my new employer scolded me for talking to my predecessor

A reader writes:

I recently accepted a managerial position at a small nonprofit where I know the previous manager. One of the office staff also applied for the role I got and was unsuccessful, and there has been much talk during the recruitment process of how this person would be managed, as they are very bitter about the situation.

During the recruitment process, I contacted the previous manager to ask a couple of questions about the role, no insider information but just general questions about the conditions. When I was offered the role, I didn’t tell anyone as I was conscious that the internal candidate’s rejection had to be carefully managed and the hiring manager advised me there were some “serious internal HR issues” they had to resolve, which raised a red flag for me.

I received a message through LinkedIn from the previous manager (who was no longer working there) asking me to call her urgently. When I didn’t, she sourced my number through someone else and called me to congratulate me, as the un-successful internal candidate had called her to tell her I’d got the position. We had a personal conversation about various work and non-work topics, during which I asked her if she was aware of any HR problems, as I had heard there may be some issues. Big mistake! Apparently she hopped straight on the phone to the office team asking what these HR issues were, and the unsuccessful internal candidate called the hiring manager asking what these HR problems were that I was referring to.

The majority of my induction morning (a half day sit-down and chat with the senior management team before I formally start, talking through the practicalities of the role) was spent being scolded by the hiring manager for speaking to the former manager and also being reminded over and over about workplace confidentiality. I wasn’t asked anything about the conversation or what I did/did not say but heard repeated references to my inability to keep work matters confidential. The senior team told me to come in at 10 am on my first day, and then there was an internal panicked conversation about who would tell the staff so they don’t think I feel like I “can stroll in late whenever I feel like it.” 

I accept I made a mistake that I won’t repeat, but it’s also raised some concerns for me over the kind of staff I would be managing, the kind who take the content of a second-hand personal conversation (that they don’t know to be true) and try to use it against someone. I know the internal candidate’s pride/feelings are hurt, and as a result of what’s happened I don’t have one ounce of excitement about starting this new role. My gut is telling me to run. Am I overreacting or does their behavior suggest they’re going to be a misery to manage?

They might be difficult to manage, but I’m far, far more concerned about the people above you.

You can handle difficult employees; you have the authority to lay out standard for behavior and consequences for not meeting them, after all. But there’s not a whole lot you can do about incompetent and unreasonable people above you, and that sounds like the situation here.

Scolding you for talking to the former person in the role, someone who you already knew? Frankly, it would be weird if you didn’t talk to her, since you already knew her and were taking over in the job she used to hold, but even aside from that, scolding you? Repeatedly?

It would be one thing if your soon-to-be-boss said, “I know that you know Jane and will probably talk with her about the team, but she had a really different assessment of things than I do, so I’d ask that you reserve judgment until you get in here and can assess things for yourself.” But scolding you? And reminding you of “workplace confidentiality,” which doesn’t really apply here?

And panicking that your staff might think you can “stroll in late whenever you feel like it” if you arrive an hour later than normal on your first day?

The whole thing is weirdly adversarial in a situation that shouldn’t be adversarial at all. You didn’t do anything wrong.

These are big danger signs that whoever’s running things over there is running them badly, isn’t reasonable, and has poor judgment. That’s the person who’s going to have a massive amount of control over your quality of life and how you’re able to operate. Your gut is telling you to run for a reason.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 182 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam*

    This place…is run by loony toons. If your first day walking in you see a bunch of people running around in big red hats putting out fires you may want to reconsider your options, because I can easily see it just getting hotter.

  2. anon23*

    OP, did they tell you SPECIFICALLY not to talk to the previous hiring manager? Otherwise, they have no reason to be upset…

    Also, I’d be really put off if I was scolded like a child my first day for doing something completely normal.

    1. Rose*

      Even that would be totally unreasonable. 1) because they already knew each other and 2) because saying “we want you to work here just don’t talk to anyone else who has about what it’s like is bizarre and in no way acceptable.

      agree about the scolding thing. I would have been SO annoyed.

    2. Anna*

      If someone hired me and told me unsolicited that I should not speak to anyone that used to work there, that would be a red flag the size of the side of a barn with flashing red lights and a PA system blaring “TURN BACK! IT’S NOT TOO LATE! DANGER AHEAD!”

      1. Laurel Gray*

        Right! It’s like a restaurant having “please do not take pictures of our food or leave reviews on Yelp about your experience” written on the menu!

    3. morla*

      OP here – they asked me after the incident not to interact with her anymore, on the basis that they needed to know what was said in the workplace was kept in the workplace etc. They knew prior to/during the recruitment process that I knew her outside of work as our industry is pretty niche and we all kind of know each other.

      1. Anna*

        So they’ve essentially told you that once you start working there, they can dictate who you can have as friends. So not okay.

      2. Clever Name*

        Is a security clearance or proprietary information a concern for this workplace? If not, why the “what happens in Office stays in Office”? Just weird.

      3. zora*

        um, no, this is already BS. A good organization doesn’t need to worry about “keeping things in the workplace.” they can be transparent with employees, former employees, colleague organizations, etc, because they are doing things the right way and above board. I have worked in a niche area, and everyone knows that these things get discussed among everyone because there is often movement between colleague organizations. I’m calling BS on this org and agreeing you should get out now.

        1. Zillah*

          Seriously. Why would they hire you if they don’t trust you to keep confidential information to yourself?

        2. Anon for this*

          Secrecy is always a red flag. I’ve been involved in various non-employee capacities for a nonprofit that is known for dysfunction locally and from what I hear is also considered pretty messed up on the national level too (there are reasons why I’ve remained involved, but I don’t want to give too much detail). I was forced to sign a “confidentiality agreement.” The document itself is a pretty standard and reasonable “don’t share private personal or proprietary information you have access to in the course of your involvement here” one-pager. The problem is, the ED seems to think this agreement binds people not to say anything negative about the organization, and uses it as leverage when they thinks someone did. Apparently they think (and sadly it’s likely with the population they serve) that no one reads the thing. I suspect the ED just found it online or something and didn’t read it either, or they would know it doesn’t serve the intended purpose. Because I’m pretty sure the intended purpose is an unethical at best, illegal at worst, prohibition on discussion of negative aspects of the organization’s operations, including working conditions.

