16 months after leaving job, still getting hassled by old boss

We recently talked about how long it’s reasonable to answer questions from a past employer after you’ve left. Here’s a new spin on that. A reader writes:

I left my first post-college job  in 2009 after 5 years. I gave 30 days’ notice. I left a huge manual to cover all of my responsibilities and had daily meetings from the day I gave my notice to the end with the CEO to make sure his needs were met in the manual, his questions were answered, and his concerns were addressed.

Over the past 16 months, several co-workers have also left, citing the same reasons I did, primarily boiling down to poor leadership. But, as we gather for each one’s going-away happy hour, a recurring theme shared among those leaving and those still there emerges, which is, I get basically every negative thing pinned on me in absentia.

Meanwhile, I continue to receive calls and emails with questions. I expected this in the first month or two, even the first year as a whole business cycle ran through. Today, I was called to give the location of several documents, which of course had to be answered with “The last time I saw them, nearly a year and a half ago, I think they were…”

I know the former boss will find this unsatisfactory and is even now listing my many failures during my term of employment, and describing my utter failure to help. My name at the office has become synonymous with failure, as in, “Don’t pull a (Smith) on us.” This is a specific reason some of my old friends quit as well.

On my side, I need to let go, not let it bother me, and so forth. That’s a weakness of mine that I’ve known for a long time and am working on. On the other hand, how do I let them know that my responsibility for basically anything is over after this period of time and I’d like to just be done? I can already reasonably guess that I’m already getting horrible recommendations from my old boss. After the job I left for didn’t work out, I’ve applied for everything I’m remotely qualified for and haven’t even received an email reply in a year. I know it’s bad out there, but I’ve got a degree and 5 years experience in a very specific field, and I’ve applied for everything from the same job at different companies to waiter without a single call back. So there isn’t too much concern about “burning a bridge,” but I want to be polite.

It’s been a year and a half since you left and your boss is apparently chronically badmouthing you. You’re officially relieved of your obligation to continue to be helpful. The next time you get one of these calls or emails, just say, “I’m sorry but it’s been over a year since I left, and I really don’t remember. With the amount of time that’s gone by, I’m not likely to be a good resource for you anymore.”

Alternately, you also have the option of addressing the situation with your former boss more directly: “Joe, I’ve been happy to continue trying to help out when you guys have questions, but I keep hearing that you have many complaints about my performance during my time there. I wish I had gotten this feedback at the time because I would have appreciated the opportunity to hear this feedback and improve while I still had the chance. But it’s difficult for me to hear this type of thing now while simultaneously being repeatedly asked to help out.”

However, he sounds like a jerk, so there’s a decent chance this won’t have much impact on him. But there’s also a chance that it will; bullies often back down when someone stands up to them. They pretty much rely on people not pushing back in order to operate the way that they do.

However, it also doesn’t matter. This guy is no longer your boss. He hasn’t been your boss in a year and a half. He has no power over you. If he’s a jerk to you, stop taking his calls and emails. Stop caring. Believe me, people around him can see what a jerk he is, and they’re taking anything he says about you with a large grain of salt.

Moreover, he’s handed you the perfect way to explain to prospective future employers why he won’t be a reliable reference for you — you can simply explain before future reference checks that your former boss got angry at you when you stopped helping out for free a year and a half after leaving the job. That has “crazy” written all over it, and reference-checkers will get it (especially if you can offer up other strong references).

Now, as for references … I highly, highly doubt that a bad reference from this guy is the reason that you’re not getting interviews. It would be extremely unusual for an employer to check a candidate’s references before ever making contact with that candidate. Most employers don’t check references until they’ve interviewed you and are seriously considering making you an offer — because it’s time-consuming and there’s no point in doing it until you’ve determined you’re interested in someone. (The exception to this would be if your industry is tiny and your former boss knows absolutely everyone, in which case there can be informal calls of the “hey, I got a resume from Bob Baker, who used to work for you — what can you tell me about him?” variety. But that’s rare.)

What’s far more likely is that you’re not getting interviews for the same reason tons of other people aren’t getting interviews — it’s a terrible job market. Which is a different type of bad news, but it’s at least probably not your boss blackballing you.

In any case, draw a line. Be polite, be civil, but stop letting this guy push you around. “I’m sorry, it’s been so long since I’ve left that I really can’t help.” Repeat as necessary.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Joan*

    I think your answer is a good one – but I have a different one to propose.

