can you live down work mistakes from years ago?

A reader writes:

I have been at my current job for seven years now. About six years ago, I almost lost my job because I was making too many mistakes. I made them because I was too busy and didn’t have the time to give full effort to my work. Quite frankly, I was overworked. My boss would get furious with me and wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. I think the only reason I did not get fired was because I am such a hard worker. I put out huge amounts of work. Hiring someone and training them was just too daunting an undertaking.

But I feel like this “mistake period” has ruined my reputation because I still work with all those same people and they remember. This past “mistake cloud” still hangs over my head. And now every time I make even the smallest mistake, my past is relived in my boss’s eyes. I also know that my boss tells every new person that comes to work here about my past. How should I handle this past period in my career? I want to do something to stop the power it continues to inflict upon me. Should I bring it up and talk about it openly whereby dissipating its power? Or just continue as I have been hoping everyone eventually forgets as I prove myself with my current performance?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • The person who I replaced now wants her job back
  • When can I approach my new manager about a promotion and raise?
  • How to quit a job you like
  • Can I decline to serve as a reference for my coworker?

{ 58 comments… read them below }

  1. Garrett*

    I told this story in a letter earlier this week but I think it fits #1 somewhat. About 2 years into my current job, I messed up big time. Made a mistake on a document that, even though it was caught before shipping to customers, still required lots of reworks and cost lots of money to fix. I was surprised I was not fired. But, I stayed and got better and proved myself. Today, my boss and many others are still here (8 years later) and I think I’m okay. It took time to earn back trust, but I was able to overcome it.

    Your situation is different because your boss hasn’t let it go, so I agree with Aliston’s advice. But do know that even the worst mistakes can sometimes be overcome if you have the right environment.

    1. LSP*

      Someone I used to work with at my current job had apparently gotten rather short with a client sometime during her first 2 years at the company. Fast forward another 6 years, and that was STILL being used as an excuse to not give her raises at her annual reviews. She did overall fantastic work, and was incredibly meticulous, but she made one misstep in handling a client and couldn’t live it down.

      That story told me a lot about my current employer, which is why I’m fine with getting all the experience I can here, making contacts and doing some great work on some highly visible national-level projects, and moving on.

    2. Chriama*

      I’m not really impressed with the boss in #1 so far. Getting ‘furious’ and not talking to your employee for weeks is not good management. And telling every new employee about OP’s bad history is just vindictive. Either she’s bad at her job, in which case you should coach and/or fire her, or she’s adequate and you’re dredging up the past for no good reason. I think the boss is the reason OP can’t live this down, the only thing I’d be concerned about was being able to secure a good reference from the boss. Someone who acts this mean (and I think there’s no other legitimate way to describe this behaviour) probably enjoys the power they have over OP and would resent her trying to leave. And since boss has spent 7 years trash-talking OP, I’m not sure there are any other managers or coworkers who could be relied upon to give a good reference.

      1. Gaara*

        I think that’s true. But fortunately, you often aren’t expected to have a reference from your current job, so it shouldn’t make it too hard to get out. Also, the longevity potentially proves untrue a major negative reference, because why would you keep around a bad employee?

        1. OhNo*

          I don’t think the longevity in and of itself proves anything untrue – Alison certainly gets a lot of letters here about terrible employees that have been at organizations for eons.

          But, if the OP could get their hands on some performance reviews for the last few years, those would be much stronger evidence. I’m guessing those reviews would be more positive than anything the boss would say out loud, anyway.

        2. Chriama*

          Agreed that longevity doesn’t prove anything. I’m wondering how other people perceive the boss though. Unless they’re a master emotional manipulator, surely people are side-eyeing her for being so focused on these incidents from *6* years ago, and surely other people have seen examples of the OP’s good work since then?

          1. RVA Cat*

            I can’t be the only one who wants to be a fly on the wall when Reference Checker has to bluntly redirect Boss from harping on 6 years ago to more recent and relevant performance.