        3. Vicki*

          Besides, this isn;t just any friend. This is a former employee. This is the person who had the job you got. This is a person who is also, presumably, under the same non-disclosure agreements.

          As long as you don’t tell _her_ anything new (which you don’t know, being new), there’s no confidentiality breach at all.

      4. Melissa*

        Sorry, that sounds like bullshit. If they are concerned about confidentiality of client or work information they can say that, but any company that wants to prevent you from discussing general work-related stuff with prior employees is suspicious.

  3. Anonsie*

    Wow, this made my stomach sink. I have second-hand dread for this place.

    The bit about them being worried about the other staff being upset about you coming in slightly later on your first day set off some very familiar alarm bells for me in particular. I’ve worked in some places that kept tight leashes on who could be where and when due to the vitriolic nature of the gossip that would start circling if people were allowed to do things like, horror of horrors, be scheduled later on their first day. You may recognize this as being the exact opposite of a solution, and the whole environment in those places is exactly as difficult as you’d expect.

  4. Ama*

    What is up with the “friend’s” role in all this? If she knew things were a bit sensitive, why would she report what the OP said back to her team — especially the internal candidate? It doesn’t sound to me like the OP is the one who needs a lecture on confidentiality.

    1. some1*

      And who sends a LinkedIn messgae that says, “Call me right now!” just so they can say Congratulations? Ntm tracking down the LW’s phone number after she doesn’t call. Why not just say Congratulations in the message?

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        I think the congrats was more of an icebreaker, but yeah im confused on this part too as to why the ex mgr would be talking to the butt hurt candidate

        1. Zillah*

          Speaking of how language has power, which came up in the short answers today – is it really necessary to use the term “butt hurt”? It’s got some pretty nasty undertones.

          1. LD*

            I’ve never heard this had nasty undertones…just thought it meant someone got “spanked”; which meant criticized or reprimanded or whatever, not actual spanking. Is it too nasty to explain?

    2. Rose*

      This was the most confusing part for me. She no longer worked there. I can’t think of any logical reason at all that she would call them to see how HR was doing. And then the rejected candidate called HR to check on the status of someone else’s hiring? I can’t tell if I missed something here or if everyone is just being really flipping nosy.

      1. some1*

        The rejected candidate was internal, so I *think* the rejected candidate called the Hiring Manager & was like, “Hey, I heard you told LW we have major internal HR issues, what’s that about?”

        1. SherryD*

          In my take on this, it was the outgoing manager’s call to HR that pushed this over the edge. She doesn’t work there anymore — no need to get involved!

          This is an worrisome cast of characters: the overly-bitter rejected internal candidate, the stressed and paranoid senior team, an ex-employee who feels the need to stay in the loop about HR decisions…

        2. Rose*

          I guess that was my read also, but i don’t get WHY she would do it? Are you assuming the HR issues were with the whole company? I guess that would make more sense? I assumed they were just with this hire. I can’t really imagine approaching my manager about issues I had heard about second hand through an X employee in a different department unless they directly effected me in some way.

          1. Kyrielle*

            I wonder whether the HR issues were with the former manager, who apparently is no longer with the company, and she may have been digging for info. If so, the senior team may not have wanted anything said to her, and she may have been fishing for “what have they told this person I know” or the like.

            On the other hand, to the senior team: if it’s company confidential, you either don’t share it until they’ve accepted the offer and then you clearly state it is company confidential _before_ sharing it, or, you live with the results.

      2. fposte*

        I was thinking that the former manager may still be with the business but in a different role–otherwise I can’t imagine why anybody would talk to her about what’s going on to this degree.

        So in my math there’s the person who previously held the OP’s job, who’s overinvolved especially if she’s no longer with the company, and the person who wanted the OP’s job, who’s overinvolved and who’s apparently being enabled by Previous Manager and/or leaky HR.

        1. Adonday Veeah*

          “otherwise I can’t imagine why anybody would talk to her about what’s going on to this degree.”

          Oh, fposte, you sweet, innocent thing. Why, for shit-stirring purposes, of course!

          I’m guessing the former manager was part of the problem that they thought they’d gotten rid of with her departure, and now the LW has dragged her name back up and everybody’s horrified that she might turn out to be like her predecessor.

          1. Melissa*

            Possibly, but I think the company can find a professional way to convey that. I think someone said it upthread – “You’re welcome to speak with Jane if you would like, but Jane and I simply did not see eye to eye on many issues. So I ask that you keep an open mind and refrain from forming any opinions until you get here.”

        2. morla*

          OP again – the former manager is no longer with the company. She relayed details of our conversation to the unsuccessful internal candidate who then relayed them to the hiring manager. As to why she did it I have no idea – she may just have been running her mouth or ahe may have been trying to give the internal candidate ammunition to try and have me ousted before I even started!

          1. Beancounter in Texas*

            I concur with Adonday Veeah on this one – the former manager wanted to gossip. Some people have no boundaries of when it is not appropriate to repeat something said to them, and usually they have very open and inviting ways to get people to spill the beans too. Plus, she was enticed by your unintentionally baiting question about HR issues, which sounds really juicy, especially if the office is a gossip-haven, which seems to be its reputation. I don’t think the former manager meant any harm, but the unsuccessful internal candidate certainly appears to have used it to her advantage.

            Frankly, the office sounds like a barrel of monkeys. I’d trust your gut, or have a Plan B ready to spring into action at the drop of a hat.

          2. Jerry Vandesic*

            The former manager did this because she is allied with the unsuccessful internal candidate. Her call to you was at the behest of the other candidate. She picked apart everything you said to find something incriminating and passed it along to the other candidate. She did it because she wanted to damage your reputation on your first day.

    3. Funfetti*

      The old manager seems like a jerk – calling the old org about what HR issues. Why does it matter to you anymore? Why do you need to insert yourself? Sounds like the old manager has some of the bad habits of the new place – loving and causing drama.

      1. Student*

        It seems pretty obvious to me.

        Old manager is friends with rejected internal candidate. When the OP mentioned HR issues to old manager, I am sure that the old manager immediately assumed that there were HR issues with her friend the over-reacting rejected internal candidate. Old manager called rejected internal candidate to give a heads-up, and rejected internal candidate lived up to her reputation of over-reacting by quizzing management about it.

