my mentor blocked me from a career opportunity

A reader writes:

Susan is a marketing executive I have worked with for 3 years. She is not my boss, but I help her with the occasional project and consider her a mentor, someone I confide in and discuss career aspirations with (I’m an administrative assistant and would love to get into marketing). We both work at the head office of a company that manages commercial properties.

Recently, a marketing position became available at one of our properties, and Susan was working with the manager of that property to fill the position. I expressed my interest in the position to Susan, who fully supported me and said she would make it happen.

Over the next few weeks, I regularly followed up with Susan, suggesting that I contact the on-site manager directly, submit my resume, etc., to be told every time that she was handling it, and I didn’t need to take further action. A week later the on-site manager was at our office and mentioned that she had filled the position, and wished I had applied. It turns out the manager had asked Susan if she could hire me, and Susan told her I was not interested so it wasn’t an option. The manager suggested it might be because I work hard and Susan didn’t want to “lose” me.

I am shocked and quite upset, as it seems like Susan deliberately blocked me from this great opportunity. Is there anything I can do about this? Should I tell my own boss what happened (we have a good relationship), or just suck it up and move on?

Wow. Whether or not Susan did this because she didn’t want to lose you, this is highly unethical and deceptive. Whatever her reasons, she should have talked to you about them directly — explaining that she couldn’t be part of losing you to another company, or that she didn’t think you were a strong fit for the position, or whatever the issue was. Instead, she did the absolute jerkiest thing — lying to you and feeding you false information that caused you to take a different course of action than you otherwise would have taken.

If indeed it’s true. There’s a small chance that Susan actually did everything she said she was going to do, and that it’s the on-site manager — not Susan — who wasn’t truthful. Some people have trouble telling someone they know, “I didn’t think you were right for the job,” especially  face-to-face, and it’s possible that she said that she thought you weren’t interested in order to avoid that awkward conversation.

The thing to do is to talk to Susan. Tell her what the manager said to you and ask her what happened. She might tell you that the manager is wrong, and then you’ll have to decide who you believe. Or she might tell you that yes, she didn’t want to lose you — in which case you need to tell her what a violation of trust her actions were.

On the question of whether you should involve your manager if you do determine that Susan did this … Maybe. If someone did this to someone I managed, I’d be outraged on their behalf, and I’d want to know about it so that I could talk to them myself. But it really depends on what your manager is like and what you hope to gain by doing it.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Having just finished the first season of Damages, the thought crossed my mind that maybe Susan was protecting you from a crazy boss. Then I realized that this is the real world and that this is a really screwed up situation.

    When confronting Susan, be direct. Don’t beat around the bush, you need to clear the air now. For all you know, there could have been other opportunities that you missed out on because of her.

    Also if you feel comfortable, please post an update here in the comments. I think I speak for all the readers here in thinking, “What the heck is going on here?”

  2. Wilton Businessman*

    I’d talk to your mentor. Be upfront and let her know you want to know what she was thinking. If she gives you a snow job, you know you need a new mentor. If she tells you there’s a position opening up at XYZ branch and you would be perfect for it, then bow to the wise one and swallow the pride.

  3. Bob*

    I think this is a lesson to the reader as well. If there is a career opportunity that you are very interested in, take it upon yourself to speak with the hiring manager! In the end of the day, it is the hiring manager that matters, not your mentor.

    1. GRA*

      This was my thought, too. I would have just applied for the job myself and not trusted my mentor to do it for me …

  4. EngineerGirl*

    People are making the assumption that Susan actually lied to the OP. That may, or may not be the case.

    It is best to go to Susan seeking **clarification** not confrontation. I would go to Susan and say something like:
    “Hey Susan, I just talked to the hiring manager for the marketing position. She stated to me that she “wished that I had applied” for the position. The manager stated that she had asked you if she could hire me, and you told her I was not interested. This conflicts with what you told me – That you were working with the manager. I’m wondering what is going on? I’m getting two very different stories.

