former VP is accusing me of causing a spam influx on her computer

A reader writes:

I worked as the marketing person at a nonprofit for nearly 2 years. It was an entry-level position and I worked hard at it before I moved on to a bigger opportunity. I gave my manager the heads-up that I was job-searching a solid 2 months before I left, as a courtesy, and she said she’d be happy to give me a good reference (which she did). When I turned in my notice, I gave a full 2 weeks, left my leaving paperwork in order, and finished my projects.

I thought that I had done everything right, but over the past couple weeks, 3 of my former coworkers who I’m friendly with reached out to me to tell me that a VP (not my direct supervisor or someone I worked closely with, but she is newly managing my old position) has been telling folks that I hacked her work computer because it’s covered in spam!

I’ve been told she has been loudly speculating about this in the office, trying to convince my former manager that I’m behind the spam invasion, and is telling prospective employees about this as well. This is totally nuts and baseless — I’ve never been on her computer, and though I helped her with computer issues while I worked there (as one of the youngest employees, I became a go-to computer helper), I certainly would not have been dumb enough to click on any unsavory links or download those ubiquitous free smiley programs.

My coworkers have put it in context, letting me know that it’s not personal and that this VP “hates everyone who leaves.” But it feels personal and it’s my reputation on the line. This VP is known within the office to have a huge dramatic streak, and while we might know to roll our eyes at one of her dramatic stories, people outside the company would have no reason not to take her words at face value. Normally, I would just call my former manager and ask what’s up and if I could still count on her reference, but all of my former coworkers tipped me off with “you didn’t hear this from me/don’t tell anyone I told you, but you should know that….” and they don’t want me to mention anything to my former manager because they’re also afraid of being trash-talked by this VP to their own prospective employers (and they’re all job-searching), and my former manager and this VP are really good friends.

I don’t know what to do. I have a great job right now, so I don’t need a reference at the moment, but I did hope to have this job as a reference down the line. Do I even need to worry since I will be giving my supervisor’s info as a reference instead of this VP’s? My mentor advised me to document everything and get a lawyer immediately, which seems pretty scary. Help!

So a random VP who wasn’t your manager is complaining around the office that you “hacked” her work computer and caused her to be inundated with spam?

That’s such a bizarre and nonsensical allegation on many levels, and I wouldn’t even bother taking it seriously. Clearly people within the office know she’s a loon. And while I understand that you’re worried that people outside the office won’t have that context about her, imagine for a minute that someone you didn’t know very well told you that a former employee had caused a spam invasion on her computer. Would you care? You almost certainly would not. And you’d probably think it was a little weird that she was going around accusing someone of this, because (a) that’s a weird and hardly very serious accusation, (b) it would be equally weird for her to be airing such an odd complaint outside the office. Are you ever that interested to hear about someone’s spam problems?

Unless there’s way more to these allegations than what’s in your letter, your mentor’s advice to “get a lawyer” is nearly as bizarre. Why would you need a lawyer here? To threaten a defamation suit or slap her with a cease and desist over something like this? That would be a wild overreaction.

At most, if you feel you absolutely must do something, you could contact the VP and tell her that since you’ve left you’ve heard she’s concerned that you did something to cause spam on her computer, and that you never had any interactions with her computer that could cause that … and then go silent and wait to her what she says. Or you could call up your former manager and say the same thing. (And yes, I know that your former coworkers asked you not to mention anything, but you don’t need to name their names, and it’s unreasonable of them to expect you not to want to do something with information they’re willingly sharing with you. It’s just not their call.)

But really, we’re talking about someone blaming her spam on you. You’re better off just ignoring this mini-drama, putting some extra effort into maintaining a good relationship with your former manager, and moving forward with your new job. This is not worth being upset about.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 60 comments… read them below }

  1. Not So NewReader*

    Oh my. Speaking as a person who has caused my own spam- my answer to this is how come the VP does not how to take control of the spam issue? Or ask the IT department for help? If you make a half-hearted, half-baked attempt at the fixing a spam problem you will get some results.

