former boss is waging campaign of harassment against me

A reader writes:

I used to be quite good friends with my immediate manager; I met her through her brother, who I was very close to, and for a while we actually lived together. Then it all fell to pieces. On a personal level, we had a falling out (she stole a large amount of liquor from a friend after a party, the second time she’d done this, and when I discovered it, I called her out on it- something I hadn’t done before).

She immediately began taking it out on me at work. We lived together, and till that point had commuted together in her car- now I had to find my own way. She didn’t have hiring or firing power over me, however she found ways to make my job harder, and make me look incompetent. She developed the habit of eavesdropping at my door when I was on the phone and busting in to scream at me when we were home, so I took to going down the block whenever I had to call someone. Finally, she told me to move out. I thought it was all over, especially after she got a new position at a different company and moved on. I was unofficially promoted, and have been in her old role now for almost eight months.

But it wasn’t over. Since she’s left, she’s waged a personal campaign against me with our mutual friends- this I can handle. What I can’t is when it bleeds into the workplace. She’s stated that the worst thing that ever happened to her was my moving to this city (I moved for my job under her), and that she wants me to die, or failing that, to move away as no one- professionally or personally- wants me here. She has a good relationship with my boss, who isn’t exactly stable herself, after working together for several years, and still has professional contact with our company, not to mention she’s still working in my field and has contact with many people I deal with in one way or another. She’s approached my boss on several occasions, unsolicited, to express ‘concerns’ over my competency, my behavior, my professionalism, and my ability to do her old job. She’s sent emails after projects my company did that she was involved with, which she knows, if they were actual concerns, should be sent to me as she used to BE me, to all my other coworkers (it’s a small team), demanding changes after the fact and blaming me for not reading her mind or jumping at her command (in that situation she was a participant, not a client, which meant my judgement was the ruling factor, not her wishes). Most recently, she’s started spewing even more hate filled rhetoric about me (never naming names but it’s a small city and she’s not a subtle woman) all over social media sites about me- this pops up every few weeks, that she’ll start again. She presents herself as the victim who had to deal with me, or a passive aggressive concern. While socially people aren’t buying it (she’s lapsed one too many times into outright lunacy, not to mention obvious history-rewriting), in professional circumstances I worry she may be convincing.

I have no unnecessary contact with this women. When I deal with her professionally, I am professional and polite. Personally, I have no dealings with her at all. I’ve made it my policy to just bite my tongue, and not feed into this. However, this has to stop. I’m worried it could effect my current job, and it could have repercussions on future jobs- she was my direct supervisor, after all. Most importantly, my boss would like to bring her back as a consultant for several meetings about a recent relaunch we did- while she helped with the groundwork before she left, this was my baby. I know she’s going to tear me apart. Is there anyway I can either make her stop entirely, or at the very least protect myself professionally? Contrary to what she says, I am good at my job. How do you damage control someone this wacky?

Holy crap. Several things:

1. This is why it’s a bad idea to cross professional boundaries with your boss — friendship alone puts you on shaky ground; living together is one of the worst ideas of all time.

2. Read The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker immediately. It’ll help you figure out whether this woman is a nuisance or likely to turn into something more dangerous. Seriously, read this; she sounds unhinged and she’s saying she wants you dead.

3. Talk to your boss and/or your HR department. Tell them that she is your former roommate, that you had a falling out, and that you are afraid of her — that she’s telling people she wants you dead (!), that she is sending people harassing emails about you, and that she is posting attacks about you on the Internet. Explain that your policy has been to try to ignore it and that you’re not engaging with her at all, but that you are (a) afraid for your professional reputation and that of your employer, and (b) afraid that she may show up at the office and cause a scene or worse. Use the words “I am afraid of her.”

I’m not a lawyer, but it’s possible that your company may have some liability here, since she’s your former manager. If nothing else, by warning them of what’s going on, they probably incur some degree of obligation not to bring her back as a consultant … and if you have any credibility at all, and handle this calmly, you’ll probably destroy all credibility she has in their eyes.

Any advice from anyone else?

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I'd second the talk to a lawyer part of the response.

