can you un-burn a bridge?

A reader writes:

While in college, I was a summer intern for a Fortune 500 company. It was the chance of a lifetime, but I failed to take advantage of it: I repeatedly chose to hang out with my friends (who also worked at the company or in the area) during business hours, frequently showed up late to the office, and did not take my work very seriously.

Needless to say, my immediate supervisor did not like me. At all. There was definitely a personality clash between us, and my behavior only made things worse. My supervisor went as far to transfer me to another department for the last 3 weeks of my internship. To make matters worse, I complained to HR about my supervisor on my last day — only to later realize that the HR rep to whom I spoke and my supervisor were friends. All in all, I burned one hell of a bridge that summer. I swore against ever working there again.

It’s now been 5 years. I’ve since graduated from college, worked for 3 years, earned a master’s degree, and (hopefully) matured quite a bit since then. I’m now looking for work in the same geographical area as my internship, and took a total shot in the dark to apply for a full-time job at the aforementioned Fortune 500 company (in a different department). I did not include my internship on my resume.

I’m not holding my breath to hear back from them, but thought this was a good question for you — is there any way to unburn a bridge like this? With the way HR departments operate, is there a snowball’s chance in hell that I would have an avenue to be able to apologize for my behavior? What would you do in this situation? I acted so immaturely that summer, and — job or no job — would be happy to have a chance to make amends.

You’re probably not going to get a job there, but you should do the right thing and make amends anyway. Write to the manager you worked for that summer, explain what you’ve since realized about your behavior, and apologize profusely. Do not mention that you’re hoping for a job there at some point; apologize simply for the sake of apologizing.

Unfortunately, the fact that you’re doing this while you have an application active with them is likely to take away some of the credibility of the apology, but it’s still worth doing.

You’re not likely to be hired by this company, regardless of the apology, but (a) you never know when you’ll run into one of their employees at another job and this could repair some of the damage to your reputation with those who knew you that summer, and (b) it’s the right thing to do even if you don’t stand to gain from it.

And kudos to you for realizing that you were in the wrong. And at least your experience can be a cautionary tale to others, about how workplace behavior can come back to bite you in the ass, even when you don’t think it will at the time.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Reva

    Yes, very impressed that you owned up to your behavior and have obviously matured since the internship. I agree w/AAM that you should apologize for the sake of apologizing. Admitting mistakes and apologizing for them really goes a long way. Good luck with the job search.

    1. OP

      Thanks for the comment! I wish I realized how important it was to apologize much sooner than this, but — no matter how my job search turns out — I’m glad I’ve matured to a point where I’m taking responsibility for my actions with regards to this internship.

  2. Erica

    Great advice. It may or may not have any bearing on your future employment there, but not only is it the right thing to do – you don’t know where those folks will end up in future companies.

    1. OP

      This is very true. I assumed that it would be fine if I omitted it because it was an internship and not a full-time job, but I see where you’re coming from with regards to the way the company would see it as a purposeful omission (read: problem) on their end. Thanks for your comment!

      1. Stacy

        It really does depend on the company and the system they use on whether you’ll be “in the system”. Technology and databases have changed quite a bit in the past five years.

        I say, leaving it off was fine, (after all, a resume is a marketing document rather than a comprehensive collection of everything you’ve ever done), however, it’s probably going to look weird if you make it to the interview stage and don’t eventually address it, (at that point I assume it might come up as they ask you what you know about the company, etc.).

        1. Stacy

          I’m now realizing how weird it would seem to bring up the internship at the interview stage. Ugg… I’m not sure what I would do in the OP’s case.

          However, I do stand by the idea that the OP may not be in the company’s system.

        2. OP

          Stacy — Thanks for your feedback! In your opinion, when would be the best time to address the internship in the process (if it came to that)? During a phone interview with HR? In what context should I bring it up? Should I wait for them to ask?

  3. Samantha Jane Bolin

    I found this very interesting b/c I supervised someone with similar behavioral traits for almost a year. It was a recent college grad without a job who wanted some experience. Said grad was on time for the first couple of weeks and then “on-time” became sometime before 10 a.m. When I talked to said grad, the response was that the work just wasn’t interesting and it was hard to get motivated to get out of bed. Long story short, this person has since moved across the country and is now waiting tables while trying to get a job. My field is small and 4-degrees of separation is rare, more like 2. Doing a good job would have paid dividends.