  5. Sassy Intern*

    Ahh.. The life and drama that is working for a “small nonprofit.” Like, people need to reassess their priorities. Who would assume someone coming in an HOUR late their first day is that big of a deal? And if it is, why allow it? Why not just ask them to come in at 9 a.m.?

    1. SherryD*

      “Who would assume someone coming in an HOUR late their first day is that big of a deal?”

      I know this question is rhetorical, but I’ll answer anyway: People in toxic work environments.

    2. TCO*

      Can we note the fact that this wasn’t even really OP’s official first day? It was an onboarding meeting BEFORE starting the job, which makes all of this fuss about 10 am even more ridiculous.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think the late arrival thing was about her first day though, not the “induction meeting.” But the first day hasn’t happened yet and the scolding took place at this “induction meeting” (which is a term I’ve never heard before and I don’t know why they couldn’t wait for the first day).

        1. afiendishthingy*

          I’m just not sure why they couldn’t call it “orientation”. “Induction” makes me think there was a ceremony with robes and chanting, possibly blood oaths.

          1. Intrepid Intern*

            I was told to show up for an induction for an internship in the UK, and assumed that, at the very least, they would be orienting an entire class of interns. (Or, you know, trucking us all out to Stonehenge for the blood rites thing.)

            It was actually just them giving me a binder of company history. I was so relieved/confused.

            1. UK Nerd*

              My induction at OldJob consisted mostly of signing forms. I never did find out why there was a model release form. Presumably I wasn’t good looking enough to be asked to appear in marketing photos.

            2. Elizabeth West*

              I got orientation materials at Exjob on my first day. I had to be there at my regular time and sat with the old receptionist while I looked at the company stuff / took notes / job-shadowed her.

          2. Lindsay J*

            My current company calls it “indoctrination” or indoc. It makes me think of being brainwashed.

            1. TK*

              Yeah, I just assumed “induction” in this context was a non-America term, and Google seems to confirm it’s British. It just reads really weirdly to American ears, because it’s a word that’s hardly ever used in the States outside of science.

              1. Chocolate Teapot*

                Yes, Induction meeting/day/week is often used in a UK context. Although I have lately started to hear the term “Onboarding”, which always makes me feel as if I ought to turn up in shorts and clutching a Beach Boys album.

    3. Anne S*

      If I saw I new co-worker come in late on their first day, I would just assume that their manager had asked them to give us some time to get our coffee and make sure any urgent issues were triaged so we could be prepared for the new hire, but I work in a reasonable workplace.

      1. Ad Astra*

        That’s exactly what I would assume. In most jobs, a new hire isn’t going to be accomplishing much actual work on the first day anyway. No harm in letting them sleep in while the hiring manager gets everything ready to go.

      2. TootsNYC*

        yeah, I often deliberately ask my new folks (freelancers, though) to come in an hour later, so that *I* can be ready when they get there.

  6. LikeOhMyGod*

    Run, run, RUN. (If you can afford to.) You’re already being undermined and you haven’t even started yet?!

  7. some1*

    As soon as I read the part about your predecessor asking you to urgently contact her and not telling you why I knew where this was going – she wanted to dig up some gossip to spread around.

    1. Adam V*

      Eh. I could see the predecessor calling urgently to say “is it too late for you to turn them down? This place is going down the tubes and you don’t want to go down with it”, especially in this case where the OP said she already knew her.

    2. Lefty*

      I had the same gut reaction- unless she started the conversation with a “heads-up” of her own, she was looking for something. It would be odd that congratulations needed to be passed with such urgency!

      Also- it struck me as particularly odd that she sought out OP’s phone number so diligently.

    3. African Sun*

      Yes agreed. The previous manager seemed too keen and clearly couldn’t be discreet as she ran off calling them about HR which is truly gossip, since she no longer works there.

    4. Laurel Gray*

      Right. I find people who have moved on but are still involved with their previous employer in this aspect to be majorly problematic. I assumed the OP’s predecessor left by resignation and not termination so mentally she should be thinking more about NewJob instead of OldPosition and OldManagement.

      1. morla*

        OP again – predecessor left by resignation. I gather from some of the snippy remarks from senior management that perhaps they weren’t too sad to see her go.

        1. Mimi*

          Aha……so maybe the fact that the former manager didn’t leave on the best of terms is what’s (at least partly) feeding this paranoia from senior management.

          So now you have a former manager who didn’t leave on the best terms gossiping to a current problem-child employee. I could see where senior management might feel skittish and want to “close ranks.” They likely don’t want OP to continue talking to former manager about work issues for just this reason.

    5. Melissa*

      It was weird enough when predecessor wanted her to call, but the even weirder part was when OP did not call, predecessor managed to dig up her phone number and call her anyway!

      …as a side note, what kind of person gives that number out? I have never given out friends’ phone numbers without their permission, much less a work colleague’s or someone in my professional network. Emails, sure, because you can ignore an email. But phone numbers? I’d be upset if someone gave out my phone number without my permission.

  8. Adam V*

    Alison, is there still time to sit down with the hiring manager and say “listen, we’ve got to get this out in the open. I’m going to manage how I’m going to manage, and I’m going to talk to who I’m going to talk to, and I trust that you chose me for this role because you think highly of my skills and instincts about these sorts of things. If that’s not the case, we should probably walk away now”? Or is that too adversarial?

    Also, after the conversation about “strolling in whenever you feel like it”, I’d totally walk in *two* hours late and see who makes a fuss (whether it’s people who report to me or senior management).

    But that’s a) easy for me to say, since I’m not the OP, and b) only something I’d consider doing because I already had half a mind to walk away anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I could see a version of that — but I think the chances that she’d get a reasonable response that could credibly reassure her are very, very low. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing — and in fact, if she’s going to walk away, this would be the path I’d walk through.

    2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I mean, I think these people sound nuts. I am not nuts (according to me), but if a new hire said to me “I’m going to manage how I’m going to manage” that sounds to me they THEY are going to be next to impossible to manage. I’m constantly coaching my managers, giving them feedback, giving them context around decisions, and asking them to try new things. If they came in saying that they were already a fully-formed manager with no room to do anything differently or better, I’d withdraw the offer immediately.

