my boss lied about my accomplishments to try to get me promoted

A reader writes:

I have a great boss who really likes me and wants to see me promoted. I have only worked with her for about 5 months. Some restructuring happened within the company recently, and she was moved to a different department. When she heard they were bringing in a new manager, she met with him and lied about some of the things I’ve done. I guess she wanted me to sound more impressive so that he would consider me for a position that had opened up.

I appreciate that she wants me to move up in the world, but I’m really uncomfortable with the way she’s going about it! I want this promotion, but now I feel like I either have to go along with what she’s fabricated or I need to mention that I did not do those things and expose her as someone who lied about my credentials. I really enjoy my former boss and don’t want to ruin my relationship with her, especially since I still do some things for her department. What can I do?

What. The. Hell.

Who does this?!

She might think she’s helping you, but she’s actually hurting you. First, she’s put you in an incredibly awkward position. Second, she should want you to end up in a position that you got on your own merits, without deception. Third, by lying about what you’ve done, she’s risking pushing you into a position that you might not be the right fit for — and could end up struggling (or worse) in.

Tell her to cut it out. You can thank her for advocating for you, but tell her that you need to ensure that she’s not cheerleading you to the point of misrepresenting things. If you’re uncomfortable saying this point-blank, you could ease into it by saying, “Bob sounds like he thinks I did X, Y, and Z while I was working for you. I’m trying to figure out why he thinks that — do you have any insight?” If she then tells you that she said those things, you can look concerned and tell her that you appreciate her support but that she’s putting you in a tough situation and that you absolutely don’t want to misrepresent yourself (or to have her do it on your behalf).

If this doesn’t work, or if realistically you’re not going to be able to bring yourself to have this conversation, then we have to turn to how you handle it with the new manager. You have two options there:

1. You can proactively tell him what’s going on. Say something like, “I want to mention something I feel a little awkward about. It sounds like Jane has told you that I did X, Y, and Z in the past — and that’s actually not quite the case. I think she really wants to champion my work, which I appreciate, but I want to make sure that you have the right information.”

2. Or, if you decide not to deal with it proactively like that, you can simply not play along. In other words, if the new manager asks you about one of these things that you supposedly did, you can handle it exactly like you normally would if you didn’t know the back-story with your old boss: by just letting him know that it’s not right and correcting his information. For example:

New boss: “I heard you did a fantastic job leading the Smith account last quarter.”
You: “I’d love to take the credit, but I actually didn’t work on the Smith account — Jane handled that. I led the Beneke account and assisted on the Pinkman and Schrader accounts.”

That’s presumably what you’d say in that conversation if you didn’t know any of the back-story, and that’s how you could handle it now.

Whether you choose #1 or #2 depends on how significant and widespread her lies were. If it was just a couple and they were pretty small, you might go with #2. But otherwise, you risk looking in some way complicit if you don’t do #1 and the truth ends up coming out.

And by the way … your old boss is not a “great boss.” Great bosses don’t do this to you.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. Elise*

    Human memory is a strange thing. People believe what they want to believe. It’s quite possible the old boss does actually think she did those things (depending on what they are, I guess).

    The old boss really likes this worker and thinks they do great work. So if the boss knows the Smith account was handled wonderfully, but boss isn’t sure who worked it, they might assume it must have been this wonderful employee.

    Seems weird, but I’ve seen it happen and not just in business. Happens the other way too–if a person dislikes another (for whatever reason) they tend to be less willing to believe they accomplished something good.

    1. Elise*

      Not that you should agree with the misconceptions. But, a less risky approach might be to treat it as a misconception rather than a lie. The dialogue example Alison posted would work well with that.

    2. Runon*

      I agree with this. Memory is extremely malleable and that assumes that they knew the correct information in the first place. Perception thru the lens of memory can be very distorted without any intention to distort. Assume this is a misunderstanding and handling it that way will be much easier than assuming it is a lie. And may be more in keeping with the bosses other actions.

      1. Sascha*

        Quite true, my boss keeps thinking I have a master’s degree, because when they typically hire for this position, they prefer MAs. I’ve corrected her dozens of times, but she still tells people I have one, which I promptly follow up with, no I don’t.

        1. KayDay*

          Ha! My boss also thinks I have a master’s degree, despite my repeated corrections. I think it’s because I double majored as an undergrad, and both majors are relevant to the job.

          1. Sascha*

            Does your boss act surprised every time you correct him/her? Mine does. Like she has never heard it before.

        2. Cassie*

          My bosses think I majored in English (as one of the few native speakers, I have pretty decent writing skills) and despite my correcting them, they still make that mistake.

  2. Jeffrey*

    As Elise mentions above, human memory is a strange thing. Which is why I would recommend not going along with AAM’s 2nd suggested option.

    If for some reason these lies go unnoticed now, it’s quite possible that they get caught down the line — and at that point the new manager may have forgotten that the misinformation originated with the old manager, not the OP.

  3. Jeffrey*


    “What. The. Hell.

    Who does this?!”

    was exactly my reaction. Eeesh what a terrible spot to put someone in.

    1. Jamie*

      Right – and insulting. It’s like bringing a date home to meet your parents and assuring him that you’re parents will just adore him and he has no reason to be nervous…

      Oh and btw I told them you were an astronaut and are the heir to the Charms Blow-Pop fortune…and speak 19 languages and spend every Sunday feeding the homeless. Other than that just be yourself.

