can I recover from a bad reputation at work?

A reader writes:

I’m a professional in an office setting (working from home now but usually we are in the office) and I’ve been at this job for about seven years. For a large portion of my time working here, I was a nightmare to supervise and I’m surprised and grateful I wasn’t fired. I always did my work and met all my deadlines, but I was very difficult to manage and work with.

Back when I got the job, I was going through a lot. I was just leaving a very abusive marriage, two people very close to me had recently died, and I had no support system in my personal life. I was also struggling with mental health issues that weren’t being treated at that time, so I was having difficulty coping with everything and keeping myself professional. I felt like I was spiraling out of control.

A lot of those issues came out at work. I was loud and obnoxious. I was constantly walking around and talking to everyone in sight, and my manager was constantly telling me to sit down. I would gossip with other gossipers and spread the gossip to everyone. I would tell my personal business to people despite the fact they were probably very uncomfortable; everyone was too nice to tell me to stop. I was mouthy to management and insubordinate. I acted more like an unruly teenager than a professional adult. Management had many serious talks with me.

I finally got help and I’m in a much better place. I’m so embarrassed and ashamed of how I acted at work. Luckily, many of my coworkers from that time are no longer at this company, but most of the managers are still here. I’m now a changed person, but I know they clearly remember how I was, and I feel like I’m being passed over for learning opportunities and promotions because of it. People who have been here less time than me and have less experience are getting to do career-advancing projects and working with management or being nominated for committees, while I am not.

I don’t blame my management for being cautious with me. I know I was a horrible employee in the past, and I would probably feel the way they do if I had an employee who acted the way I did. But I don’t want to be punished forever. I really did change and I am a good employee. I just want to be seen for who I am now and not that person who desperately needed help.

Is it possible to recover from this? Or should I look for another job and start over where no one knows me and my history? My manager recently quit and I’m afraid that a new manager will be filled in on what I like before.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I can empathize, OP. Different details, but I have a chapter of my career that looks similar from 10,000 ft. Management avoided those hard conversations (fact, not blame), and I didn’t hit rock bottom and start improving again until after I’d left that job (with none lined up).

    I wouldn’t quit just to quit. If you have a new gig lined up, that’s one thing. But don’t quit just for a fresh start.

    I say that because your coworkers have put up with a lot. They deserve a few months or years of the new and improved You. Don’t announce it or boast and predict how much better you’ll be, just do it. Speak with your actions. There may come a point where you’ve progressed and grown as far as you can with this organization, and then you’ll want to move on acting in good faith and leaving the job and workplace better than you found it. You’ll want to do that with a rehabilitated reputation and image. You get there by walking the walk, one day at a time, one action at a time.

      1. Tinker*

        At a certain point a change might be part of cementing the new normal. Environment, including one’s perception of the environment, substantially affects mindset and behavior, and moving from a place where there’s an implicit “I have to answer back to or disprove my past” hovering to a new place where you’re just not that thing will make it that much more true.

        Of course, you do have to be enough of “not the old thing” that you don’t promptly contaminate the new place.

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          Yeah, I was a really badly-behaved little kid, but that changed basically overnight when I moved to a different school where I didn’t know anybody. Schoolkids are different from adults, of course, but the Pygmalion effect + living up/down to people’s expectations is real.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I should also point out that if you leave while your reputation and image are bad, that’s the end of the story. You won’t get another chance to rehabilitate either. So if you put any stock in references and want one, now’s your opportunity to earn it. If you leave right after you’ve come to see the light, all anyone can remember will be the darkness because that’s all they ever witnessed.

      1. Weekend Please*

        Yep. It would be best to stay long enough to at least get a neutral reference instead of a bad one.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          I’m not sure it matters that much. I mean they shouldn’t bail without something lined up and should work at repairing relationships while they are there. But, honestly, if they manage a new position the effort at building that reference may very well be more profitable than staying where they are at for the specific purpose of reference building.

      2. Artemesia*

        I would think it time to sit down with your current boss, acknowledge your reputation and indicate you were in a tough personal time and have now turned the corner and mended your ways and would like their advice about how to advance — get challenging projects or training opportunities. ‘I know I didn’t merit those in the past, but have worked hard to turn the page and would like to get your advice on how to get a chance to prove my effectiveness now.’

        1. C is for Cookie*

          This is my thought as well. Talk with your current manager – acknowledge the information she heard and provide your perspective on what you’ve changed and how you’ve improved. If she’s a good manager, she should be looking to judge for herself based on current behavior. If she’s not willing to listen, then you know where you stand and might be better to start looking. This is where I’d look to Alison to provide suggestions on a script so you don’t sound defensive and are matter of fact and show that you have really moved on.