    Kudos to O/P for recognizing the behavior was inappropriate. Getting a job there is likely a long shot, but an apology goes a long ways in my book.

    1. OP

      Samantha — Thank you for sharing your experience. Some young people — myself included — need to make a huge mistake like that before discovering how serious we need to get about our lives/careers. Wish I heard this story in college!

  4. Anonymous

    I was let go from a job a long time ago and was understandably upset at the time. A year or so later I realized they were actually very compassionate with how it was handled and more generous with the compensation package than would have been justified for someone at my level. In hindsight, they were right to let me go and it taught me some valuable lessons that helped me become successful. I wrote an email to my previous boss and the HR manager (who I know for a fact had a lot of say in the matter) and thanked them for allowing me to transition to something else a little easier. I know I’ll never work there (or even in that industry) again but I still got a feeling of closure.

    I was reminded of this just last week when we had to let someone go. She was a very toxic person and had been given more chances than anyone should. I was semi-involved in the termination and she was extremely hostile to everyone. Regardless, her new supervisor saw that she got the standard 2 weeks per year of service package typically reserved only for layoffs. She had been here for 10 years so she walked away with a nice package. But, just like me, she didn’t clearly appreciate it at all.

  5. MaryTerry

    I would be tempted to wait for a rejection (or acceptance!) from the company at this point before sending my apology, since you hadn’t already sent one. Assuming they get back to you at all, it might make the apology seem more sincere.

    I’m not sure if I would wait, but I would be tempted…

  6. Anonymous

    The tough thing about internships and working while you’re still in college is that you’re not completely mature yet.
    One of my old companies would only hire the best and the brightest from the top universities – and not always but sometimes, you had the occassional person who slacked off, came in late, just wasn’t motivated. Oh the stories we have about bad interns!
    Unfortunately, I remember each of those people by name and when I look them up now they’re actually all in completely different industries and I’m assuming, found their niche and what it was that they actually wanted to do.
    You very well may have left a poor impression but they’ve probably moved on. I think by reaching out and acknowledging your behavior but also mentioning how you’ve learned from that and worked on your MBA and you’re focused now etc…is a great step forward.

    I also agree with one of the comments above – while it’s a great step forward – the fact that you’ve applied recently followd by acknowleding your past performance may seem less genuine.

    Good luck!!

    1. Anonymous

      “One of my old companies would only hire the best and the brightest from the top universities”

      From my experience, some of the worst interns we’ve had have fallen into this category. The sense of entitlement I’ve seen in interns from top universities is ridiculous, and when spoken to the typical response I received from them was “Well, I attend X school, so you’re not going to get any better then me”.

      I have also run into some of these students later in their careeer path, when they’ve entered the “real” job world and realize that no one cares what their GPA was at whatever school, many of them either make jokes or flat out apologize for their inflated egos and sense of entitlement when they interned.

      The way I see it, they’re still young while interning and even a couple of years later can have grown into completely different people. If they can own up to their previous mistakes I would consider their application the same as any other stranger applying.

      With that said, I agree with many other posters that sending the apology AFTER the application would make me think that you have a hidden agenda and aren’t sincere in your apology.

      1. Anonymous

        Agreed!
        I can’t say that all the people we hired from the top universities were slackers but more often than not, there was a little edge/entitlement.
        AND, I also agree – I would consider someone – depending on the role to be given another shot.
        It’s hard to compare somebody as an intern to the working professional – it would at least be worth an interview – in my opinion.

      2. K.

        I went to a top university (an Ivy) and business school (tier 1) and have a strong work ethic – I truly like to work, whether it’s in my field or doing admin temp work to get by. (My temp agency loves me because I did a great job for a new client, so now the client works exclusively with them when they need temps.) I would not DREAM of saying “Well, I went to an Ivy, so there” because a) it’s rude, and b) some of the dumbest people I’ve ever known, I met at my alma mater.