    Perhaps it is harsh of me, but I see OPs friends as feeding the drama. Thinking people will hear this complaint and say “so what?”
    The friends of OP could do a lot to lessen the “value” of the VPs complaint by saying things such as:
    “Is tech helping you with that?”
    “OHHH, you are STILL having problems?”
    “There is lots of spam out there now, seems to me we need a SOP for dealing with it.”

    Bottomline is that all the complaining in the world does not fix the problem. Only an action plan will fix the problem. Please encourage your friends that they need to shrug it off when she says these things.

    OP, I suspect that there is NO spam on the computer, that is why the problem seems to be ongoing. She thought that would be a really nasty thing to say, so she went with it. She could probably make big drama over a puddle of water on the floor too. By the time you are ready to look for another job, this whole situation will have changed. She will have left the company or totally discredited herself, etc. And you will have built up a new pool of people who know you are a quality worker.

    1. techienotahacker*

      Thank you. I’m positive my friends are shrugging it off in her presence-no encouraging needed.. A couple of them even told her, “C’mon you know that’s not true,” but she just rolls her eyes. (This is a fairly typical interaction there).

      They tipped me off as a courtesy because they overheard her on the phone telling people outside the organization, which I do appreciate. I am glad to hear everyone on this thread’s reaction is basically, “wtf,” as that was my first reaction too. I feel way more comfortable about shaking my head and moving on and not taking my mentor’s advice about talking to a lawyer – which would be an expensive and scary next step.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Wise conclusion. Good for you.

        I think your mentor has best intentions. But in this situation, just living well and being a good employee, will resolve most of the fuss.

  2. Mike M*

    “At most, if you feel you absolutely must do something, you could contact the VP and tell her that since you’ve left you’ve heard she’s concerned that you did something to cause spam on her computer, and that you never had any interactions with her computer that could cause that … and then go silent and wait to hear what she says.”

    I would not engage with the VP on this — I think that would invite more crazy into the situation.

  3. A teacher*

    One of the VPs at my former employer would use similar tactics with some employees. We all just ignored it and when our turn came to leave to circumvent him some of us sent our own exit email to the department. He’s still a VP there and when people ask me about working for that company he is one of many reasons I tell people to thnk carefully before leaving. What some managers forget is just as your reputation matters, so does theirs and when an employee leaves an organization that last interaction is carried with the employee. You as the former employee have the ability to sometimes influence people that might consider working there or doing business or even eventually hiring the manager. Reputations go two ways.

  4. Yup*

    I’m not clear on why you’re concerned this would affect your references or reputation — it sounds like the VP is nuts but everything fine with your former manager? In any case, if I were a reference checker and came across someone saying that an applicant had hacked their computer because Spam, I’d think “Wow, this person really doesn’t get the whole Interwebs thing.” Because actual hacking allegations would be super serious and have a totally different tone that includes, you know, technical details.

    If you’re very concerned, maybe reach out to your former manager to catch up. Conversation permitting, you could say matter-of-factly, “By the way, I heard that Sue is saying I hacked her computer because she’s getting spam. She should really talk to IT about that so they can do a virus check and help her understand how it works for future.”

    1. Jessa*

      Exactly. Acting as if this is the end of the world, going to ruin your rep, is just going to escallate this thing beyond reason. When someone tells you this give them that language to go back to this VP with. If they keep reporting her whackiness it gives it validity. They need to shut her down by not buying into her garbage. And when they DO report it to other people. they need to do it in a “Hah so and so was being crazy saying OP did this, and we told them they should x and y and it couldn’t have been OP they’re silly.” In a neutral non excited, non scary way.

      1. techienotahacker*

        Oh I don’t think it’s the end of the world, and my coworkers are definitely talking about it in a “she’s totally nuts!” kinda way. We know she is just being dramatic and ridiculous.

        The issue that concerns me is that this VP is reporting this to other people like prospective employees, they can’t place it in the dramatic and ridiculous context.

        A person who was interested in my old spot contacted me on linkedin about it and mentioned that she said I was hacking the company and I just said, “It’s not true. She has some strong feelings about people who leave the organization, which is unfortunate. I’d be happy to chat with you on the position but she was never my supervisor, so if you’d like info on what she’s like as a manager, here’s x’s info.” They ultimately decided not to go for it.