    2. Amaranth*

      Having a new manager might be a helpful change, too, because even if they are ‘warned’, OP can demonstrate that attitude change and without the personal experience of the Before Times, the new manager can form their own opinion. If the reality doesn’t match rumor, then OP could at least cultivate an advocate in the company or a decent reference. However, while OP says they feel passed over for committees, I’d ask if they have applied for them or told their current manager they’d like to be involved and to ask what they can do. If the response is nobody feels comfortable working with OP, then they need to decide if they want to ask for a chance to show that things have changed, or to move on.

    3. Librarian1*

      The coworkers *have* put up with a lot, but the OP needs to look out for themselves first. They don’t need to stay in this job because they think they owe it to the company to make up for past bad behavior.

      1. Autumnheart*

        True, but if OP leaves now, the reference will always be “OP was a nightmare to work with!” Sticking around to show the New You will change that to a more positive narrative.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          If they don’t leave now they could end up spending months without changing anybody’s mind when they could be building a good reputation (and reference) at a place where they don’t have the existing baggage. And if they can fix their reference in a short enough time to be worth it, it seems unlikely that they are going to *need* to go elsewhere to get a fresh start.

  2. merp*

    I really like Alison’s point that the new manager could be a reset button of its own – even if someone tells them some of your history, I would hope they value what they see more than what they hear, and that’s something entirely in your control!

    However, if just being there reminds you too much of your past and the difficulties you were going through, it could be worth looking around. Even if others get past it but you remember, it could be a gift to yourself to not have those memories hanging around.

    1. Tax Nerd*

      I feel like the new manager in this. (But given the details, I know I’m not.) I came in as a manager, and there was an employee I thought was stellar – smart, hardworking, ambitious. I really enjoyed working with her. When I was officially made her career advisor, I got all this history from several years ago about her. Some she had told me already, but some not. I tried very hard to be an advocate for who she was now, but the halo effect is strong, even when it’s a negative halo. She ended up moving on. I think we would have been better off if we’d tried harder to keep her, but it was really hard for her to get past that baggage.

  3. twocents*

    Agree with Alison that a lot of this will depend on how recent the changes are. I also think under consideration would be how long you behaved badly. If it was only one bad year, then I’d assume managers would act more like “I hope LW leaves or figures it out, either is fine.” I know people who have successfully done the “figured my s–t out” approach, but they weren’t terrible for years on end. The ones that were nightmares to work with and required babysitting more than management for years… They will almost certainly never get a promotion where they’re at. Certainly not if it’s something like “I was terrible for my first five years but eventually became less awful over the last two.” If you’ve burned through too many bridges and are still generally disliked, you may just need to move on.

    1. Ryn*

      Yeah I think this is it. Having a coworker who behaves “more like an unruly teenager than a professional adult” is something that could truly turn a workplace toxic for other employees. I think the LW would benefit from some (gentle) reflection on how their actions caused harm to others — depending on the level of gossip, that could have caused real damage to others’ careers or reputations, and depending on what “mouthy” means, that could have created a really toxic and unhealthy environment for others.

      I don’t say this because I think self-flagellation is the answer. It’s incredible that LW has done the work to heal and recover, but I think there’s a bit of an amends-making stage that’s left out of this letter.

    2. Persephone Mongoose*

      I do find it a bit telling that the LW doesn’t offer much of a timeline except that they’ve been with this company for seven years. Knowing how long they were problematic, when they started getting help, and when they started really making substantial changes in their behavior would really provide some clarity on whether it’s worth trying to pursue those career-advancing projects or whether to start fresh somewhere else.

      1. Amaranth*

        For a company to keep a self-described problematic or even toxic employee for several years, that either says some negative things about the company’s support for the rest of the employees, or that OP has a critical skillset.

        1. Aggretsuko*

          Who knows. My office has not been happy with me for many years, but somehow haven’t actually made a hard push to get rid of me yet.

    3. BRR*

      Yeah I think a lot of this will come down to time. From the letter, I’m getting the sense that success will be limited for the LW. The letter says “large portion” of seven years. I think we could safely say roughly half of the time and someone who was awful for 4 years and then decent for 3 still isn’t going to fully change their own reputation if they were as bad as it sounds. I wish I had a better answer for the LW but I think they will get further if they look for a position elsewhere.