        Having said that, that sense of entitlement is real – just because I don’t have it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I have heard “Why would you temp? It’s beneath you” from a bunch of my peers who have been laid off. I reply “Maybe I’m overqualified, but there’s nothing beneath me about paying my bills on time.”

        My old company was a huge international company, the biggest in its industry in the world, so it attracted a lot of interns from “name brand” schools, but we hired a broad swath of students (my favorite intern went to a small school in the South I’d never heard of). I think that’s the way to go.

        1. jmkenrick

          Apparently, when you buy cattle, there’s two ways you can do it. You can either pick or choose, looking through the herd and finding the ones that look best to you, or you can do what’s called “gate cut” where you open the gate, and usher all the cattle out until you’ve reached the number you want to purchase. Then you close the gate.

          When talking about the difference between a fancy, Ivy-type schools and Average Joe University, my Dad alwyas says that if you’re going to do gate cut, a top-tier school is the way to go. But once you boil it down to individual picking and choosing, you’ll find that there are plenty of people with less glamourous (not to mention less expensive) pedigrees that are actually a better fit.

          Food for thought.

          1. Anonymous

            I cannot put into words how much I love this! Excellent way of explaining something I’ve tried to get through to people many times.

  7. Britta

    Would it beneficial at all to actually communicate this inner conflict to the company, as part of your apology? “I considered waiting until a later date to apologize, as I have a current application open, and realized that this could impact the sincerity of my apology” (or whatever). Basically saying, “I’ve considered apologizing for awhile, I know that by apologizing now, it might look false, but I decided to take the risk anyway because you deserve an apology regardless”?

    1. Long Time Admin

      I wouldn’t believe you.

      I agree with the posters who suggest waiting a couple of months to send the apology.

      You may be sincere, but sending it while you have an application makes it look very phoney.

    2. Jamie

      That’s exactly what I would do. They are going to be thinking it, so just acknowledge the elephant in the room.

      This would be the best approach if I were on the receiving end – would work for me.

  8. Louis

    Another perspective.

    I work for a big company (22k employes province wide). I had a bad ressource on my team and I managed to get rid of him. A month latter, I learned that he got hired back in another department.

    In big company, communication is not 100% and there is a real possibility that people doing the current hiring have not info about your bad bahavior 5 years ago.

    I’m not saying you should hide anything, but IMHO you should just drop the issue. Do appologise in person if you ever meet someone that you had contact with when you messed up.

    1. Britta

      That’s a good point – you’re assuming that the recruiter/whoever knows, or will find out, about your bad intern behavior. They might; they might not.

      If you mention the “elephant in the room”, and they DIDN’T know about it, now they’re DEFINITELY going to look into it. If they DO know about it, and you apologize, then they either won’t believe in your sincerity, or they’ll think you have guts for bringing it up and apologizing.

      I have no idea what I’d do. :-)

    2. Anonymous

      There is certainly the chance you haven’t been flagged yet. You would be surprised how many companies are just now converting their HR records to digital. However, if you’re offered a job, I can’t remember ever filling out an application that didn’t ask if you or a relative were ever employed by that company. At that point your previous experience would come to light.

      I wouldn’t do anything right now to avoid looking like you’re playing games. But I would voluntarily bring it up if you happened to get an interview. At that point, it will already be suspicious that you left it off your resume (wouldn’t you go out of your way to include it?). Most people believe in second chances so explain how you’ve grown since then and regret your lack of effort. Personally, I would word it as you viewed it as just a temporary position to meet your graduation requirements and only later realized the valuable opportunity you let slip away. Many of my classmates goofed off during their internships so I don’t think it’s exactly rare.

      If you get the job, I would wait to visit that manger in person and apologize. I’ve eaten crow in person a few times and it typically earns you a lot of respect because few people do it. If you don’t get the job, I would still write the manager a letter because it could help you in the future (it’s a small world) and it’s a nice thing to do.

      1. Anonymous

        I agree with this, except for the part where you say, “Many of my classmates goofed off during their internship so I don’t think it’s exactly rare.”
        It sounds like justifying bad behavior when regardless of other people’s actions/behavior you’re responsible for your own. There are a lot of hardworking interns AND a lot of slackers so I would just leave that out.
        But I agree with the statement before mentioning you later realized the valuable opportunity etc…

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yeah, I agree with flagging that — I’ve certainly seen bad interns, but they’re the not the norm. And in a well managed organization, they’ll get fired or have their internships cut short.