  2. Myrin*

    I couldn’t access Inc. (I remember there being a thing with non-US readers, but it’s the first time it happened to me today) so I don’t know Alison’s advice yet, but this really does sound like a boss problem much more than a you problem, in my opinion.

    Your boss would become furious and not speak to you for weeks? (Both totally unprofessional, but I also wonder how the latter could even be realised from a practical viewpoint – don’t people’s bosses usually talk to them pretty regularly?) Your past is relived in your boss’s eyes whenever you make even a small mistake? (Which also suggests that your boss can’t really tell the difference between a normal and excusable mistake and something that’s a huge deal.) Your boss tells every new employee about your past??? (Apart from the fact that the problems happened six (!) years ago, what does every new worker and their mother have to do with your past mistakes?) I am furious and flabbergasted on your behalf, OP, and concerned that at least from your letter it doesn’t seem like you think this behaviour of your boss’s is unjustified and not normal. Which it isn’t, just for the record.

    1. AMT*

      I remember an old boss catching a mistake I’d made and interpreting it as “dishonesty.” Can’t remember what it was, but it was definitely an easily-fixed newbie mistake and not at all related to honesty. Whenever she felt like berating me, she’d pull the “honesty” card and tell me I hadn’t been honest with her about something or other. Never something that actually involved honesty, of course. When I finally left for grad school, she triumphantly scolded me for being “dishonest” and not telling her that I’d applied (something I’d normally disclose to a boss, but not one that would make my life a living hell for months).

      Looking back on it, it was almost like an abusive relationship. Abusers will latch onto a single mistake or perceived character flaw and use it to keep you in line. Everything you do after that is interpreted through the lens of your supposed “bad” behavior. Reflecting on it years later and knowing how draining it is to work at a dysfunctional workplace, I will never let myself stay at a job like that again.

      1. Happy Lurker*

        You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means…

        I had someone call me rude a few weeks back. English is their second language. I kept repeating Indigo and laughing…that was rude (but not to their face).

      2. UrbanGardener*

        My former boss was like that – but she also blamed me for mistakes previous people made in my position that weren’t caught until I pointed them out. She refused to acknowledge the possibility that anyone other than me could make a mistake. Good times!

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          In response to a mistake I’d made at my old university boss’ private design firm, his wife berated me and said that no one at their company had ever made a mistake like that. When she’d gone home for the day, the guys called me over and let me in on a huge, $100,000 secret mistake that she had made, and that neither of the firm principals knew that their employees knew about (an engineer at another firm leaked it to one of the designers at our firm). It felt good to know that the guys had my back and to know that the wife-boss was full of it.

          1. UrbanGardener*

            That’s awesome that they told you! My boss went so far as to ding me on my performance review for the mistake I didn’t make, and I was so staggered I couldn’t defend myself, because I didn’t expect it. That and a few other things happening at the same time made me realize what an unhinged loon she was.

      3. Kelly L.*

        I’ve talked about this before, but at one of my old jobs, stuff I’d done years ago would just get carried over into my new performance reviews over and over, even though I’d already been Talked To about it multiple times and it was now literally years in the past. I think they might have just been photocopying my old review and using it as the new review.

        Reader, I quit. That wasn’t even why, but it didn’t help.

    2. OldAdmin*

      In a nutshell, Alison advises the OP to move on from an impossible and unfixable situation.
      And I agree, it sounds hopeless.

    3. Kathlynn*

      I only sometimes get blocked, if I open it in a private viewing page, I never do. I think it has more to do with my adblock then anything.

  3. poppedchips*

    I was reading #5 as a referral, not a reference, which in my experience is different. With a referral there may be some kind of bonus if there person gets hired and you are generally not asked for a formal statement of recommendation. I’m not sure if that changes the advice at all, but I feel there is a distinction.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Given the context, even thought the LW used the word “referral,” it seems pretty obvious they’re talking about a reference.

    2. Rowan*

      Yeah, it sounded like a referral, not a reference, to me. But in my company’s referral system, you’re asked to provide a reason why you’re referring someone for a position — basically giving a brief written recommendation. I would also be hesitant to even refer someone for an opening if I wasn’t sure they would be a good fit. It’s a kind of tacit recommendation.