    Then watch. If Susan gets angry and makes excuses, you have the information you need. She may say that she sent the information in to the hiring manager. If that is the case, ask for specific dates when that occured . She may say “I’ll get back to you”. If she does, great. But if she keeps pushing back against giving you real data – you have the information you need. If she tells you she couldn’t hire you because of , then ask Susan how you can correct it for next time.

    My point is this – make sure your attitude reflects information gathering mode. You are trying to seek resolution between two very conflicting pieces of information. Keep an open mind about what happened until you get all the info. THEN act on it.

    If Susan betrayed you, you should let her know that you trusted her, and now you no longer can. Let her know how it has permanently damaged your relationship. Then seek a new mentor.

    If Susan did what she said, then she’ll be upset that you were lied to.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Exactly. It really is possible that Susan did do what she said she’d do. Approach her with an attitude of “I’m confused, what happened here?” not “I’m angry.” Because there might not be anything to be angry (at her) about.

  5. K*

    Ugh, that’s horrible. I hope the OP gets this resolved. The downside is having to figure out which one of the two is lying.

    Also, OP states that the on-site manager told her that she asked Susan if she could hire her. Many people don’t like giving bad news, but if you are a manager, I think you should be straight forward & honest about your decisions.

    I don’t see why she would make up a lie like that. This could be a case of her “mentor” not having her best interests in mind. Do give an update OP!

  6. Suz*

    Something else doesn’t make sense here. If Susan was just the OP’s mentor, not supervisor, why did the hiring manager ask her if it was OK to hire the OP? Wouldn’t the hiring manager talk to the OP’s supervisor instead of Susan?

  7. Jamie*

    It’s possible there’s an even more innocent explanation than the hiring manager being a big coward and lying about Susan’s comments.

    Depending on how detailed this conversation was they could have a brain lapse and gotten you confused with someone else.

    If the on-site manager only knows you in passing it’s possible he/she was confusing a conversation about you with a conversation about someone else that he/she had with Susan.

    Just speculation – but it’s possible this is just a huge misunderstanding and as someone who is bad with names and even worse with faces…it happens (I’ve just learned to be non-committal about everything at all times for this very reason.)

    Or maybe I just don’t want to believe anyone can be that asshatty to someone with whom they work.

  8. Interviewer*

    I cannot imagine this conversation with you going this way unless Susan was the culprit here. A hiring manager would not go out of her way to make those comments, knowing you work with Susan, unless you were absolutely discussed this way by Susan.

    Nevertheless, the advice to approach here with confusion (rather than anger) is sound. Her response should speak volumes and I am guessing it will be along the lines of backpedaling, like “I didn’t think you were right for that job and I’m keeping my eyes open for other opportunities for you.” I am guessing she felt like the gatekeeper since you didn’t apply without her intro and figured you’d never find out what she did. Now you’ve learned that your mentor is actively keeping you down. Very informative lesson for you in selecting a new mentor.

  9. the OP*

    Hi everyone, OP here (what does that mean?) –

    Just to clarify a few things:

    -If this were any other person or situation, I definitely would have been more direct with the on-site manager. But I had a history with Susan, and since this was a position they weren’t going to post (something I don’t agree with, but that’s a story for another day!), and Susan was basically the “go-to” person for this hiring, I didn’t see any reason not to go along with what she said

    -The on-site manager first approached Susan (instead of my boss) because she knew that Susan worked with me often and knew of my career interests/aspirations; Susan was also the point person for this hire. I’m confident that if Susan told her I was interested, the next step would have involved both my boss and the HR department.

    My company is very keen on promoting from within and providing opportunites for employees to grow in their career. They ended up hiring a recent university grad with much less experience than I have. I have a reputation as a hard worker (as evidenced by the manager’s comment about Susan not wanting to lose me), and have always enjoyed a friendly relationship with the the manger, so I really have a hard time believing this was about “fit”.

    Thanks to Alison and all the commenters for the tips/backing on this! I am going to talk to Susan tomorrow to see what I can find out.

