presume you were part of middle management or perhaps mid-to-senior, with about 12 to 15 years of experience. Of this, around five years have been in one organisation, during four years of which you had the opportunity to work for a visionary leader (Boss 1). The last year, I understand, has been quite terrible, working for a boss with whom you have had a really bad experience (Boss 2).
But that is just the last few months. Overall, it’s a good experience versus bad, with more of the former. Let not “recency bias” rob you of the confidence of your good track record.
Without taking away the agony and heartburn you have been through, not to mention the financial hit of being unemployed or underemployed for several months, I would go back to the decision you took of quitting. Yes, in most cases, it is tempting to hand out the resignation letter to the boss who has given you a hard time. I, however, advise caution.
Emotional responses to workplace crises can land you in greater trouble. The choice of your next assignment too has not been great, and you have had to leave it in a hurry. I would suggest that you pause and give yourself some time for reflection.
If there is significant inter-hiring among companies in your industry — and word-of-mouth travels fast — then it is quite likely that Boss 2 has been busy trying to ensure that you do not get an assignment. The first thing would be to understand on what grounds has he given a negative reference. Is he speaking about a poor attitude? Or, poor performance? Or, was it merely a coincidence that the companies which you approached for an opening did not consider hiring you for other reasons, but conveniently mentioned a poor reference check response? Try and investigate. References are usually conducted with more than one person. Is it just your perception that all those three offer-drops were because of Boss 2?
Another practical action would be to pre-empt your future employers from going repeatedly to Boss 2 for feedback. You can frankly share the kind of issues you had. Your candour will be appreciated. Provide alternative references and let the hiring manager know that if he/ she insists on approaching Boss 2, then they will receive negative feedback.
Whenever we are up against negative feedback, it is imperative that we re-establish our credibility. For this, you need to have proof of your good performances. I hope you have records of your previous appraisals (during the time of Boss 1), promotions, increments and positive comments. If an exit interview was conducted, do recollect your reasons for leaving. With your records clean, you can prove that your resignation was in reality because of the toxic environment created by Boss 2.
Also, it would be a good idea to mend ties with Boss 2 and clarify that you are looking to create a new career and you need his best wishes. Set up a meeting with him and try to find out his motives for bad-mouthing you. If he provides an explanation, do hear him out. If you feel an apology from you is in order, I would advise that there is no harm in offering one. Nothing like a “sorry” to calm things down, close a chapter peacefully and move on.
Next, connect with Boss 1. Obtain recommendations from him about the work that you did. Connect with other colleagues and re-establish publicly the quality of work that you delivered. Sometimes, inadvertently, deputies are pulled into political tussles of bosses. It might turn out that you were seen as a loyalist to Boss 1, because of which Boss 2 developed a biased, negative attitude towards you. Is it possible that you explain this to Boss 1 and actually seek another assignment through him?
A strategic pause is a much-needed refresher to set things back on course. Write blogs, articles or other content that highlight your experience and learnings. Try out a new hobby, sign up for an upskilling course. Don’t stay cooped up at home — get out and meet people. And, most importantly, use this opportunity to redefine your priorities.
Saundarya Rajesh is the founder of Avtar, a leading ‘diversity, inclusion and belongingness’ firm
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