    3. Joseph*

      There is a difference, but I don’t think that changes the advice. Because if Eye Guy fails out, nobody’s going to make that distinction between “referral” and “formal recommendation” – all anybody is going to remember is that OP suggested him to be part of the team.

  4. MM*

    For #1, after 7 years, who would this individual use as her references if she moved onto a new job? I know someone in a similar situation and wonder if the current employer(s) would sabotage her chances if she were to use them.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Often you don’t use your current employer as a reference anyway because you may be keeping your job search quiet from them.

      1. MM*

        Yes, but after 7 years, she may not have many other reference prospects given that she’s been at the company for this length of time.

    2. RVA Cat*

      Maybe peers who joined after the mistakes and only heard about it as hearsay? They may not take boss’s word as gospel as much as OP#1 seems to think they do – especially if the boss trash-talks other people, which I’m guessing is likely. I wonder what the boss’s reputation is in the company?

    3. TootsNYC*

      yeah, but you’ll want them for Job #3! I’d say that while she’s looking, she should approach allies and say, “Listen, help me change the stereotype about me.”

      I might even say approach boss in the “You keep bringing this up, do you realize how long ago it was, and I want to point out how much I’ve improved. Do you have current concerns?”

      Job hunt anyway, but I might try those tactics to change the way I’m perceived before I leave.

  5. Edith*

    #1: Holy crap, OP, your boss’s actions are not okay. I really related to your letter– several years ago I had a rough year at work and got far enough behind that people took notice. I was still in the process of digging myself out when my department had a retreat, where I acknowledged to the team that I had had a rough year, and once I was back on my feet we moved past it.

    I was going to tell you not to worry, that the good work you’ve been doing for the last half decade had made your rough year fade in everyone’s mind, and that everyone would have moved past it. But then you said your boss tells new hires about it. Six years later. That is just so over the line. Not okay. Stewing in a situation you fully recovered from for six freaking years?!? AAM is absolutely right. You need to get out of there. Find a job where you can work with adults.

  6. Chriama*

    I’m really interested in how OP#2’s situation worked out. She originally agreed to move back to her original job and they told her not to worry about it. Now they’re booting her out and her original job is gone. If the pay rates are significantly different, this would probably count as constructive dismissal. OP didn’t say anything about that though so I doubt that’s an issue. However, I’m wondering who “they” are. Are they the same people who told her not to worry when she was originally going back to her old job? Has she laid out the situation here before them (was willing to take her old job but due to their promises is now in a less fortunate situation) and if so, what did they say? Is it possible that she can kick out the person in her old job and go back (I’m imagining a very amusing game of job dominoes that would probably be pretty hellish in real life)?

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Could it still count as constructive dismissal even if the pay rates are similar, if the job duties are significantly different? For example, wouldn’t it count as constructive dismissal if my employers said, “hey, from now on you’re not going to be a science teacher; you’re going to file paperwork in the front office and answer phones, but we’ll pay you the same as before.”?

      1. Chriama*

        I don’t know. I feel like it should be because it’s not *fair* but we know the law isn’t always based on what’s fair. Maybe if it the new duties were significantly egregious/something she never would have applied to (I’m thinking dealing with bodily fluids or something)? I vaguely remember a letter where the OP’s office was moving really far away and that was technically constructive dismissal because it would have been a real hardship to get to the new location so it was practically a layoff. Actually now that I think about it, her job duties had totally changed to become something like manual labor. I don’t remember if it was the combination of new location and new duties that qualified it as constructive dismissal though.

  7. Chriama*

    #3 – I’m wondering if it would make sense to ask for a raise or promotion now. OP is doing at least part of her supervisor’s work – that sounds like it deserves some sort of recognition, and maybe the boss will feel generous because she’s leaving and it’s not really her issue to deal with anymore. I am raising an eyebrow at the idea that she’s considered ‘not qualified’ for a promotion but apparently qualified enough that she’s fine without a new supervisor. Even if the supervisor’s role was redundant, can’t she get some sort of intermediate promotion to reflect the tasks that were absorbed into her current role?