      That said, if I were the new hire in this situation, I’d run FAST if I were financially able to do so.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I should have been clearer when I said “a version of that” — I mean more like, “I’m getting the sense that you have very definite expectations of X and Y, and I want to be up-front that I operate more like A and B. I don’t want that to cause issues, and I’m hoping we can talk how you’d like to see this sort of thing playing out and whether there’s room for me to do it more like A/B.”

        I should have been clearer!

      2. Adam V*

        Yeah, my response basically went straight to 11 because senior management had already started the relationship off on a bad foot. I would want to basically set them straight and let them know I wouldn’t want to stand for any more of their nuttiness, at least within my team and what I could control. And as I said, I wouldn’t even consider doing this unless I was willing to walk away without some reassurance that the drama was going to stop.

        But Alison’s wording above is much more likely to have a positive outcome – if you’re going to stay.

  9. periwinkle*

    I wonder who is more of a drama lover, the rejected internal candidate or the former manager who tracked down the OP and then immediately stirred up trouble back in her old workplace?

    OP, put on your running shoes.

    1. some1*

      Honestly, I think the predecessor is the bigger problem, tbh. Drama is not good at work but the rejected candidate actually still works there — the predecessor (I assume) quit this job but apparently can’t let go enough to stop spreading rumors.

      Disclaimer: my predecessor is very much like the LW’s and she pulled the same stuff with me, texting me for supposed casual updates and then blabbing to other people what I said and taking it completely out of context. She has been gone since October and she still texts me and stops by the office hoping to get some dirt.

  10. Rose*

    “apparently she hopped straight on the phone to the office team asking what these HR issues were, and the unsuccessful internal candidate called the hiring manager asking what these HR problems were that I was referring to.”

    I don’t understand why either of these things happened. I feel like I’m missing something.

    Workplace confidentiality means not sharing things like names of clients, NOT not talking to previous employees about what working conditions are like. It terrifies me that your new boss would suggest otherwise.

    Good luck OP.

    1. Anonsie*

      I don’t really get it, either. Not why the friend did their part or how it when got back to the internal candidate.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Which makes me think the predecessor/friend is also still in contact with the unsuccessful candidate, and that may be part of the HR problems she’ll have to deal with. She may keep this person as a friend, but should probably not talk about what is going on at her new job at all. Don’t feed that source of drama.

        1. morla*

          OP here – since I started (unfortunately I started around a week ago but am rethinking my position now!) the predecessor has been shooting me off emails asking how everything is going. My stock answer is ‘really well’ and that’s as much as she’ll get out of me. Incidentally things aren’t going too well, but she can find that out from her other sources if she’s so inclined.

          1. Rose*

            Why do you think she’s asking? To be nice? Or does it seem like there’s some other motive here? Was she rooting for the internal candidate?

            Either way, I’m so sorry this is happening. You didn’t make a mistake, so don’t beat yourself up! This is one of those times when it really is everyone but you who is being crazy.

            1. Mimi*

              I think there’s another motive. OP said “emails,” not email. Why would you send multiple messages to find out how OP’s job is going? It’s only been a week.

              1. Rana*

                Yeah, that’s really weird. It almost makes me wonder if the former manager is regretting her resignation and is illogically hoping that the OP might screw up or leave so she can try to get her old job back.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  I actually had this happen to me–someone at a former job who did the same low-level work I did moved up to inside sales, and then she regretted the decision. So she did everything she could to stir the pot and make me look bad, to the point of harassment/hostile workplace. She pulled a lot of crap when my boss wasn’t in the room. I finally had a come-to-Jesus with my boss where I said (in private), “I don’t know what Myrtle’s problem is and I don’t care, but she needs to cut this shit out or I WILL leave.” Boss had a talk with her and not a week later she quit. She apparently had some family issues, but after the way she behaved, I found it hard to be sympathetic. I was just happy she was gone.

            2. morla*

              OP again – I think she’s asking out of idle curiosity though with her actions she’a made it clear she’s likely to repeat anything I might say….so I don’t say anything.

          2. Melissa*

            You just started a week ago and she’s already sent you multiple “check-in” emails? Yikes!

      2. Rose*

        exactly. the fact that the friend first told OP they URGENTLY needed to talk just to say congratulations is weird too.

        not sure if i think she’s being malicious or just really weird or what?

  11. some1*

    I do the administrative onboarding for my office and I *ask* new hires to come in at LEAST half an hour, if not an hour, after me on their first day so I can get settled and do urgent work before they arrive.

    1. Rose*

      Any time i’ve been asked to come in at 9 it’s always been “oh hey can you skip coffee and learn where the bathrooms are for 40 minutes while I do a few urgent morning things?”

      training someone the SECOND you get into the office? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    2. OriginalYup*

      Right? Such a normal thing to do.

      Also, why would anyone assume that someone (of any tenure) arriving at work at a different hour is just strolling in whenever they feel like? Maybe they had a business appointment. Or cleared it with their boss to go to a dentist appoint. Or had a flat tire. Or are staying an hour late to make up the time. Or some other totally valid reason. Are they worried it’s going to spark an epidemic? These people sound bonkers.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger*

      The OP was TOLD to come in at 10am, and they still freaked out about it! GINORMOUS red flag!

      The senior team told me to come in at 10 am on my first day…

    4. Ann O'Nemity*

      Exactly. We always have new employees start an hour late on their first day. No one here thinks it’s weird.

  12. Anna*

    I’m going to try to give the friend/former manager the benefit of the doubt in that she just left what appears to be a dysfunctional work environment. Maybe she hasn’t completely detoxed yet. However, it is completely weird that she called the HR people to talk to them about the conversation. And what did she tell them? “Your new hire is telling tales.” Or “What’s going on over there? I’ve been hearing things!” Either way, it’s really weird.

    That piece aside, OP, tread lightly. You may find it’s not somewhere you want to stay very long.

  13. African Sun*

    This might be one of those places that has a dictatorial approach to talking to old employees who have left the camp. I think it sounds like they overreacted but the previous manager cannot also be trusted since she couldn’t stay quiet, she just had to run her mouth about the HR news. I think that’s what got OP in trouble. Not that she talked to the previous manager but that the previous manager seems to have ”1 UP” on the organisation by knowing an inkling of potential HR issues.