    The next time the old boss calls on you, answer the question to the best of your ability, and send him a bill for your consulting services. Let’s say your normally paid about $35K – that is $17/hr. But that is as an employee…which you no longer are for Company ABC. One common method to calculate a consultant rate is to double the hourly rate ($34/hr) then tack on 20% for overhead, expenses, etc ($40.80) A 2hr minimum per consultation is reasonable for those not under contract – so that brings us to a total bill of $81.60.

    I can’t imagine any employer who would not be understanding once you explain you have been getting a bad reference because you stopped offering free consulting services after being gone well over a year. No one would expect you to do it for that long.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree that offering to help in exchange for a consulting fee is one possibility (as raised in this previous post: https://www.askamanager.org/2011/02/answering-questions-from-your-old-employer-after-youve-moved-on.html ), but you really can’t help and then suddenly bill someone afterwards, without alerting them first.

      I mean, yes, a normal person would know they can’t keep getting your help for free 16 months after you quit a job, but you still can’t just invoice someone out of the blue one day. That’s the kind of thing that needs to be worked out and agreed to up front. But you can certainly make future answers contingent on it.

      (Of course, there’s no way in hell this boss would agree to that. It would put a stop to the calls though … but probably in a more aggressive manner than is needed.)

      1. 3 + 5*

        OTOH, she is currently unemployed if I read that right, so this would be an opportunity for her to monitize her knowledge. If I were the OP, I would just state my case for getting paid going forward, then leave it up to them to decide one way or the other.

  2. Nate*

    I’m with Alison on this response.

    I would just tell future employers that you are expecting bad feedback from your employer because you refused to help after offering up free assistance to a job you left for a year and a half after departure.

    Anybody worth working for would at least probe for a “why”.

    Consultation sounds like a good idea, but I would consider offering it up to other companies as well! It sounds like you were specialized enough and acquired enough experience for it (if you had to leave a huge manual behind to describe your work, then that certainly seems like an indicator).

  3. Anonymous*

    I’m confused: Was her performance rating deemed unsatisfactory while she was there or has it been since she left (as out of spite)?

    1. JessB*

      It sounds like the OP did everything right and her boss is now just acting out of spite, and the bad leadership that the OP also mentioned.

  4. Richard*

    This is something I hear a lot of in IT: Someone who administered a system leaves the company, and even if they’d painstakingly documented everything about it, inevitably they start getting calls asking them questions about the system from previous coworkers or managers that decided not to refer to the documentation available.

    And a some of them took the consultation fee route; they agreed to help, as long as they were willing to pay consultation fees to do so; usually $200 an hour with a 2 hour minimum, which is pretty standard fare for an emergency consultation. Most callers balked at the idea of actually having to pay a former employee for their help, and it put an end to the calls.

    Most simply refused to help; they had new jobs, and their own responsibilities, without calls from previous employers at all hours (and I wish I was kidding when I say all hours).

    Those who kept taking calls… Well, they kept taking calls. Once you set the precedent, don’t be surprised if they just keep on calling. And unless you decide to put your foot down, they won’t stop.

  5. Anonymous*

    Allison’s advice is great as usual, but I’d hesitate on the option she offered of telling the boss that you wish you had gotten the negative feedback sooner and had the chance to improve. That sounds close to agreeing with them that her performance was unsatisfactory – when the frequent calls are evidence to the contrary. At this point, the time to rehash her performance with the former boss is over.

    For what it’s worth, it can be common to blame someone who’s no longer there – it’s easier than blaming someone still there when something goes wrong (not saying it’s right, but it does happen). I’d just ignore it and move on – quit taking calls and maybe limit how much re-hashing is done with former coworkers.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s a good point. I’m just a big fan of pointing out to people how ridiculous it is to complain about someone when you never gave them feedback to their face.

      And totally agree on the limit how much re-hashing you’re doing with former coworkers.

  6. Anonymous*

    “Believe me, people around him can see what a jerk he is, and they’re taking anything he says about you with a large grain of salt.”

    This. I worked at a place with crazy abusive CEO. When I joined she constantly trashed how the previous IT guy constantly said “No” when asked if something was possible and was irresponsible in general. It only took me a month (and that’s only because she was out the first 2 weeks I was there) to figure out that it wasn’t the previous IT guy’s fault but the CEO’s. I left about a year and half later and heard from coworkes I kept in touch about how she started trash talking about me to the new IT guy as soon as I left even though I had stellar reviews and double digit percentage increase after the first year. It only took the new guy few weeks to find me on Linked in to get in touch with me and figure what the hell was going on there.