        2. Jaime

          I don’t think that’s justifying bad behaviour, rather it’s acknowledging the fact that many people act irresponsibly during their college internships. If it was mostly tardiness, then she may not have made a big enough impression to be remembered. However, since the Op mentions personality conflicts and being transferred to a different department for the last 3 weeks, she probably did worse things than show up late most days.

          1. Anonymous

            Hmm – I don’t know – I still think it’s justifying bad behavior.
            Being tardy consistently is bad behavior and you can’t say, “well I know a lot of other people do it!” That doesn’t excuse it or make it ok.
            And it goes back to, yes, many people DO act irresponsibly during internships but quite honestly, many do not.
            And unless you have data to back you up to make your point valid – you’re pretty much generalizing interns to not being responsible when that’s not true.

    3. mh_76

      Agreed.

      Also…after 5 years, especially if you were only there for a summer, they may not remember you at all. Maybe they’ll remember the rowdy interns or maybe they’ve had others since you were there or maybe they’ve just forgotten. Another thing to wonder is whether the people you worked with/for are even still there.

      My most recent string of jobs (3 temp, 1 “perm.” that didn’t last long) was at a company that had insanely high turnover. A number of people left when I was still there and, to my knowledge, the department that I was in most recently has had 100% turnover…and its “parent” department had had significant turnover too…same with the rest of the co. The company had 5 CFOs in as many years! All of the turnover and the time since the colleagues & bosses left (more than a year) makes it impossible for me to find a reference (my own job ended almost a year ago and I’m certain that the people I can think of asking wouldn’t remember me). My other reference is a boss & colleagues from many years ago who still remember & speak well of me. I’m sporadically in touch with one of the colleagues almost 10 years later. So sometimes people do remember, like Anonymous-1 (https://www.askamanager.org/2012/04/can-you-un-burn-a-bridge.html#comment-67486) and my boss/colleagues from a long time ago but usually people forget…the shorter the time that you worked for/with them, the shorter the time that it will take them to forget.

      What’s my point? That you never know who will or won’t remember you. My own default assumption is that most people won’t.

      Apply for the job, go on any interviews you’re offered, and accept an offer if one comes your way (and you’re still interested). Good luck, and if someone recognizes you, do apologize and invite them to lunch so they can see how you’ve changed. And if you don’t get the job, you’ll probably never find out whether/not your previous behavior was a factor and you should move on to other places.

  9. EngineerGirl

    While it is good to acknowledge that you screwed up, I don’t think you’ve taken full responsibility for what you did.
    * You mention “personality conflicts” with your former manager. While it is possible, I would suspect that most of this conflict is due to your manager wanting you to work, and you not performing. Own up to your 90% poor performance part of it, as opposed to the 10% (if that) personality conflict part of it.
    * You treat beging transferred for the last 3 weeks as something bad. Did you realise that it might have been the merciful thing to do? Perhaps your manager was ready to throttle you for your bad behavior. Instead, your manager transferred you to another department to give you a 2nd chance (or a chance at redemption). Instead, you complained and tried to get your manager into trouble with HR.
    * I don’t think you have taken responsibilty for how your bad behavior impacted others. Your manager had reasonable expectations and you failed on all of them. You then blamed your manager for the consequences of your poor performance.

    If I were you, I would send a personal letter of apology to the manager. That is the person you’ve harmed the most.

    FWIW, I’ve been in that managers position. One individual called their poor performance and antics “youthful indiscretion”. When they said this, I was thinking “even 5 year olds know it is wrong to lie about someone”. Because they still wouldn’t own up to the damage they did, I haven’t felt the need to help them. OTOH, one individual came back and apologised. When I realised that they were sincere, I said “hooray, they’ve grown up!” . I then helped them get their career back on track.

    1. mh_76

      Agreed…if the manager is still there and if OP progresses in the application process w/ the company. Question is if the manager has forgotten OP, does s/he want to reopen a scarred-over wound?