  4. Jamie*

    Is it possible your boss doesn’t understand what you do and was mistaken? I know that sounds crazy but I’ve had bosses in the past who would talk about my “programming” expertise – when what they really meant was I was the only one who understood the ERP data table structure. And I work with computers and programmers work with computers ergo I’m a programmer…except I’m totally not at all.

    Is it possible she’s mistaken?

    1. jmkenrick*

      This was my first thought. I remember when some of my coworkers overheard a short conversation in Spanish I had on the phone…a couple of days later, another coworker came over with some financial documents in Spanish she wanted me to help translate.

      There was no lying or deception there – just a misinterpretation of how skilled I was. If any of the coworkers who overheard me spoke Spanish, they would realize the limit to my abilities just by listening to me speak. But without that, their assumption was reasonable.

  5. Anon*

    Are these objective or subjective things? With objective things, I would probably go with AAM’s #2 (oh, actually I didn’t work on the Smith account).

    For subjective issues, I have often been more circumspect in my accomplishments than my bosses thought. So, in one evaluation, they marked me higher than I would have, and when I questioned, they said, yes you did this, e.g. you can call what you did on the Smith account project management. So, if they are subjective issues, it might be worth talking to the former boss about why she perceived your work that way.

    1. littlemoose*

      I was about to say the same thing! Not sure which I love more, the Breaking Bad reference or referring to hypothetical people as Wakeen.

  6. Christine*

    Ahh another question that I wish existed in the past! In my instance, summer of 2011. I took on one of two unpaid internships, both facilitated through my university’s career center. When I went for the initial meeting with the director and manager, the director expressed why he thought I’d probably do well with the position by saying, “With your X experience…” and in my head I was thinking, “What X experience??” Sure, I had some experience that touched on some aspects of X, but not enough to warrant saying that I indeed had true experience in it.

    Long story short, I now wonder if my career center misrepresented me. Probably not in the overt way that the OP’s former manager did, but I do wish somebody had clarified my experience before making this internship final and that I had had the nerve to correct both parties.

    Hindsight is 20/20. Great advice Alison.

    1. Anonymous*

      “I had some experience that touched on some aspects of X”

      For some people, that could easily mean “experience in X”. Experience is so subjective (see Jamie’s ‘programmer’ example above), and I doubt your career center would risk their reputation by outright lying for one of their students.

  7. Fifth Time Poster*

    From the OP’s question, we know the former boss is a female. If the OP happens to be a male, that might give a whole new angle to this woman’s puzzling desire to help her former, fairly short-term employee “sound more impressive.” (???) This does, indeed, seem like a very odd thing for her to do. The OP’s stating “I really ENJOY my former boss” rather than stating “I really LIKE my former boss” reminds me of a male who is being very careful not to send any wrong signals about their perceived relationship. I realize I could be waaaaay off base here, but I’m just trying to make sense of what the boss’s reason would be for doing such a thing.

  8. Fifth Time Poster*

    Ooops…on re-reading my post, I should’ve said it reminds me of “a person of the opposite gender” (which would be a male in this case, since the former boss is a female) being careful not to send any wrong signals. I may have sounded sexist in my post above, and, obviously, that kind of situation can work both ways. Mea culpa! :-)

  9. Jane*

    That sounds weird – so weird, I want to question the writer how does she know that her boss does that? Was she present in the conversation? Is she sure she understood what was said?

    Because it could be just a silly misunderstanding. If she (for a silly example) buys and puts up decorations, brings flowers, orders food, sends out invitations, plans official part and music, greets guests as they arrive, and makes a welcoming speech – she has organized and hosted an event, in her boss’s and everybody else’s opinion. While she may feel like she made a bunch of phone calls and re-arranged chairs in the room.

    My advice would be to go back to her former boss and find out what she said, what she meant, and how she thinks it was understood by other people in the organization. And then go from there – either bring it down to reality, or claim credit that is truly due.

  10. Waiting Patiently*

    Well your former boss got you in a nice tangled web. I would go with a version of option 1.
    So true “great bosses don’t do this!”

  11. No shame*

    Question to OP, are these skills something that you can easily learn in the future? Because, personally? If it was me I would do it in a heart beat!
    I’m not sure what type of industry the OP is in, but in my type of industry (Accounting) I wish my boss would do this to me! And I would take the opportunity (or take advantage) of it and see how it would benefit me. However, the first thing I would do is talk to the boss and see what was all said between her and the hiring manager. Maybe there was a miscommunication somewhere, but definitely talk to the boss. And if the boss really did fabricate some things in order for you to get an “interview” (I’m assuming), I don’t see any thing wrong with going a long and just be honest during the interview. For example, I would say something like “I would need a bit further guidance or training in that area”. But personally, even if I didn’t know some of the stuff, and if my boss did purposely fabricate for me to get an interview? I would do it in a heart beat!

  12. Darcy Pennell*

    Long ago I had a manager who did this to me. She introduced me to new clients as an “award winning chocolate teapot maker.” I’d never won an award, and after the meeting ended I asked her not to describe me that way again. But she kept doing it! I kept asking her to stop and she would just say “Don’t sell yourself short.” Accuracy is selling myself short?

    I was terrified that someone would ask me what award I had won and I would have to say “none,” essentially calling my boss a liar in front of a client. It never happened, thank goodness. Eventually I realized that this manager had a serious problem with exaggeration and outright lying. There were so many things she told untruths about, that inventing phony achievements for her direct reports was only a minor part of it.

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