  14. Cari*

    The only reason I could see confidentiality being an issue wrt former employees, is if you were working for a company that required you to be vetted from a security point of view. My dad has long since left such a job, and even now he’s retired, he still won’t talk about certain aspects of the job. I certainly can’t imagine he would talk about the past with people he knew that would end up working there, either…

    This letter makes no kind of sense at all though.

    1. Another HRPro*

      The confidentiality thing just makes me wonder what they have to hide? It is totally normal to talk to people about impressions, personalities, etc. That is totally different from leaking confidential information. I generally try to see the optimistic interpretation of the facts, but that level of overreaction just boggles my mind and leads me to ask what are they so worried about other learning?

  15. TheExchequer*

    Gee, I wonder what possible HR issues they could have there! OP – please, please, please take a one way ticket OUT of Crazy Town!

  16. 2horseygirls*


    Otherwise, welcome to the last year of my life.
    My story has a fun little plot twist — I’m not supposed to talk to ANYONE else currently employed by the higher ed institution I work at!

    I have been forbidden, in writing, from talking to other division secretaries (same role, different academic divisions) – even the one who sits 10 feet away, because she works for a different division. I can’t ask questions in the staff group I am a mandatory member of. I can’t talk to anyone (secretaries, administrators, faculty or students) in the division that shares an office with us. I am not supposed to talk to HR. I am not supposed to talk to the curriculum coordinator. God forbid I wave at campus police as they walk by. I can’t talk to anyone in the other department I worked in for 6 years (before my position was restructured), and when they have the AUDACITY to do something nice like remember my birthday, the dean hovers with a murderous look on their face.

    The only person I am allowed to talk to is the other secretary in my division (who answers every question with “look in the manual”, which only covers 1/47th of what I do) or the dean (who can go for a week+ without speaking to or emailing me).

    Get out while you still can – otherwise, you may have a very “Gaslight” (1944, directed by George Cukor, starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her film debut) experience, in which you begin to question every single thing you thought you knew, and any ability you thought you came into this job with. You will have enough energy to get home, maybe eat dinner, and go to sleep within an hour. You will stop talking to family and friends, and become a mere shadow of yourself.

    I wish I were exaggerating . . . good luck!

    1. Laurel Gray*

      2nd classic movie reference on AAM in 2 days (I love this place). However, your work environment sounds like a prison and I can’t help but picture you as James Cagney in White Heat when he finally breaks out the prison.

    2. OriginalYup*

      Are they performing a weird behavioral experiment on you?? I am… flabbergasted.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That is my favorite experiment in all of psychological history.

          A close second is the Stanley Milgram 10th-level experiment where he showed how messed up blind obedience to authority is.

          1. Oryx*

            Did you know they are making a movie of the prison experiment that comes out this summer?

          2. Aruek*

            I thought I read somewhere that they haven’t been able to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment and therefore we can’t trust it all too much. Actual psychologists, please jump in if I’m wrong.

            1. Anna*

              The prison experiment was what led to universities getting committees that have to approve all research that is done with people. My MA is in Sociology and I had to get approval from the committee to conduct interviews. The students who participated in the prison experiment suffered consequences (both prisoners and guards) after the conclusion and that was a Very Bad Thing. So. No, they aren’t allowed to conduct those sorts of research projects anymore.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I’m going off of memory here and am too lazy to look it up, but I think they couldn’t recreate it because there were ethical concerns about doing that to human subjects, not because they tried and couldn’t replicate the results.

              1. Anna*

                Exactly that. Ethical concerns. Some of the people who played guards were freaked out that they had it in them to behave that way and the people who were prisoners exhibited signs of PTSD. It was NOT a good outcome for the participants, even though the information gathered was very useful.

            3. Melissa*

              I don’t think anyone has tried to replicate the SPE just because of Alison and Anna said – nobody’s institutional review board would allow it. The original SPE was supposed to last longer, but was stopped after only 6 days because things were already getting dangerous.

              The other thing is that the original Stanford prison experiment was done in the early 1970s – almost 50 years ago – and it has entered the popular consciousness. Anyone who’s ever taken an introductory psychology class has heard of it (and similar experiments like the Milgram experiments and perhaps The Third Wave), and a lot of people who haven’t still have heard of it. If anything, a failure to replicate would have a lot to do with the fact that if you attempted to run a replication now, half your subjects would know what you were trying to do before the study even got underway.

              What you might be thinking of is a BBC reality television special called “The Experiment,” but Zimbardo himself has pointed out that the reality TV show was not scientifically controlled and was designed to draw in viewers. I’ll post a link in a subsequent comment.

              Interestingly, though, Philip Zimbardo followed the Abu Ghraib case closely and was apparently struck by how similar the abuses there were to the abuses he found in his own experiment.

          3. Sue Wilson*

            You know, I still can’t find all the qualities of the sample (except that it was mixed-sex group), so I’m actually not inclined to make a broad generalization of that experiment.

    3. Colorado*

      I hope you are able to get out of this situation soon. It sounds horrible!! Gaslighting is a very real thing.

    4. Bend & Snap*

      I had this experience in a former job too after I gave my notice, except that the big boss told everyone in the office that they weren’t allowed to speak to me. So my 2-week notice period consisted of the silent treatment from every single person I encountered. And they moved me to a cube where everything was broken and there was a dead plant. But they didn’t put anyone new in my cube. It was just a final F you for quitting.

      1. RVA Cat*

        I’m guessing this was before Glassdoor existed? Because wow that makes for quite the review.

      2. Saurs*

        I would’ve spent the last two weeks doing precious little apart from nursing the dead plant on spite and bile, and then taking it with me on my last day and leaving behind in the lonely, plant-less cube lots of used and useless bits of stationary and nibbled back pencil nubs and so forth.

      3. Career Counselorette*

        I swear to God, minus the new cubicle with the dead plant, my entire 8th grade class did this to me at one point. Were all your co-workers 8th graders? Christ.

    5. neverjaunty*

      Forbidden in writing by WHOM? And forbidden to talk to HR?