      1. EngineerGirl

        I doubt the manager has forgotten the OP. And reopening an old wound to clean it out is painful but necessary.

        If you’ve done something wrong, apologising and attempting to make it right is always the right thing to do. Always.

        Hoping someone has forgotten about it is cowardly. Do the right thing, even if no one else remembers. Because character is about who you are when no one is looking.

        1. OP

          Let me get this straight — your opinion is that I should contact my former manager now, with my application currently in the system? Don’t you think that would come off as a little duplicitous?

          Opinions have differed quite a bit on this very issue, but I think your “cowardly” statement makes a decent point.

      2. OP

        Good question. Manager is still at the company, but works in a different department. (I’m now wishing I didn’t apply, just so that I could have the chance to apologize without a perceived hidden agenda.)

    2. OP

      EngineerGirl — Thanks for your comment. Definitely insightful/blunt and something I really needed to hear (read). A few things:

      1. I meant in no way to place any blame on my manager by bringing up our personality conflicts. I know now that at work, professionalism should override any differences in personality that may be perceived. Let me make myself very clear here: I take full responsibility for my poor performance as an intern. I now realize that what I saw as my manager’s difficult personality 5 years ago was most likely her reaction to my awful attitude toward a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

      2. Re: transfer: This is likely true. I never looked at it that way.

      Re:complaining to HR: Point blank — I should not have done it. Today, I would have approached my manager about any problems as soon as they came up. Looking back now, I was scared of approaching my manager on my own for 1 on 1 feedback, so I took the easy way out by (what I saw as) ratting her out to HR. It’s a mistake I’ll never forget or repeat.

      3. There is a lot going on in this asterisk. Let me break it apart.

      “I don’t think you have taken responsibility for how your bad behavior impacted others.”
      Yes, I agree with you…in part. Although I have not written a letter or contacted my former manager, I am actively trying to make this right. Granted, it’s because I’m applying to a job at that company now, but my decision to apply was the tipping point that forced me to reflect on how terribly I behaved as an intern. I did not give my internship much mind over these past 5 years because I wanted to forget it. Now that I’m older and more experienced, I want to make an apology — regardless of the outcome of my application.

      [Short answer: I *am* taking responsibility. Even though it took a job search to wake up to it, I’m facing a mistake I made in the past and am doing something about it.]

      “Your manager had reasonable expectations and you failed on all of them. You then blamed your manager for the consequences of your poor performance.”
      This is all true of me as an intern 5 years ago. And it’s my responsibility now to apologize for it.

      Thanks again for your feedback.

        1. Jamie

          Me too. It’s refreshing to see someone who really owns their own mistakes and has learned from them – without qualifying it with excuses. I think most of us have made cringeworthy errors early in our careers – they are rarely fatal.

  10. Anonymous

    I think what the OP should really do is find out if these two people are even still employed with the company. In the working world, 5 years is quite a long time, and turnover can be massive depending on the field they are in. I am the only person left from my group that was hired 7 years ago, and the other person from that group left over 3 years ago.

    If the two people are still employed, then you may want to personally reach out to them, rather than sending a general letter to HR apologizing for your behavior 5 years ago.

    1. OP

      My former manager still works at the company, but she may have changed departments. I’m now planning on sending a letter to the manager directly, instead of through HR. Thank you for your comment!

  11. AD

    I think there is a very good chance that, if you make it further in the process, you will be asked to fill out an application that asks if you have ever worked there before. I will be surprised if this doesn’t come out, and your omission may be a problem.

    1. OP

      AD — I agree with you on this. I assumed that it would be fine if I omitted it because it was an internship and not a full-time job, but I see where you’re coming from with regards to the way the company would see it as a purposeful omission (read: problem) from their end. Thank you for your feedback.

    2. fposte

      Yes, I’m thinking that the omission and the apology are sending two slightly different messages. Not the biggest obstacle here, but if you get close enough to have a conversation, you might need to explain what could be perceived as a contradiction between your willingness to be forthright about your past–oh, something between “failure” and “misstep,” so how about a “failstep”? and your avoiding mentioning it in your work history.