    Your complaint in a nutshell is that someone you'd prefer to no longer have any personal or professional relationship with whatsoever is attacking your reputation and butting into situations where she is unwelcome with unsolicited criticism.

    I'm no lawyer either, but to the extent this is in any way demonstrably injurious to you, this screams of slander/invasion of privacy to me.

  2. Evil HR Lady*

    I second the Gavin de Becker book. I think it should be mandatory reading. But, holy cow!

    And I think the company would have liability, but honestly, in a situation like this, who cares about liability once crazy lady attacks?

    Tell HR. If HR doesn't respond, try to escalate. If you have a legal department I'd try them as well–liability is a scary word to lawyers.

  3. camorra*

    I totally agree with everyone else. This former manager is totally crazy. Go get legal help and have a nice talk with HR.

  4. Kerry*

    I totally agree with everything already said. The only thing I'd add is, "Hurry." This has already gone on long enough.

    And I'd emphasize the part about her wanting you dead, and about being afraid of her. That's just whack right there.

  5. Inside the Philosophy Factory*

    The 'she wants you dead' kind of talk is at least a good reason for you to call the local police.

    Also — document EVERYTHING — it may hurt, but capture everything she says about you on-line. Make notes about when she invades your work life etc. She's doing this intentionally and she's unstable. Clearly, she can't let go and get over her own poor behavior. She's blaming you for her problems and you may need a pattern of harassment later.

  6. HR Godess*

    What about contacting the police? It seems there might be some grounds for some sort of restraining order if she is threatening your life and you can prove it. At the very least, have a conversation with the police.

    As everyone else has stated, tell HR or someone with some authority at your company. Don't wait any longer. This is already out of hand.

  7. Anonymous*

    Just to elaborate on what ITPF said:

    – Take screenshots of Facebook or any other internet communications
    – Keep text messages on your phone; take photos of them too in case something happens to your phone
    – Print copies of e-mails
    – Audio-record voicemails
    – If she physically shows up at your home, work, or any place you frequent, have a camera or video camera handy

    Take it from someone who's had to file a restraining order before: No amount of documentation is too much. Having all of this will make any legal process you have to go through much, much easier.

  8. fifi*

    I'm going to repeat the advice to go to the police and also document everything. If possible I'd also ask a sympathetic friend or colleague to document any harassment or aggressive behaviour they witness so you have a neutral, third-party's version of what is happening as well.

  9. Anonymous*

    Yes, I'd go to the police, and at the very least get a lawyer and prepare to sue for libel/slander. If she has a campaign against you and it's not all true, a lawsuit can shut up a lot of people. Or even the threat of one.

  10. Anonymous*

    Hi, I'm the original poster. thanks everyone for your concern! I actually took some of the advice today and approached my boss. We're a small company and don't have a legal or HR department, so I just asked to speak privately with my boss. I presented it as suggested- that this has been going on for over 6 months, I'm afraid of her and I don't want it to impact the company.

    let's just say it wasn't received well. My boss sighed, half rolled her eyes, told me I was being ridiculous and that clearly she didn't mean the whole want-you-dead-or-deported (I work internationally, which actually makes going to the police out of the question as well. The laws are really different here) and I was blowing it out of proportion. She did say that she'd known my ex manager a while and would take these sorts of things with a grain of salt, but that she'd appreciate it if I didn't let my personal issues interfer with the work of the company- which is code for my ex manager in her new position is able to give work to my company, and my boss would like the cash.

    So where do I go from here? Any suggestions? I WILL have to see her in the very near future at meetings and such, and now that I've brought it up and my boss responded in a tone that suggested she thought I was being petty and immature and unprofessional, I'm going to have to make sure these meetings go smoothly. Thoughts?

    PS I couldn't find that book but I did some googling. I don't think she's actually dangerous to me physically, but mentally and emotionally she's capable of anything. And she's not above getting me fired or deported- that's a big worry. I work in a muslim country where the rules, while seldom enforced, are strict- and it's happened before that someone whispering in the right ear has led to a deportation.

  11. Kerry*

    Honestly? If I were you, I'd be actively looking for a new job. Sometimes you're in a no-win situation, and the thing about no-win situations is that you aren't going to win. That's why they're called that.