  10. K*

    Alison, if the OP gets back to the board with an update, could you think about doing a post on job/employee sabotaging? I’ve read through many of your posts, but I can’t recall if I’ve seen one that’s touched on this topic.

    Do you happen to have any stories about employee sabotaging in your career?

    1. anon-2*

      What? You’ve never seen sabotage?

      I could write a BOOK on things I’ve seen. It might even have the potential to be a best-seller.

      It would be immoral to create such a work, because, someone might use a collection of dirty tricks as a model for management.

      1. Anonymous*

        It would be immoral to create such a work, because, someone might use a collection of dirty tricks as a model for management.

        Managers already know about all the tricks. The point is warning their victims in advance. The introduction to “How to Lie with Statistics” is relevant here.

  11. EngineerGirl*

    I’m a little concerned about the OPs statement that the the company went for a recent college grad instead of promoting from withinin. That statement shows that there may be a missing piece in the scenario – skill set. A college grad will have a different skill set than someone without college. Even if the OP were a hard worker that may not be enough for a particular job.

    One of my colleagues doesn’t have a degree. She is an excellent worker, but her lack of ecucation shows, especially when it comes to things having a technical background. She sometimes can’t make the logic jumps when we are trying to find root cause for an error. I suspect that it is because she doesn’t have the background to pave the way for the logic jumps. Not that she can’t learn, but right now she struggles in certain areas. I don’t think she realizes that the gap in her knowledge is bigger than she thinks it is.

    So OP, be prepared for some other explanation on why you weren’t offered the job. They may be looking for skills you may not have. And if they tell you that, then work to correct the deficiencies.

    1. Jamie*

      I like you just based on your screen name – that’s awesome. And I agree there are a million reasons to select one candidate over another…I think the issue here though is that Susan said she would pass her resume along, and then the on-site manager told her that Susan said she wasn’t interested.

      I don’t get the impression that the OP is asking why she didn’t get the job – but about the scenario of Susan saying one thing to her and seemingly blocking her attempts to apply by lying.

      On the logic issue, I really understand what you’re talking about. Unfortunately my experience is having worked with plenty of people with degrees who still lack basic logic skills.

      Engineers, like IT, tend to think linearly with logic based thought processes. It’s what I call IF > THEN > ELSE. It enables you to map out a project going forward accounting for variables and to trace a problem back to root cause.

      I don’t know if this is an inherent trait which causes logical people to flock to fields where this is required or if it can be taught.

      Sorry – I didn’t mean to go off topic but I have the same frustration in working with people who aren’t inherently logical. People talk all the time about types of co-workers and introverts vs extroverts, etc. To me the far bigger chasm in the workplace is logical vs not as logical. There has to be a better name for those thinkers who are less logical but I’m not sure what it is.

        1. Anon*

          In my MBA program all students had to take an assessment on personal thinking style. There were four dimensions: abstract vs concrete and sequential vs random. I think I would call your style of thinking concrete sequential and the “not as logical” abstract random thinking.

      1. Jen M.*

        I would also like to point out that the OP did not say she DOESN’T have a college degree. She may well have one, but possibly in a different field or she graduated a long time ago.

        I will also agree that there are plenty of people out there–even with advanced degrees–who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag.

        1. OP*

          I graduated university with an honours degree in 2008, so I have the degree AND a few years of relevant experience. The person they hired graduated last fall.

          I wish it was something as simple as lacking the skill set, but it doesn’t seem to be…

    2. Anonymous*

      It’d be one thing if she interviewed and went through the process to find out she wasn’t the ultimate candidate. Then, she’d be facing a conversation as to why she wasn’t picked. This isn’t the case here, though.

      She went through her mentor in regards to this new position. The mentor kept saying she’d work on it, but when all was said and done, apparently the mentor did nothing with no explanation attached or any apologies for that matter either.

      OP, when you want something done, it’s best to do it yourself.

      Truthfully, if this was me, no matter what explanation Susan gives me about what happened, I wouldn’t trust her ever again. I tread carefully with her because if this is what she is capable of doing, then only heaven knows what she can do further.