        1. Ruffingit*

          I get the concern about what she is telling prospective employees, but honestly as an outside observer/prospective employee if a VP told me something like that, I’d think she was stupid at best and insane at worst. In other words, believe me when I say she’s not making you look bad, she’s making herself look bad principally because when someone tells me what employees did who don’t even work there anymore, I wonder why they’re bothering to do so? The person is no longer a factor in the company so why tell me, a possible new employee, about them? My immediate thought would be “You must have had some kind of personal issue with that employee to be telling me this. Get IT to fix your problem and move on.”

          1. Rana*

            Agreed. Plus I’d be thinking less about the previous employee and more about what it would be like to work with such a strange person.

        2. brightstar*

          The VP is only serving to make herself look bad. Most people with basic computer knowledge will know that the hacking allegation is baseless and absurd.

        3. Denise*

          If anything, it bodes well for you that the prospective employee contacted you about it. It sounds like she comes across as crazy and paranoid to everyone else.

  5. V*

    Is the VP talking about a virus/malware or is she talking about spam?

    Spam is unwanted messages sent through e-mail. The only way you could be responsible, is by posting her e-mail address publicly somewhere.

    Malware/viruses are when your computer has been hacked. It’s possible that the VP got a virus and doesn’t want to admit she accidentally went to an infected site (which has happened to most everyone at some point and doesn’t mean she did anything wrong). Maybe she is just too embarrassed that there’s no a virus on her computer and she’s just trying to throw the blame on someone else… It’s easier to blame someone who isn’t there to defend themselves.

    1. fposte*

      Yeah, I was wondering just what the VP was really talking about. Admittedly, even just signing her email up privately for the right list can be enough to get her name out to spambots, so the OP *could* have done it if it’s really spam. But it’s a lot likelier that the VP did it, and I think that people listening to the VP are going to mostly think “You’re blaming somebody else for your folly.”

      1. techienotahacker*

        OP here – I’ve heard it all secondhand, but it sounds like spam, instead of a virus. I think it is 100% likely that this is something she did on accident, and I don’t really care what it is – unfortunately, she’s not using the word “spam” or “virus” but “hacking.” Someone who was interested in my position contacted me on linkedin and tell me that she was telling people the old marketing person was a hacker trying to get back at the her and the company. (For what?! I don’t know). This whole thing is exactly as bizarre and crazy as it sounds.

        1. ChristineSW*

          Just be careful with second-hand information. It’s like that old telephone game…the further along the chain it goes, the likelier it is to be misheard/misinterpreted/not fully remembered. I do believe that your VP made the hacking accusation, but don’t get too wrapped up in thinking she actually said you were a “hacker trying to get back at her and the company”. At least, I hope to goodness the VP isn’t really saying that!!!

  6. Jamie*

    (as one of the youngest employees, I became a go-to computer helper)

    I know not the point of the letter, but statements like this other me so much. There is no correlation between being one of the youngest and the go to for computer issues. I have had end users from late teens to early 70s and there are computer savvy people across the board just as there are computer illiterate people in every age range…even the young.

    It’s just a pet peeve and it’s right up there with other work place myths like that its illegal to give an honest reference – so many people accept these things as fact when they aren’t.

    1. techienotahacker*

      I totally agree – a birthdate in the 80s, a gaming hobby, and some thick-framed glasses do not make me a computer whiz. Or any kind of whiz.

      Every time something broke (hardware/software/whatever), it was always “Get the kid in here!” We had an outsourced IT department that wasn’t very timely in fixing issues and this same VP thought they had “an attitude.”

      Believe me, lesson learned – no more helping people with their computers. It wasn’t in my job description, and it was always a huge time suck.

      1. Nutella Nutterson*

        I was the accidental computer expert at a couple jobs. Now I remain completely quiet about any computer skills I may have.

    2. Felicia*

      I was the youngest person at my previous company and I became the go-to computer helper and I absolutely hated it. People would assume I knew how to do certain things because I’m young when I really didn’t. I’m not computer illiterate, so was sometimes able to help with really basic things, but I’m by no means the most computer savvy person and people would often just assume I could help them and would always insist I try even if I say I’m not familiar with that particular computer program.