      You know who you should be talking to: a lawyer.

      1. Ama*

        Yeah, I would be sending that piece of documentation *straight* to my HR rep. There’s no way that’s not against university policy.

    6. Ad Astra*

      You’re not allowed to discuss your working conditions with other people who work there? Not to be that person, but, Allison, is that legal?

      Even if it’s legal, it sounds terribly isolating and even kind of abusive. Did they give you any kind of reason for this?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        They can ban you from talking about everything except wages and working conditions.

        That said, employers violate that law all the time with no consequences.

    7. Anonsie*

      Yes yes yes this sounds very much like the place I was imagining above when I said I’ve seen some similar flags. The bit about the hostile folks hovering around angrily when someone else treats your normally brought up some flashbacks in particular.

      Also I got a really nice laugh out of your detailed movie citation, which I hope was intentional. Pinky swear I’m not laughing at you.

      1. 2horseygirls*

        Anonsie, do you watch NCIS? DiNozzo always has a movie reference for any situation. He was my inspiration for that (+ being a former Blockbuster Video employee, just to truly date myself). Glad everyone liked it! :)

        Thanks so much for the confirmation that it’s really not me! Yes, I’m searching — although another side effect of this environment (indeed, anywhere where people put up with ridiculous abuse) is “Maybe I’m not good enough to work anywhere else? Maybe I should just be *grateful* for this job and tuck in for the duration?”

        What I have to remember is my role is not academia-specific; it’s not like I’m faculty, or the registrar, or something that does limit your tangible options to other academic institutions.

        This employer is super convenient (less than 5 miles from home), I can actually take a sick day or leave if my daughter is sick at school. I will TRULY miss the week off between Christmas and New Year’s – and the multitude of colleagues that are completely dedicated to education and student success. However, it has SUCKED THE LIFE out of me over the past year.

        Faculty, staff, parents and students appreciate me — but when your supervisor has made it abundantly clear that they don’t want you there, and actively impede you from succeeding in your position by hiding behind excuses and “the policy is . . . “, it’s time to go.

        Just one quick example:

        In my previous position, I had access to a reporting system. When I moved to the new position, my prior supervisor did not “disconnect” that access. So I used it (completely within normal operating standards) to pull reports that made my job 900 times faster, more accurate and allowed deadlines to be adjusted to accommodate other institutional deadlines (such as tuition due dates, etc.), resulting in increased enrollment and happy students.

        Just short of one year in the new division, my prior supervisor requested that my access be switched over to my successor. Totally legit, and because I have built relationships with every other department in the institution in the 6 years I worked in the first department, I was lucky to get a heads up from IT that it was happening, which I appreciated. I also learned that there was a second-type of read-only access (running existing vs. creating new reports) that would be available soon.

        I gathered data and submitted a formal request to the dean to get access to continue being as effective and efficient. Dean said they would look into it (sorry, deliberately being vague), but priority was for Dean’s New Assistant to get access. Again, legit, but one simple off-handed remark (during a conversation with IT about something else) confirmed that New Asst. had access the day she started (30 days before Retiring Asst. left), and Retiring Asst. (who hated the program and never used it) had just never told New Asst. — or Dean — that New Asst. had access.

        Last laugh: the staff group I am a mandated member of? Everyone in that group will be getting access to the reporting system, per someone farther up the food chain than the Dean. I only hope I’m still around to see the look on Dean’s face when it happens ;)

        Prevailing theory is because I have advanced computer skills + relationships with everyone on campus + actual social skills + time management skills, I am a huge threat to Dean because once I was here, it became painfully obvious that Dean tolerated Retiring Asst. doing the absolute minimum for so long (and whatever RA did do, was made out to be a) arduous or b) the equivalent of splitting the atom) and did not provide effective leadership to improve RA’s performance.

        Sorry for the hijack, OP!!! Hope you are able to turn your situation around!!

    8. Rana*

      2horseygirls, I so, so hope that you are in a position to be looking for a new job. That’s… unreal. That is not only not normal, it’s so abnormal it’s abusive.

      I hope you get a job offer elsewhere (or even in that same institution with a sane boss) and then spend the whole day wandering around talking to everyone “forbidden” as openly as you can. Your dean is a total nutball.

  17. Me*

    I may have read this entirely wrong, but I interpreted the “serious internal HR issues” as relating to the internal candidate (I’ll call her Betty for clarity). So OP told former employee that there were serious HR issues with Betty, former employee called HR to find out what’s what AND spilled to Betty, and the management at the organization took OP to task for revealing confidential information regarding HR issues about a specific employee.

    However, I am clearly interpreting and could be reading it wrong. But that would make sense of why the management felt there was a confidentiality breach. Not that that would justify the circus it has become.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s exactly right. But it’s so normal to say to the outgoing manager — who you happen to already know previously — “I hear there are some HR problems — can you give me your perspective?” It’s hard for me to imagine being in the OP’s shoes and not doing that!

      1. sunny-dee*

        Reading the letter, it sounds like the OP talked to other people in the office, Betty heard about it, and then Betty complained to HR.

        The friend could be a horrible person, or she could have legit been trying to identify what the problem was, Betty found out by accident, and it all blew up.

        1. Laurel Gray*

          I just don’t really see a genuine need for the predecessor to identify the HR issues. If it isn’t her job anymore, it really should not matter. It is hard to see her as being someone genuinely concerned vs flat out nosy.

      2. Laurel Gray*

        Right, and I don’t think the OP was in the position to ask the HR manager for specifics. It seemed like one of those instances where if the manager was going to make that disclosure, she should have probably provided more context as to not raise the red flags.

        “certain employees inquiring about promotion opportunities are actually going to be put on PIP”

        “we are currently investigating an incident involving Phoebe, Ross and Chandler”

    2. Ad Astra*

      If the former employee still subscribes to this office’s ideas about “workplace confidentiality,” I guess that might explain why she called to mention this to the old company. Still pretty weird, though.

  18. Macedon*

    The mob-run place I was briefly with had a similar no-contact policy.

    OP, if you’re still mulling an asap resignation over, I’d urge you to reread the above sentence.