    In a situation where you have limited control over what's going to happen, you have to control all you can. For me, that would mean taking steps to get out of this situation altogether.

  12. Kingsley Tagbo*

    1. Notify HR and your boss

    2. Obtain a restraining order

    3. Try to find a new job

    4. Consider moving

    5. Hurry!

  13. teresahrgirl*

    I agree with Kerry. It's not worth your safety and sanity to stay at this job no matter how meaningful the work is. If your boss just gave you the "eye roll" when you said you were afraid, that is definately not someone you want to work for.
    Get out now, before your opportunities evaporate

  14. Anonymous*

    I'm going to touch on a couple points that seemed to have been overlooked. The OP appears to be a woman (I'm guessing on this one but since she mentioned her former boss was a woman and they lived together in a Muslim country, chances are she is also a woman). She's also an outsider (it seems). There are international issues, different cultural norms, police presence and well, laws.

    My advice…address this head on. Take screen shots of everything…document, document, document and find a neutral third person to sit in on the discussion. Tell this woman that you are very concerned and if she does not stop what she is doing, you will be forced to take steps to rectify it. Do a bit of research to see if you have any legal back up. (ALERT: generalization ahead) Muslim countries sometimes have stricter guidelines as far as social accepted behavior. Perhaps her threatening you could cause her own arse to be deported?

    Slander? Questioning a woman's honor? These are things that might be taken very seriously in other countries. Do a bit of research and see if there is anything at all you can do.

    If not, see if there are other opportunities there…if you're tied to your current employer because of visa/work permit issues, my only suggestion is to either accept it or move on.

  15. Anonymous*

    I agree with everyone's saying above. Just one more comment – the line was crossed when the employee had a very personal relationishp with the manager by being close to her brother, by living together, by commuting daily to work. Who is going to believe either party when all the bondaries were crossed and mixed up? This is a bazar situation where professional norms no longer apply. You can't have a cake and eat it.
    I would say – get out of this situation and quick!

  16. Marsha Keeffer*

    Really excellent thoughts from everyone regarding a nightmare situation.

    The devil is in the details – and this time I think those details are cultural. That's why I agree with Kerry and Teresa…a new job asap is the way out. Other than that, being a guest worker in a Muslim country, know if you are under Sharia law and what the rules are. I'd also suggest keeping a low profile.

  17. Anonymous*

    I hate the fact she's essentially driving me out of a job but I think you may be right. My boss has issues of her own, so it wouldn't neccessarily be a bad thing. And yes, crossing the line between manager and friend was a HUGE mistake. I cry age and experience: I'm at the beginning of my career, and I made a mistake. Not one I'll be repeating! Unfortunately, I made it with someone who later proved unprofessional, unable to divide personal from professional, not to mention diagnosed bipolar.

    In the meantime, anyone have any thoughts on how to make my ex-manager STOP? a few more facebook posts have gone up.

  18. Ask a Manager*

    I don't know that you CAN make her stop. It's possible that the country you're in might have defamation laws that could come in to play. It's also possible that she might respond to you reaching out to her — or that might make it worse. It's really hard to know, unfortunately.

    Maybe you could have a mutual friend talk to her and point out that she's only making herself look bad and try to get her to stop. She might be more willing to respond to a third party than you … or, if she's crazy, that might just further inflame her and make her want to "prove" to you that you can't influence her.

    (Gavin De Becker has some good stuff on this in his book and basically recommends not engaging at all, because in some situations it can make things worse.)

  19. Anonymous*

    Having lived in close proximity to two people with bipolar disorder (not both at once, fortunately) I agree with AAM. Don't engage. This kind of person is likely just to see it as a challenge.

  20. Anonymous*

    Well small update: she's been on facebook making 'jokes' about baseball bats and knee caps, and I just received notification from my boss that she'll be joining us for a post-mortem meeting next week. it's going to be a long meeting with just her, my boss, and several of my immediate coworkers in a room, including two who I technically supervise. How do I get through that without coming off as unprofessional? Is it an option to call in sick that day, or is that just childish?

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