    1. Bananas*

      I wonder if “not qualified” means she doesn’t have the right degree or certification. I know someone who had been working in a director-level capacity in a field for years. She applied at a different organization for a director-level position, interviewed, got the job and while she was filling out some paperwork, they realized she didn’t complete a degree and they pulled the job offer. The position absolutely required a degree (even though the degree she had been working on was in a completely different field than what she was then doing).

    2. Alienor*

      A while ago I had a position–let’s call it Teapot Manager–that was eliminated in a reorganization. I was given an alternate role instead, made the best of it, and then earlier this year I learned that the Teapot Manager position was being reinstated. I applied for it, interviewed, and was told I “wasn’t ready to move up into a leadership role.” It was the EXACT same position I had held for five years, under the same manager who had given me nothing but positive reviews while I held it, and there was that manager sitting on the other side of the table and telling me I “wasn’t ready” as if none of that had ever happened. Ever since then I’ve been deeply suspicious of “not qualified” as a reason not to promote someone, especially when they’re already doing the job (or in my case, had already done it in the past) with apparent success. I think it’s an excuse to cover up some personal or political reason for not wanting someone in a specific role.

      1. Chriama*

        That’s really weird! Did you explain your case /push for more detail? As an example of a legitimate reason, it could be the reinstated role would have different responsibilities or a slightly different focus from the one you’d had before and they didn’t necessarily want someone who would come in and try to do everything the way they were used to. Not an excuse for such a lousy explanation, but maybe not as malicious as it seems?

        1. Alienor*

          It was such a surreal experience that I ended up just saying “Okay.” As far as I can tell, it’s exactly the same job – some of the goals are different because the goals of the organization as a whole have shifted, but the overall responsibilities are the same. In an additional twist, I report to the person who did get the job (who is very nice and capable and none of it is their fault), and when they started, I was assigned to oversee their onboarding, which just made me go “…”

        2. Alienor*

          Also, I think you’re right that they may just have wanted someone from the outside for the sake of changing things up, but I wish they had told me that up front instead of inviting me to apply and then telling me I wasn’t ready. I mean…???

  8. Tim C.*

    #1 – Perhaps the OP could enlist the help the boss’s boss? I had a similar situation where I was in a new role in a new position. Many details were not worked out. Throw in a coworker with a chip on her shoulder and another hostile department and I was swimming in complaints. I worked my tail off fixing it all but one individual persisted until I mentioned something to my director. During a private unrelated meeting he asked “Is there anything I can do for you?” I related the story and he made sure it would not be an issue ever again. He was right. If this is not an option, then bailing out would be the better option.

    1. Driftworm*

      Be vary careful about this. In your case it sounded like you had a good relationship with grand boss. I tried this route in the example I gave below and found out they were best friends who had reported to each other for fifteen years.

      1. JM in England*

        I’ve been there too!

        More often than not, your boss and their boss tend to be friends which explains why it’s often the same people that get promotions and other perks.

  9. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    I’m not sure that the guy seeking a reference in #5 is the writer’s coworker – in fact, it sounds like maybe he’s not, since she just refers to him as “an acquaintance” and says she can’t speak to his work professionally at all. If she only knows him socially, contacting his manager about the eye contact issue wouldn’t be appropriate at all, though depending on their relationship she might mention it to him directly.

    1. ellis*

      I was really shocked by the “talk to his manager” suggestion — it makes more sense if Alison thought they were already colleagues.

    2. Willis*

      Yeah, it sounds to me like they know each other outside of work, so contacting his manager would be pretty weird. It would be nice if someone mentioned it to him, although I probably wouldn’t do that with someone who is just a casual acquaintance.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, I messed that up! For some reason I must have been thinking they worked together when I was writing that part of the answer, even though the first part of the question makes it clear that they do not. Eeekk.