  19. TootsNYC*

    If there were HR issues (maybe they needed to figure out if they could give the rejected internal candidate a promotion or bonus as a consolation prize; maybe they needed to figure out what sort of “sorry” feedback they were supposed to give her), and the OP was going to be that person’s manager, why didn’t they tell THE OP the specifics of what the HR issues were?
    When I was in the OP’s shoes, I knew what the HR issues were.

    Of course, the OP should have asked more directly, but I can see her thinking it wasn’t such a big deal, and there might be insight that her acquaintance(?) the former manager might have.
    And, again, in those very shoes, I specifically asked how they were going to handle this w/ the person being passed over, how they’d keep her happy, could we offer her a promotion, etc.

    It feels to me as though the former manager was prying a bit on behalf of her former subordinate.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      To me it sounds like the HR folks are having confidentiality issues if they are telling employees that there are “Serious HR Issues.” If the HR rep didn’t say that, there would be no drama now.

      1. TootsNYC*

        good point!

        Especially if those “HR issues” are -so serious- that the incoming manager isn’t allowed even a basic overview of them.

        1. morla*

          OP here again – I have asked how the senior team planned to handle the internal candidate’s rejection and what page I needed to be on in terms of managing my side of it (having them as a subordinate) and they wouldn’t tell me. They said the candidate had ‘been told’ and as far as they were concerned that was that. There is a lot of hostility from the unsuccessful candidate, both toward me and the senior management team and the atmosphere is currently toxic. Any question I ask (as an external new hire) is met with ‘you should know – you’re the manager’ from the internal candidate.

          1. Artemesia*

            That kind of surly response is behavior — and the behavior is called insubordination. I’d be sitting her down and letting her know that comments like that to you or others are out of line and the next one will result in escalation to a PIP. And if you don’t have senior management backing you need to get out. I would play hardball with this management.

          2. 2horseygirls*

            Holy cow! That’s the same answer I get.

            I don’t understand – is it just common practice these days to hand people a key to the office and tell them to figure out the answer? Do companies not provide training or overview of policies and procedures anymore? I’m not talking about reading the employee manual/handbook side by side, but day to day duties and expectations – doesn’t anyone walk the new person through it at least once, so they can ask questions or catch those little nuances that someone who does it all the time probably doesn’t even realize they’re doing?

            1. NickelandDime*

              No they do not. Then they get angry when they find out new hires are doing things wrong. I’ve worked for this type of manager before. In the future, when I go into new positions, if I start getting these types of answers, or there is little to no on-boarding, I’m out of there.

  20. Beachbrain*

    I know everyone here is saying the same thing, but please OP get AWAY if you can!! This sounds so similar to an experience of mine and it got SO. MUCH. WORSE. Leadership was outrageously controlling and also notorious for changing her mind on a whim and every few years a big swath of folks would get fired…I came in on the tail-end of a huge PR crisis that involved leadership that had left the organization reeling (lots of fear, no talking to ex-employees, etc). I ignored several red flags, and then became a victim shortly thereafter. By that time my hair was falling out, I was dizzy/faint every day, and I was barely sleeping–the anxiety was awful. Oh and I’m not saying this to be funny, but my immediate manager DIED (I was gone by then, thankfully; he had some heart issues) and I honestly think the work stress he endured there played a significant role.

    TL;DR–This is the part in the horror movie where GET OUT is written in blood on the mirror!!!!

  21. Mike C.*

    The whole idea of being banned from/punished for speaking to a former employee about the workplace feels like a violation of federal labor laws to me.

  22. J-nonymous*

    Hm. I’m not entirely sure I think the leadership team here was entirely out of line. They may have handled the situation in a less-than-ideal way, but you *did* discuss HR issues concerning a current employee with an ex-employee and depending on what exactly was said that’s a pretty significant breach in my book. I wouldn’t tell you never to speak to the former manager again*, of course, but I’d be seriously reconsidering my decision to hire you.

    Unless, of course, you *didn’t* mention anything specific about the current employee to the former manager. And if that’s the case, set the record straight ASAP (you probably should have done it in that meeting and not waited for them to ask you exactly what you said).

    The 10AM stuff (and panicked reaction to it) is nonsense, of course. I’d only keep in mind that the panicked reaction may have to do with having to manage a very difficult employee (the one who was rejected for the job) combined with concerns about your judgment.

    *Except this former manager sounds like a drama llama, and I’d probably not choose to talk to her again about anything related to work.

    1. Natalie*

      Given the OP’s wording (“during which I asked her if she was aware of any HR problems, as I had heard there may be some issues”) it doesn’t sound like OP mentioned anything specific at all, much less the current employee’s name.

      1. Anna*

        Yep. Pretty much the only person who should have any concerns right now is the OP about the this place.

  23. morla*

    OP here – I didn’t mention any specifics to my predecessor – I didn’t have any! No names were mentioned or implied, I stated to her that I’d heard there might be some HR issues and could she give me a heads up if there were. During the induction meeting I did clarify what had been said and also the context and aside from the repeated references during that meeting to my inability to keep confidential matters private, nothing more has been said.

    1. Amy*

      It was tacky of her to tell people about your conversation, and not at all tacky of you to ask for a heads-up. It’s the way effective people get things done.

  24. TootsNYC*

    You know what else is really annoying to me? And worrisome?

    That they kept on the same topic! They couldn’t let go and move on. They fixated on it, and it dominated the meeting.

    They have no sense of proportion.

  25. waffles*

    This sounds similar to the brand of Chicken Little crazy I experienced in my last small non-profit experience. I suppose things could settle down, and I hope they do for the OP. But if it’s like my experience, it could be a place where:
    1) people stay a long time and buy into the oddball culture.
    2) there is a crazy overlord that the staff half-reveres, half-fears.
    3) they’ve all been marinating in all this for so long that it seems normal.

    Good luck OP.

  26. Amy*

    They want people who know how to network, but yet if you buddy up to the wrong person…? The smaller the specialty or community, the more likely you will already know your predecessor. For one of my positions, the previous person had been a coworker in one of our previous places, so she was the first person I talked to before even applying for the job. And then the person who replaced me in a different former job is someone I recommended for it. He & I and my predecessor from there always take a group photo at conferences together and catch up on how things are doing there. (He’s doing a great job) One of my current coworkers was once coworkers with one of my coworkers in that job (and they were both at a totally different location!) so the three of us always get together at conferences too. They are also still friendly with my predecessor from that other job where I do the group shot with the three of us who all held the same job. We usually go out for Tex-Mex together at conferences. At my first conference after accepting my current job, one of my friends made a point of introducing me to my predecessor who had just left.