  12. Charles

    OP, your apology does not sound sincere to me. Here’s why:

    “Needless to say, my immediate supervisor did not like me. At all. There was definitely a personality clash between us, and my behavior only made things worse.”

    Sorry? Your behavior only made things worse? How about your behaviour was the reason for the “personality clash”!

    The fact that you place some of the blame on your manager says you really haven’t matured – at least, not a much as you think.

    P.S. I know others don’t agree with me on this; but, I don’t believe in “personality clashes” except in a marriage; and, certainly not in the work place. If both parties are professional, they are no “personality clashes” in the work place. One or both parties need to grow up. (yea, I know, few agree with me on this)

    1. mh_76

      True, very true but…

      There are personality clashes that happen in the workplace but those are, as you said, the result of one party’s bad behavior. I’ve been on the other side of a few – some um “colleagues” were very badly behaved towards me and others…rude, mean, yelling …the story goes on but I’ll share the rest when I’ve found the next “permanent” job (or have enough money coming in & a long enough contract to end this darn search). So glad that I’m not there anymore!

    2. OP

      Charles — Thanks for your feedback. Looking back now, my writing wasn’t clear enough: I meant in no way to place any blame on my manager by bringing up our personality “clash.” I know now that at work, professionalism overrides any differences in personality that may be perceived. I take full responsibility for my bad behavior and am not at all dismissing fault in my actions 5 years ago.

  13. Anonymous

    OP, I’m glad you’re wishing you never applied for the new position because my humble advice is to withdraw your application if you’re writing an apology letter.

    It just doesn’t smell sincere to send that letter with an application in the system.

    Good luck to you and kick ass at your next job. As a former bad egg student in high school it felt great to surprise people in college with better grades and more maturity (don’t ask how this happened in college of all places – I was just tired of the reputation I developed and desired to present myself better). Enjoy your next position as a more responsible, wouldn’t think to engage in bad behavior employee. As you know now it feels wonderful to have a reputation you are proud of. Kudos for realizing that.

    1. OP

      One of the best comments of the day! Thank you for your kind words and great story.

      I’m going to withdraw my application and send an apology letter, for sure. Any advice as to how long I should wait after withdrawing to send my apology?

      1. EngineerGirl

        No reason you can’t do both at the same time.

        I realised my former answer might have been strong – it was the result of my own bad experiences. When my poor performers complained to HR I ended up the target of an HR investigation. Boy, was that traumatic! So maybe I was taking it out on you.

        I think what you wrote above might be the right thing to write to your manager. The act of applying to the new job caused you to reflect (from a more mature viewpoint) on what you did in the past. Funny how our perspective changes as we age. Now, as an adult, you are correcting that. FWIW, I wasn’t the best intern either – I stayed up too late and night and was slow in my job. It took me a while to correct that.

        What you are doing is painful and difficult. Many people will avoid that. But I think once you do it the first time, you’ll feel – relieved! And it greases the skids for the next time you have to do the right thing. I congratulate you.

      2. Jamie

        I’m definitely missing something. Why are you withdrawing your application?

        If it’s because you don’t want to work there, that makes sense, but if it’s just because it will make the apology seem less sincere than I hope you really think about it before withdrawing – I don’t see why that’s necessary.

        You were a crappy employee 5 years ago. You had a ‘yikes’ moment remembering this when you wanted to apply to the same company. You’re different now and have learned from your mistakes – so you applied and wanted to apologize and make sure it was clear that they knew you both regret and own your past mistakes.

        They either hire you or they don’t. If they don’t it could be because it’s being held against you, or for one of the million other reasons people apply places and don’t get hired.

        I really don’t see why you would need to withdraw and wear a hair-shirt over this…although if you just don’t want to apply anymore than this is all a moot point.

  14. LSG

    Good advice from everyone — OP, I think you’re right to withdraw your application and to apologize.

    I’ll also say that as a (not very experienced, but still!) manager, I deeply value an applicants’ ability to be self-reflective and honest, especially about their shortcomings. In fact, as a person I deeply value other people’s ability to be self-reflective and honest with themselves and others about their shortcomings. This bridge may not be salvageable, but you seem like you’re on track to becoming a solid employee and a mature, thoughtful, honest person who takes responsibility for hir actions. Good for you.

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