  7. Erik*

    There is one additional step–it sounds like the OP isn’t up to it if s/he’s been getting stepped on for the past year and a half, but it’s worth considering:

    Presumably s/he has a copy of the employee file. (AAM, I just emailed you on that.)

    If the old boss is telling people things which are not justified by the employee file, it might be time to visit an employment lawyer. I don’t see a suit necessarily coming out of this, but you can make the bad mouthing stop.

    Imagine that Boss, the CEO, and the corporate counsel received a longer version of the below letter. It would probably put a real damper on the bad references. Of course, that assumes that the bad references aren’t actually true…

    Dear Boss,
    It’s come to my attention that you have been slandering my client, X, by denigrating her past performance at your company. As you know from the performance reviews you signed (*this is why you always get your file!*) X obtained no less than “very satisfactory” over the course of her employment with the firm.

    Should you continue to defame her personal and/or business reputation, or should you refer to her performance in a manner that differs from her performance reviews, you will be liable for significant damages.


    DO NOT try to do this on your own. But if the boss is really damaging the OP’s career, the OP should lawyer up.

    1. fposte*

      Good as that sounds, it would have to be only a bluff, unfortunately. There’s no case here because there are no monetary damages, and there’s no legal obligation for a supervisor to stick to the official evaluation when providing references. If Bob thinks Alice is a traitor who screwed up the system when she left, he’s legally entitled to say so.

      But I’m with AAM in not thinking that his whining is having any impact on her future, except that she needs to remove herself more often from situations where she’ll hear about it.

      1. Anonymous*

        Then what’s the point of having reviews in the company if Bob thinks he can turn around and say the total opposite once Alice leaves? It doesn’t make sense. If Alice left amicably (needed to move on, had to move due to family, etc.) and even created documentation so her successor could do the job well, how is that being the traitor Bob characterizes her? Your statement doesn’t equate.

        If the new potential employer can add, then they’ll see the same.

        Erik said it’s not to file a suit, but rather it’s just to scare the boss. For whatever reason, the old boss is upset by her departure. That’s for him to get over, not our OP.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          For argument’s sake, it’s *possible* that the boss only uncovered big problems in the OP’s area once she left. (Or that she performed very differently in her last few months than during the earlier periods that her evaluations covered.) Given what’s written about the boss here, I doubt that’s the case, and either way it doesn’t excuse the boss’s behavior, but it’s technically possible that this is the case, and that would be an example of times when performance reviews legitimately didn’t tell the whole story.

        2. fposte*

          I’m not saying she *is* a traitor–I’m just saying that there’s nothing illegal in Bob’s saying that she is if he feels it to be true. Performance reviews aren’t legal affidavits, and they don’t bind companies to the views expressed therein. They’re simply metrics for internal use. They could become relevant in court if there is a case of specific damages, where they might be used as Erik notes, but there’s a reason why cases like that are pretty rare–it’s unusual for there to be specific damages, let alone specific damages that are worth the cost of going after them.

          A C&D letter is at least cheap to send out, usually, but I disagree with Erik about its utility in this situation. As AAM notes, he’s not actually likely to have had any contact with the OP’s prospective employers; he’s just bitching to workmates about somebody he used to work with. Threaten him with legal action for doing that and his comments on the employee become “I’ve been told I’ll be sued if I’ll tell you what I think.” That’d be a lot harder for an applicant to address than the common unreasonable ex-boss scenario.

  8. Erik*

    If Bob thinks the OP is a traitor for leaving, he can say so, sure. Bob is entitled to his opinion.

    But if Bob represents the OP as having done a bad job *while she was there* and it can be proven not to be the case (with reviews signed by Bob) then Bob is lying. And if Bob is lying about her performance, and is telling other people.. well, Bob may be in trouble. Similarly, if Bob is demonstrated to be deliberately maligning the OP without basis, in an effort to impede her professional advancement elsewhere (think “malice,”) Bob may also be in trouble.

    Will it be hard to prove? Yes. But will the threat of a claim make it likely that the manager will be told to back off? Yes. No company wants one of their managers sued. Bob will be told to shut up.

  9. Tim*

    This Joe sound exactly like a guy named Joe I worked for at my first agency job. I wonder if it is the same guy? At any rate, move on, don’t respond, or if you feel the need to respond, do so in a way that tells him, look buddy, you are bad mouthing me in one breath, and asking me for advice in another, let’s sever this relationship now, because it is doing neither of us any good.