    …and then there are the colleagues who are my Facebook friends.

    The OP’s manager needs to join the 21st century!

  27. Mango*

    Sorry, Alison, but I have a different take on this. What the OP did essentially amounted to gossip with the old manager, and obviously the old manager, having ties to the old workplace, reported back what the OP said to them. It’s clear that the OP did NOT know the old manager very well because she had to get her number from someone else. I also don’t think it was prudent to bring up ‘HR” issues with he old manager because a) she doesn’t work there anymore! and b) OP doesn’t know why she left or if she is even on good terms with the people there! That was a seriously lack of judgment to randomly contact the old manager and reveal a lot about the recruitment process, especially if OP didn’t know if this old manager was friends with the candidate who didn’t get the job! For all OP knows, this person could be trying to sabotage her candidacy so the other candidate can get the job ultimately!

    1. Rana*

      Eh, I dunno. Saying “I was told there were HR issues associated with this position; do you know anything about that?” isn’t gossip. No one was named, and it’s a reasonable question, if other sources of information aren’t forthcoming.

    2. Melissa*

      OP didn’t randomly contact the old manager. The old manager contacted them – first through a LinkedIn message, and then by calling them after obtaining her phone number from someone else.

      OP has also said that they didn’t reveal any specifics or details; it doesn’t seem that they revealed a lot about the recruitment process. She simply stated that someone had mentioned “HR issues,” and wanted to know if Old Manager had any insight. That is a completely normal and expected professional thing to do when you are entering a new job.

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting that the people you interact with professionally are sane and act professionally themselves. There’s no reason to expect that someone who has left a job is trying to sabotage your candidacy – especially when that person greets you with a congratulations after reaching out to you themselves. Not that it doesn’t happen (and actually might be the case here), but I don’t fault OP for assuming that Old Manager was a normal person.

  28. Michelle*

    So, assuming that OP runs (which I definitely think she should), how do you explain that to your next prospective employer? Does it not look bad to decide everyone at your new job is nuts, and bail on the first day? Is it enough to just leave it off your resume, or is it likely that in a small field future employers will hear about it anyway (especially considering how certain people involved apparently like to gossip)?

    1. misspiggy*

      I think if it were me, and I were feeling confident, I’d leave and do temp/freelance work for a few months while looking for something long term. Then I wouldn’t need to mention that place, or it would blend into a whole lot of different assignments.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      If it’s really short-term (like you didn’t even work there a week!), I’d leave it off. A resume is a marketing document, not a permanent record–unless you’re applying to a government or law enforcement job, for example, you can leave stuff off all you want.

  29. Corby*

    Just imagine the “workplace confidentiality” chat if one of those people above the OP saw that the entire situation was posted here for advice.

    You’d think reading the AAM response would knock some sense into them, but I have a strong suspicion that would not be the case.

  30. LizNYC*

    Wow, just wow. I would RUN from this place — or just never stop my job search.

    And it’s kinda normal for some offices to ask the new person to come in slightly later on their first day, since that ensures someone will BE at the office to meet them and to get paperwork, etc., in order. The management here sounds bizarre.

  31. Liz*

    Quote from OP: “does their behavior suggest they’re going to be a misery to manage?”

    Uh, you are hired to manage and these are the kind of things you have to deal with at almost every single workplace out there. If you don’t have what it takes, then they have clearly hired the wrong person and you really need to work on your own management skills before applying for another managerial position.

    HR most likely hired you because they needed a fresh outlook from an outsider who could take the organization in a different direction. They want you to think on your own rather than be influenced by the problems from their predecessors hence the “don’t talk to so and so” and the decision not to hire an internal candidate. Or else, nothing would change.

    Internal candidate is probably in cahoots with the former manager to stir up trouble because things didn’t go their way and you just happened to be the perfect tool for their mean purpose. I would start by digging up information on the relationship between former manager and internal candidate, why the former manager left the position and why the internal candidate is taking her rejection rather personally. Take this as a challenge and best of luck with all that drama.

    I’m also pretty amazed with the suggestions to run and find another job elsewhere. Seriously guys, is getting another job immediately after quitting one that easy nowadays? That suggestion might have even worse consequences on her livelihood than dealing with one disgruntled employee and a lousy HR.

  32. morla*

    OP again – thanks for the input. I’ve handled difficult employees before and know it comes with the territory. At my second to last position I had a very hard time with an employee who made false bullying allegations, personal threats etc. to the point where they were eventually fired for it, and it wore me down. I can handle your everyday disgruntled or unmotivated employee, but the ones with a loose grip on reality are the ones I’m most keen to avoid! My predcessor (as a friend) knows about that and when I asked for a heads up it was with a view to ascertaining if this was going to happen all over again. I may have even said ‘Hey is this gonna be Pittsburgh all over again’!

  33. Anon for this please*

    Run. Run. Run. Incompetent and unreasonable managers can make the most challenging, interesting, lovely colleagues and great travel kind of job an absolute misery. Please listen to your gut!

  34. Moroa*

    OP back again – not sure if this is the right way to update but here it goes:

    I should have run. Fast. I inherited a mess! I can’t go into too much details other than financial irregularities and files that went missing the day my predecessor left. The disgruntled employee remains disgruntled, hostile and rude and I’ve had to formally address their attitude and tone (which naturally has gone down like a lead balloon). The other employee was bffs with my predecessor and enjoyed all that went with that, being MIA without explanation during work hours, dubious expense claims, not really doing a whole lot in general and tackling that has meant that they’ve found allies in each other. Their dislike for me has united them!

    It’s a very small environment and I hate going there every day. The Board are somewhat sympathetic but seem to think I’ll be able to fix all the problems (they acknowledge I inherited many, many problems) with no real understanding of the environment I’ll have to operate in until one or both are managed out. I don’t live in the US anymore and here labor laws are weighted heavily in favour of the employee, they almost have to kill someone to get fired!

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