      1. Jen M.*

        I’m inclined to agree. I’d have to find a new mentor. This would just be too awkward for me going forward.

  12. Kyle*

    The first thing that occurred to me on this subject was that Susan might have been trying to protect the OP from a position she thought wouldn’t be a good fit. I’ve had a Friend/Mentor do this to me and although it was very frustrating the following two people to get the job failed pretty miserably within a year each and the job ended up being cut into pieces and handed out to different people.

    I’m still annoyed that I didn’t get a chance to make it work, I think I would have brought skills the following two people lacked and I could have done good things with the role, but it’s entirely possible he saved me some serious problems.

    So while it’s possible this may be a motive, Susan definitely went about it all wrong (if this is the way it played out.)

    Also, lesson learned on applying for a job yourself. It’s one thing to have a strong internal reference, but you should still put yourself in front of the hiring manager.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I’ve seen career sabotage happen MANY times to people I worked with, and I’ve also had bosses not process my request for transfers. I can’t believe anyone thinks that the mentor was trying to “protect” the OP. Protection like that, we don’t need. If the situation was so horrible, the mentor could have talked to the OP about it, instead of making her think the job was hers.

      It will be interesting to hear what the mentor has to say when the OP talks to her.

      1. Joey*

        Not saying this is the case here, but problem employees sometimes see “sabotage” when in reality we just don’t want to move a problem. Weak managers are happy to get rid of a problem employee even if it means dumping the problem on another manager. But, frequently somebody higher up puts the brakes on it. Other times it’s a passive aggressive way of dealing with problems. That is- I’ll do everything I can outside of addressing the problem head on, to make your life so miserable you’ll quit.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree with Joey – what a lot of people see as sabotage is bad management. Or disregard when people use shady practices to get ahead. The intent is different, not that intent matters.

          True sabotage where there are mechanisms in play to ruin someone’s career I would think are rare. Most people are more worried about getting ahead themselves than in bringing anyone else down.

          I’m sure they happen, I’ve just never been privy to it. I work in an environment that, while imperfect, does value transparency and I can’t even think of how you would do that in a transparent environment.

          “That is- I’ll do everything I can outside of addressing the problem head on, to make your life so miserable you’ll quit.”

          Huge pet peeve of mine. Why oh why don’t people get fired for performance issues? I believe in feedback, offering training, improvement plans – that’s all great – but at the end of the day problem or sub-par employees need to go.

          Problem employees will be a pita for any manager. Sub-par employees who are trying, but can’t meet standards *will* be happier and productive when they find a good fit for their skills.

          So many talented and productive people are looking for work right now, I just hate that there are slackers/underperformers keeping their seats warm because management prefers inertia to ripping the band-aid off for healing.


          1. Long Time Admin*

            “True sabotage where there are mechanisms in play to ruin someone’s career I would think are rare.”

            Jamie, that’s exactly what I saw happen. Our company was in a long downsizing mode, and people were afraid for their jobs. I saw some of the dirtiest tricks…I couldn’t believe some of the things I saw happen. It was disgraceful, and it shook my trust in fellow co-workers forever. The place was seriously toxic and it was a relief when I got laid off. I ended up in a much better place, with a great boss.

            1. Anonymous*

              Never forget Sir H’s sage advice: It is necessary to be behind someone before you can stab them in the back.

  13. EngineerGirl*

    There may be one other thing at play here – many times employees want to leave an organization for career advancement, but haven’t taken the time to groom someone to take over for them. Then the employee gets blocked from moving. Now part of the grooming (a huge part of it) should be on the manager. A good manager should be cross training people so that the loss of one person won’t be a major hit on the organization. That said, employees can help that out by making sure that they document their jobs and make sure that others can cover for them. In this current economy people don’t do that (as a form of job protection) but then they can’t move on.

    The OP may be in a position where management is terrified to lose her. If she wants to get promoted she may very well have to train her replacement. Management may not want that – which means that she needs to reiterate her career goals. It may end up that she needs to start looking for another job.

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