      1. Windchime*

        People assume that because I am a programmer, I can fix their printer problems or help them with their home network. Uh, no. Being a programmer who can write SQL doesn’t mean that I know anything at all about printers or networks.

    3. Chinook*

      Add me to those pointing out that being young doesn’t equal being tech savvy. In my family, the experts are my uncle (who refurbished computers for schools in his retirement), my dad, myself (oldest girl) and a cousin (who programs the optik tv thingy for a telephone company and was getting text messages from servers 10 years ago). Anyone younger knows the basics and that is it (because we have in family tech help and even get calls from an aunt in England when she has issues)

      Plus, knowing some tech aspects doesn’t equal overall expertise. Anything windows and I make magic. My dad and uncle rock when it comes to hardware and my cousin, well, we have all forgiven his love of Apple.

    4. dejavu2*

      Being young doesn’t equal being tech savvy, but I have never worked in an office in which it was not assumed that the youngest person was the most familiar with computers.

    5. Rana*

      Yup. When I was teaching a lot of people kept talking about the current generation being “digital natives” and therefore not needing much in the way of instruction in tech.

      It’s a completely faulty assumption, in the way that assuming that we as “electricity natives” (e.g. we can flip on a switch or plug in a fan) know how to change fuses or rewire a socket. Meanwhile I know a lot of people my age, or my father’s age, who learned about computers when they were still the sort of devices where opening up the code and dinking around was something anyone could easily do. (I mean, heck, I once purged my system of a virus by going in and manually deleting the line of code that was the virus – I can’t imagine doing that today.)

      I’ve had students who were computer experts, and others who were so afraid of them that they never checked their email and tried to submit their essays in longhand, and age had absolutely nothing to do with either (the one who wanted to handwrite her essays was in her 20s, for example).

      1. A Teacher*

        I have a computer lab attached to my classroom because of what I teach (career ed) that uses computers for research purposes. My prinicipal was shocked because I didn’t know how to fix LOAP errors or how to reimage the computer. I’m an atheltic trainer turned Health Sciences Career teacher. If ctrl+alt+delete bringing up the task manager can’t fix it, I’m not much help. I didn’t go into computer science or IT so don’t ask me.

      2. Pussyfooter*

        On a college campus I’ve seen both, too.
        And that’s cool that you could just go in and delete a line of type to kill a virus.

      3. Emma*

        If anything, one of the founders (Eben Upton) of Raspberry Pi (a cheap micro computer aimed at getting more kids into the STEM field) surmises that today’s “digital natives” are less fluent in computer programming than …say… (here’s me putting words in his mouth) those of us who had a little interaction with command lines from loading up a floppy or two of Wolfenstein 3D in the 90s. :)

        Here’s a quote from him on the whole digital natives idea (it’s long):

        Just before we launched the Raspberry Pi in 2012, I got talking to a neighbour about our plans to make a computer the price of a textbook. Working in admissions at the University of Cambridge, I’d noticed a worrying decline in skills among the 18-year-olds arriving to study Computer Science. Kids we’d admitted in the 90s typically rolled up with an encyclopaedic knowledge of low-level programming languages; the students we were admitting now were every bit as smart, but their experience was limited to web design and a depressing level of familiarity with PowerPoint – we were building a generation of rote workers who use computers to consume, not to create.

        Kids’ exposure to hardware at home in the 2000s meant exposure to unprogrammable gaming devices; or to family PCs, where Mum did the banking and you did your homework. PCs were much too important and expensive for children to ‘mess around with’. These were the lucky kids, too; 20% of homes in the UK do not have a computer at all. We thought we could try to address this problem by making a machine designed for learning, which was open, robust, interesting, and cheap enough to be useful in experimentation, where nobody would worry about the cost of replacement if it broke. My neighbour was nonplussed. “I can’t see the need. Kids today are digital natives! They know more about this stuff than I do! And anyway; why would you need to teach them to program? The computers do all that stuff for them anyway.”