  10. Matt*

    Why not, next time he calls, just say “I would love to help you out, really I would, but you do not want my help. I have heard from numerous employees of yours how you are going around telling everyone what a total screw up I was. Now why on earth would you want a screw up to “help” you? That would make your job so much harder than it already is. So I am going to help you out by not helping you out.” Then let the conversation proceed from there. You have something he wants; He wants the info you have. He has something you want; Him to speak of you with dignity and respect. Make it very clear that the help office is closed unless and until you start hearing good reports from people about what he is saying about you. Will it burn a bridge? Quite possibly, but really how is that any different than him talking about you like you are a dog now?

  11. Thebe*

    First of all, I love Matt’s idea. Great way to call out the crazy old boss. Second, I don’t recommend charging a consulting fee. You take money from him and he’s your boss again, although on a contract basis. You owe it to yourself to avoid toxic business relationships like that.

  12. Anonymous*

    can you just ignore your former boss’s calls and emails? i’m asking because i might have a similar situation. I already gave my two weeks notice, but my boss keeps asking me to help and stay a little longer, or even work from home. Its every single day that i finally agreed to do one week from home. How can i put an end to this after that week?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You CAN ignore her, but it’s nicer to preserve the relationship for future networking/references, by instead saying: “I’ve gotten very busy with my new job and am finding I don’t have time to respond to calls and emails. I’m sorry but I can’t help anymore.” Then stick to that (and at that point, you can stop responding if it continues, because you’ve explained why). And hold firm!

      1. Anonymous*

        The only relationships that are work preserving are positive ones. This relationship is toxic and needs to end.

    2. Anonymous*

      Just walk away. You gave your 2 weeks, that is all that is required really in a professional sense. End the relationship and walk away.

  13. mike*

    tell the employer to basically “get stuffed”. you have no obligations once you have resigned. you had a legal agreement between your employer and yourself during your time of employment. this contract ended when you left. they have no right to keep calling you and I would be telling them to “find it yourself”.

    You are like a battered wife going back to the abusive partner. Stop it. They already think you are inept and incompetent and yet you take their calls. Next time the manager calls tell them “since you think you are soo great find it yourself…oh yes that’s right…you aren’t soo great….goodbye”.

  14. mike*

    Keeping things pleasant for networking. What a load of rubbish. She already states that the workplace says “don’t pull a smith on us”. She is derided and ridiculed in the workplace. Being nice to her ex-manager will do nothing for her career except make her out to be a complient individual. Grow some balls and stand up to them. I hardly think she is going to get a reference (well a decent one) from the ex employer since she is regarded as incompetent. Your latter advice to tell her you are busy is better. It is only worth sucking up to another when it is cash in your own pocket with your own business. In that case yes be nice and pleasant while thinking the customer is a total fool but as long as you pander to them they will pay. For an ex-boss forget it.

  15. Anonymous*

    You are not obligated to answer a question to a former boss or co-worker period. Do not answer their questions. Or better yet, tell them to send you a paypal for X dollars (whatever you believe an hour of your time is worth) and then when you receive the money answer their questions.

    You left the company, what they do after you leave is not your problem. If they want to pay you to consult, that is a different story.

    Nothing is free in this world, you should not help them at all.

  16. Nancy*

    Dear Heart,
    Your conscientiousness and work ethic are obvious and I commend you! You strive to always do your best and give 100% wholeheartedly. Do not mix that up with a false sense of responsibility. Do not take on responsibility for what is lacking in your ex-CEO’s own character. By doing so, you are enabling him to continue with his manipulation and control. He has found a way to play on your fears of 1. not doing a good job, 2. not being liked or accepted 3. somehow letting someone down.

    Honey, there are always going to be people who don’t like you! There are people who are users and are “haters”. His behavior suggests that he is both of these.

    You gave him a full 30 days to prepare for your departure! Wow! AND you put together a manual to help them. Double wow. You should feel proud of the way you exited.

    You have not let anyone down. You have not ditched any responsibility. You have not done them wrong. Receive this into your heart and be set free from those inward voices that are accusing you. It is OK to say ‘NO!” Practice saying it. Imagine situations and say it. And when that phone rings next time, do NOT apologize for not helping them! Simply say, “that is no longer my job, please do not call me again. Thank you.” And HANG UP. Do not wait for a reaction or response.

    Be at peace and stop being so hard on yourself!
    God Bless You.

  17. yup*

    i have a ? i left my job 8 months ago it was a sales job … the new sales guys that took over my old accounts are telling people that i got into a motorcycle crash and all the proceeds are going to my hospital bills …. there are alot of complaints on the company that i worked for …. can i sue them

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s illegal but the government would bring charges for fraud, not you. I’m not sure what agency you’d report it to — maybe the FTC?

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