    4. You can’t afford these jeans!*

      I would add that it depends on what kind of behavior we are talking about. I worked with someone whose behavior was so outrageous that I would never in a million years assume hire or recommend.
      An example situation –
      Boss: Hey, not sure if you’d aw the new email that came down from above, but the new policy is no jeans unless it’s Friday
      Coworker: (screaming in front of everyone) you can’t tell me what to wear! These are $250 jeans. You couldn’t even afford these jeans!

      There was more screaming about how she has money and he doesn’t and he doesn’t know fashion, etc etc. but yeah…if that was you, added the number of years she had been at the company (so relative to the post I am replying to I guess) I’m never giving you a chance. People don’t want to work with you. You are likely to fly off the handle at any time.

      That being said – the OP seems genuinely concerned, self aware, and interested in changing her reputation so more powerful to you, OP. I hope that a new boss is a blessing. FWIW, I always go into a new team as a leader with the idea that I will listen to what other people say, but that I will form my own opinion. I’ve taken on groups where some are perceived as the high performers but it’s mostly show, or where someone is perceived negatively but I have a different experience. The new manager might be what you need.

      Good luck!

  4. HR Ninja*

    I would also throw in trying to strengthen relationships with newer colleagues in a positive manner. Not in a fake or manipulative way. Get some new allies who might become references in job hunting down the road.

    1. Amaranth*

      I’m wondering if a superficial change helps in these cases, like changing clothing styles or hair or just something others can subconsciously use to tag OP Now as ‘different’ from OP Then and maybe make them more open to giving her a chance.

      1. CCSF*

        I love this idea as long as the OP is able to still be themselves (just a slightly different version). Visual, auditory, and even physical cues can do SO much to reset the brain. Something as simple as wearing a n accessory or a signature color.

  5. Malika*

    Unless where you work is your absolute passion, i would recommend a fresh start elsewhere. Not so much for the fact that your managers aren’t giving you opportunities to develop. A fresh start will enable you to start with best practices and a location and job that focuses on the future and not on the past. It can be unreal how a move to a new workplace can make a world of difference to your career prospects and wellbeing. Colleagues that have no knowledge of your past can focus on your proffesionalism and build a healthy workplace relationship with you.
    I left a workplace due to burnout and any subsequent visit to that workplace, lovely colleagues notwithstanding, just gives me ptsd. I can’t imagine you have more positive feelings towards your current workplace.

    1. Smithy*

      Came here to say this as well. When part of your issues fall into the “bad attitude” category, I find those issues to be really hard to completely erase from people’s memories. If the issues are more quantitative like missing deadlines/making technical errors, then showing that’s either stopped or reduced helps provide a track record of having changed.

      Unfortunately, things like being loud, gossiping or other 101 other soft skill issues are just harder to come back from. It really is amazing how being in a new environment where everyone gives you the benefit of the doubt on those social/soft skills can be game changing.

    2. GammaGirl1908*

      Agree with this. I wouldn’t quit with nothing lined up or rage-quit because no one will forget the past, but at a new place, LW would be starting from neutral, not having to dig out of a hole. LW doesn’t need to leave, like, yesterday, but I’d be seriously looking for my next step.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        Agree with this. At a certain point staying just so people see the change isn’t going to really help the OP’s career. It may be stunted in place due to previous issues. I would start a search in earnest and continue to keep up the positive at current location.

        1. TardyTardis*

          Also, depending on corporate culture, LW may get decent references just so she’ll move on (the Greyhound Therapy effect). If she makes those references sound good by staying the course, there will be goodwill built up there.

  6. JSPA*

    Concur that a good new boss will draw their own conclusions (but not all bosses are good). Game it out:

    bad new boss = no worse off than before, in terms of a reference

    Good new boss = a semi-re-start where you are

    turnover = your past bad behavior becomes hearsay that new people are less likely to countenance as they see you being…none of those things.

    If you’re sensitive to disturbances in your external mileu (I know that, in the workplace parallel to “new relationship energy, I will either recapitulate “talks too much” or, fighting that, will go the other way and clam up / seem stand-offish), weigh that in the calculation. (Better to have an old story than new proof, when you do actually go looking.)

    There’s no harm looking, unless you know you “impulse buy” in many aspects of your life.

    1. Works in IT*

      If nothing else, even if you can’t continue moving up within the company because higher ups still don’t trust you, making a good impression on your new boss is a good thing. They’ll be a positive reference for the future, instead of previous supervisors for this job who can only speak bad things.