        From where he’s standing, he’s right. He can see a handful of newsworthy young people starting up successful online businesses and getting into the papers; he hears about his daughter’s school friend, who has made an iPhone app using web tools. And his kids are probably better at programming the Sky box than he is. But – digital natives? I’ve yet to meet one, and I spend a lot of time in classrooms these days. Who is going to build the back-end of those web tools in the future? Who is going to design the componentry inside the iPhone-like instruments these kids will be using in twenty years’ time? If it’s a generation of children whose educational focus has been on using tools rather than creating them, we’re in trouble.

    6. Forrest*

      Trust me, us “youngins'” are sick of it too. My dad has been trying to get me to set up technology equipment for years and I’m always like “um, I’m just going to have to read the directions just like you would.”

      As I love to tell me parents, who assume that I’m so technology savvy “My first computer was a DOS too guys.”

      1. Ruffingit*

        Yeah, my dad always likes to say that I grew up with the technology we have today. And I’m like “Um, I sent my first e-mail when I was in college.” I played Oregon Trail on the green screen computers. I didn’t grow up with the type of stuff we have today (Google, Facebook, laptops). We all have to learn to use it, no one is any more or less tech savvy at birth than anyone else.

          1. Emma*

            I recently had the depressing experience of playing Oregon Trail on a newer computer and it was unplayable. Computer speeds are such now that the game just zips by! Every pace is grueling pace!

  7. Ruffingit*

    I’ve worked for a couple of places where, once you left, the upper management would talk about you like you were a major problem/a jerk/an idiot. It happened to enough people who had exited that it became clear the real problem was with management.

    In this case, I’d do nothing except tell my friends at the company not to report this stuff to me. I get that they may have been doing it in good faith, but this is such a baseless accusation that it makes no sense to even be concerned. Also, as someone else pointed out, I think the VP is confusing Spam with Malware/Virus. If so, the VP looks even more ridiculous not to understand the difference. I’m guessing VP somehow got a virus on her computer and rather than own up to her own culpability in that, she’s blaming someone who left because that person isn’t there to refute the claim.

    1. Jamie*

      Yeah, even though he letter said spam this read as malware to me as well.

      I’m confused though, because the OP said she never touched the computer, then said she had given her computer help. Was this just advice?

      It’s a good reminder though that unless its your job to do so you should leave computer issues to IT, because trying to help can cause more issues than it solves, even if everything was done correctly the recipient of the help can misunderstand.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I’m guessing she helped with some basic instruction such as “oh, you want your e-mail to automatically forward? Click here, do this, go there…” or perhaps she stood over the VP while the VP did all the computer clicking.

        In any case, the VP has issues and I don’t think the OP should make the VP’s problem any more dramatic than it already is. Be glad you don’t work there anymore and move on.

  8. Garrett*

    If I were a hiring manager and heard through the grapevine what the VP was saying, I don’t even think I could take this seriously. It sounds like some bad sitcom episode. An employee leaves a company and hacks a random higher-up’s email but yet doesn’t bother anyone else’s stuff? Stupid to be blunt and no serious hiring manager would give this a second thought. It may actually help to think you survived working with this loon.

    1. techienotahacker*

      Thanks – this exactly what I was hoping to hear.

      I have an amazing career mentor who has always given me solid, grounded advice, so my spidey sense went all PANIC when he mentioned getting a lawyer. I’m going to touch base with him again about it. We do work in an industry where piracy is a huge concern so I think he was thinking the implication of hacking carries a lot of weight. So I’m really glad to hear everyone immediately reads this as looney tunes.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Yeah, the woman is crazy. And what kind of crappy hacker would you be if all you did was institute spam on her computer? Seriously?? Wouldn’t it have been better to send a system-wide virus that shut down the computers at an appointed time and/or wiped out data? Not that I’m suggesting that, LOL! Just saying that “hacking” so you can produce spam on one person’s computer? No self-respecting hacker would bother.

        1. techienotahacker*

          Lol! I had the same reaction with my friends. What kind of devious haxor would I be to just send some ads her way? Dumb.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      Me too. First of all, as the hiring manager I wouldn’t bother contacting people you hadn’t worked with directly, so I don’t think the “hiring managers will contact references you haven’t listed” rule is any cause for worry here. And even if I as the hiring manager did get in contact with this person somehow, I’d probably ask, “Um, how are you sure that OP is the one who got you on a spam list?” Dollars to donuts this person won’t be able to give a coherent answer, and that’s the end of that.