  10. Driftworm*

    #1 Don’t discount looking for an internal department transfer as well if you like the company and it is large enough.

    I had a boss like that. She never forgave me for getting into a horrible car accident on my way into the office on my first day in the role. Meant I missed the whole week. I instantly became “lazy” and “not a team player”. Everything I did was under the microscope and it rubbed of on the other managers in the department. New managers coming in were warned about me. It was awful. I managed to get a promotion to another department through a workplace committee I sat on.

    1. Chriama*

      Your boss sounds like a terrible person and I’m glad you were able to get out. Was she like that with other people’s incidents too?

  11. Purest Green*

    In #5, I’m curious how prolonged eye contact, with no other awkward mannerisms, can be so off-putting that people avoid him for it. I’m in no way doubting that it’s the truth; I’m genuinely curious because I’ve never experienced this.

    1. Chriama*

      I can totally imagine it. Eye contact is weirdly intimate. Usually people will look at part of your face and move their gaze around (look down, look over your shoulder, look at your hands if you’re gesturing, etc). Staring at one location *and* that location being your eyes is really unnerving.

        1. Kelly L.*

          There’s sort of a knack to it. You want to make eye contact sometimes during the conversation, and also not make eye contact sometimes during the conversation. It feels weird if you just stare straight into their eyes the whole time, and it feels weird if you look at something else the whole time.

    2. Ruffingit*

      I have a co-worker now who does this and it’s really uncomfortable. She will just stare at you and it’s very unnerving. Don’t know that I can explain how it feels adequately, but it’s just so out of the range of social norms, at least in the US, that it just makes everyone feel awkward and weird when she does it.

  12. Workfromhome*

    Number 2 and number 3 likely both need new jobs

    #2 maybe could be constructive dismissal (depending entirely on the laws where the OP is) but that might not do any more than get you unemployment benefits which isn’t much of solution. Any job that is going to boot you out of a job you did well for 15 months because someone who gave it up over a year ago now wants it back is seriously dysfunctional. Maybe some seniority rules are in play here from a handbook or something but if they are the company is still dysfunctional. Who is to say that if you quietly take the less desirable job and then something great opens up that this pita person who obviously has some bosses ear won’t get that too? Start looking now!

    #3 The non profit has basically gotten a free ride for 6 months paying a low paid entry level salary to do not only the entry level hob but on top of that be a supervisor. You are not only getting shafted by not getting a supervisor salary but by doing the “the work of 2”. Its entirely possible the “new” boss is under the same constrain “cant give someone the title of supervisor without x certification or x years experience. Either they will let things ride since stuff is running well and you are helping them save huge $ on their salary budget or they will simply high a supervisor that meets the qualifications of THEIR choice since they want their own hand picked people not former bosses leftovers. Then you’ll be left with your entry level salary and getting to train/do the work of the new supervisor who makes twice as much as you.
    At the very least you should go to current boss and say:I know you cannot give me the title supervisor. However I am doing the work of 2. Lets leave my title alone and get my pay to a level that matches my responsibilities. If they say “well the pay band for a non supervisor doesn’t allow a raise” then you need to get out of there double quick. I highly doubt you will ever get that promotion to supervisor at this company.

  13. NicoleK*

    #1 During my review, boss said that I needed to work on X. I disagreed with boss. A couple of months later, boss brought up X again. Then I realized that boss would always see me as X. There was nothing I could do because her mind was set. And that would have a major impact on raises and bonuses. I decided to leave the job as it was pointless to stick around.

    #5 To me, referring someone is on the same level as vouching for them. Even if there was a financial incentive, this is something I would do sparingly and cautiously. There’s only a handful of people that I would enthusiastically refer for a position in my company.

  14. Ruffingit*

    I think OP #1 is caught in an abusive relationship of sorts at that job. Mistake was made and it’s still being harped on so OP has stayed at the job trying desperately to make things better, hoping that things will change.

    OP GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT! Whatever mistake you made won’t ever be let go of by this manager. It’s time to make a fresh start, you deserve that!

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