  7. Chriama*

    I think length of time “recovered” matters a whole lot. People who have had an “aha” moment about their behaviour often feel really excited to share their changed attitudes. But not only are relapses a valid concern, someone with a short track record who’s insisting they’ve changed raises concerns about their perspective. Assuming it’s been at least 2 years, I doubt people will be going out of their way to update your new boss on your past behaviour. I think it’s worth letting your new boss draw their own conclusions.

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      I agree the OP admits “I’ve been at this job for about seven years. For a large portion of my time working here, I was a nightmare to supervise…” to me this reads that OP was a bad employee for at least 5 years if not 6. At best OP has improved for 2 years, but if OP had a bad track record for 5 years prior 2 years is not that long. If OP has only been improved for 1 year, I think they need at least 2 more years of consistent good performance for attitudes to change.

  8. SnowWhiteClaw*

    OP, I feel so awful this is happening to you. I had 4 major health issues in 2020 that caused me to miss a lot of work and not meet deadlines.

    I feel like I have to switch jobs to recover what that did to my reputation. This is really difficult to do when you’re disabled. Hope you find something better soon!

  9. Eyeball*

    OP, I have Been There and it was terrible. Alison’s last line is spot on, at least for me: “And once you do find a new job, I suspect you’ll find there’s real relief, even liberation, in being treated as who you are now rather than who you used to be.”

  10. Seal*

    This was me some 20 years ago. I had gotten a good job straight out of college, but got stuck there for a decade or so because I was dealing with a lot of outside stuff. From my perspective, as long as I was getting my work done who cared? This job paid the bills and supported my questionable outside activities so everything was fine. But in reality, things weren’t fine. When I finally started paying attention to what was really going on a work, I was horrified to discover that while I was doing the bare minimum to get by, most people viewed me as a lost cause. The consensus was that while I was obviously more than capable of doing the work, my work ethic was at best questionable and no one took me seriously. It didn’t help that I took the 8-5 workday as a suggestion rather than a mandate and was more or less coming and going when I pleased (still not sure how I got away with that, though!).

    Although I semi-redeemed myself by significantly stepping up on a major remodeling project, in the end it was obvious that I had burned so many bridges over the years that I had to leave and start over. My intent was to move to a new industry entirely, but after a year I wound back at the same organization in a vastly different role. This time I threw myself into my job and started making a name for myself. There were still people that remembered me from my previous role, but as I continued to demonstrate my commitment to being an outstanding employee and producing good work, people’s perception of me changed for the better. I won’t pretend it was easy and I still run into people from that time in my life whose opinion of me will never change and that’s fine. But there were still plenty of people who were willing to give me a second chance; it was up to me to make the most of it.

  11. Blue Eagle*

    Have you ever owned up to your less than sterling behavior to your manager, acknowledged to her that you recognize it and detailed to her the specific actions you have taken to improve? If not, this conversation is the first thing you should do – not just sit there passively and hope people will notice the change in your behavior.
    A former co-worker had exhibited behavior similar to what you describe under somewhat similar circumstances, owned up to it and was dedicated to change, actually did change behavior and was back on the path to promotions, etc. If the co-workers hadn’t said anything, though, it is doubtful that managers would have put forth the effort for the co-worker on their own.

    1. katertot*

      Yep- I had a coworker who did the same thing and I came onboard after she was in a better place and only knew her as a fantastic positive coworker BUT she was very open about the fact that she’s worked through some tough times in her life and has made a lot of progress in her relationships and work demeanor. I think because she owned it and publicly talked to a lot of people about it- which is a tough thing to do- more people were inclined to give her a “fresh start”.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Agreed. OP, if your old manager has already moved on, is there a grandboss, or someone else senior you could have this conversation with?

      And I think the tone of the conversation should be “I want to regain your confidence,” rather than “I want to get back on track for a promotion.” That will come later.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      I was surprised that this wasn’t mentioned before. I’d be going back to the people I was rude/dismissive/insubordinate to and apologize for past behavior. If a dark impression was left, no amount of good work will erase it. There needs to be acknowledgement. Once things have settled in with the new manager, I’d bring up the past and let the manager know that I’m repairing relationships with previous colleagues.
      But if this is a company where apologies would be scoffed at, then it’s time to move on.

  12. staceyizme*

    I’m glad for your sake that you didn’t lose your job. But it does sound like the weight of your past is still hanging over you there, like the sword of Damocles. They don’t appear to be very timely or decisive in their management when things go wrong. The down side of that is that you could be three or even five years beyond the bad conduct and still be tasked with the fallout. It sounds like you’ve recovered, but they haven’t. Getting them on the same page with you- the one where advancement and training are possible, is unlikely. You’d expend enormous effort for an uncertain result. Effort that might be better spent creating a better professional reputation in a new environment.