  9. FD*

    Would anyone take her seriously if she started telling everyone she met that you “broke the internet” for her?

    This is just about as crazy. Engaging will make it look like you take it seriously, and her accusation is too loopy to do that. Chances are she clicked on a link she shouldn’t have, or installed too many any add-ons on her Internet Explorer.

  10. Liane*

    While it’s clear this woman is a crazed drama queen, it also wouldn’t surprise me at all if VP had done Something Forbidden* on her work computer & got scared she’d be caught & get in trouble. So she decided that if she screamed long & loud enough about the OP messing up her computer, it would keep IT or her bosses from suspecting her.

    *accidentally or deliberately

    1. Ruffingit*

      That was my thought as well. I am almost certain the VP did something herself and is now trying to deflect blame. And unless the VP was downloading child porn or something else illegal, she ought to just ask IT to fix the problem and move on.

    2. techienotahacker*

      Wow – hadn’t considered this, but it wouldn’t be out of character for her at all.

      Thanks! I’m putting this behind me and moving forward :)

  11. Mike C.*

    Comedy option-

    “I heard that you only get hacked when you watch too much porn at work. Those sites can be really sketchy!”

    1. Jamie*

      Make sure you know you’re audience before you try to be funny.

      Back in the day when I was a young(ish) and fresh(ish) faced IT I was delightful when someone had a problem – because I was so excited that I was an IT now and that people actually paid me to do this for a living. Ahhhh – the olden days.

      But I digress. I walked into an office and cheerfully with a smile looked at her screen and asked, “what did you do?” with a laugh…she almost burst into tears and fell over herself swearing she hadn’t touched a thing and was actually freaking out. I had to talk her down and explain that BSOD happens when a computer is 9+ years old and used by more people than a bathroom at a Chevron station. Poor thing – apparently the former IT wasn’t as lovely and sweet as I am and had everyone too scared to report a problem until it was unusable.

  12. Laura*

    I have nothing in the way of advice to add here, since it’s all very good. But this reminds me of something that happened to a friend of mine years ago.

    I got an email from her one day, and opened it up. Something weird immediately began to happen and my first thought was that it was a virus so I closed all my browser windows and shut down my machine. That seemed to do the trick.

    I sent my friend back an email and told her that I thought she had sent me a virus – not to yell at her, but to just let her know so she could have the IT people where she worked take a look.

    She responded that yes, she knew, because the virus had completely hosed up the network at her office, and the IT guy had to work until 1 in the morning to fix her mistake. She felt just terrible, so the next day she stopped at the liquor store and bought him a bottle of tequila and a carton of cigarettes (he was apparently quite a partier). What makes this funny is that she was about 8 months pregnant at the time, and was getting some serious dirty looks at the liquor store when she bought that stuff. LOL!

  13. VictoriaHR*

    I would be irked. I’ve never understood why people take it so personally when others leave their workplace. Recently a coworker in HR left and another department has been steadily blaming her for stuff that she didn’t screw up. Easy scapegoat, I guess.

    1. techienotahacker*

      It definitely doesn’t feel good. I’ve never had any complaints about my work performance before and have awesome relationships with people from my previous jobs.

  14. Anonymous*

    Off topic remark-
    “…as one of the youngest employees, I became a go-to computer helper…”
    I understand what OP is trying to say here, but generalizations like this are never helpful in the workplace. Young does not necessarily make you good with computers, any more than it makes you, well, anything else. The best programmer I ever knew was a 60-something FORTRAN expert. Stereotypes are meant to be broken.

    1. techienotahacker*

      OP here and I couldn’t agree more and found it really, really annoying when people would constantly interrupt my work to ask for help on any computer issue.

  15. Brian*

    Not sure why AskaManager advised against at the the very least talking to a lawyer or legal professional. Hacking is a serious charge, and while this VP sounds every bit as delusional/paranoid/clueless around computers as everyone says, your mentor is not wrong to suggest protecting yourself against such an allegation.

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