  13. Narcissa’s Eldest Daughter*

    I think you can move on from unprofessional behavior during a bad time if you are (1) willing to be honest about the challenges you faced that made you difficult to work with, and (2) willing to be patient while your coworkers’ perceptions of you change.

    You still may want to leave and start over. I think I’d give it some time, but it is your choice.

  14. sometimeswhy*

    It doesn’t sound like the case with OP but I worked with someone who, under similar circumstances, was not only a pain to manage but also did real personal and professional damage to their coworkers. They got treatment and everything was “fine.” The damage was never addressed. We continued to work with them but kept it wholly, wholly professional. I don’t even know their children’s names and they had three of them after the debacle but before the turnaround. I/we never got in the way of them doing their job and I/we gave them the chance to build a new reputation but I was never going to be friendly again and that was a thing they just needed to come to terms with.

    1. Chriama*

      That’s a fair point, but OP mentions that most of the coworkers have moved on, and it’s management who seem to have a cemented view of her behavior. I’m not sure how much an apology to them would be worth, and with a new boss coming on you don’t necessarily want to stir up old memories.

      1. Amaranth*

        If OP feels like it hangs over her professionally though, it might be worth having that conversation with someone above the incoming manager so that when they talk about her history, it ends with ‘but she says she wants to improve things.’ It might be the case that she *has* improved but her negative behavior was very loud and her current professional behavior flies under the radar, so it won’t even be noticed unless she points it out.

        That said, there is the possibility that there are other reasons OP is passed over, from not having the right skills for a project or simply not asking to be considered, and that management isn’t penalizing her for past behavior at all.

      2. gbca*

        Managers are people too! And showing some self-awareness can only help OP. Most people who are a pain to work with never seem to understand that. If someone came to me and said, “I know I was an unprofessional jerk before, and I’m sorry for that impact of that. I’ve gotten help, and am going to prove that I can be better”, I would be pretty impressed by the self-awareness and humility. It wouldn’t erase everything, and I’d definitely want a good track record of evidence that they had changed, but I would appreciate the apology and explanation.

        1. Who is the asshole*

          Agreed. An apology wouldn’t even be the most important thing for me, but rather the information that the person is capable of serious introspection and has a realistic view of their behavior. And well the information that they do regret it.
          Such a conversation would certainly have an entirely different impact than them just quietly improving because then it might as well be luck/an accident and I would look out for the next problem.

      3. twocents*

        It doesn’t say the coworkers moved on, in the sense that they don’t care anymore, but rather they literally left the company. And managers are people too, so I think sometimeswhy might be onto something about considering how being a drama queen and gossiper could have negatively hurt them too, not just been annoying to manage.

  15. Kevin Sours*

    I don’t think the situation is going to change, at least not as fast as you want, without taking some initiative. That could be finding a new position where — and certainly seeing what’s out there couldn’t hurt — but I haven’t seen any advice regarding your new manager.

    And, it seems to me, that having a conversation along the lines of
    * What are your expectations for my current role?
    * Where do you see my role going in the future?
    * This is what I want, how can I get there?

    Is very much a natural conversation to have with a new manager. If they are any good it should give you a good idea of where you stand. It also gives you a way to address concerns head on without necessarily leading with “I was a terrible employee”.

  16. AthenaC*

    Hi, AthenaC from years ago! Nice to see you again!

    First of all, congratulations for doing all that work on yourself. Most people really and truly have no concept of what it takes to forcibly heal yourself from abuse. I’m very much like you in that my coping mechanisms were anger and being obnoxious. Probably stemming from a lot of resentment that everyone else around me clearly had such easy lives in comparison – may or may not have been the case, but that’s what it seemed like at the time.

    Anyway.

    Switching jobs / moving has been my saving grace when the wrong people have written me off in the past. In your situation, I think it’s worth sitting down with your new manager, giving them your honest take of what you used to be like, share in 1 – 3 sentences why you were like that, share that you got help, and that’s why you’re not like that any more. Then I would say, “All that being said, what will it take for me to be considered for XYZ opportunity? What behaviors / accomplishments do I need to (continue to) demonstrate and when can I expect to seriously be considered? Six months? A year? Something like that?” And then their answer will tell you whether you need to stay or job-hunt.

    Good luck!

    1. Chriama*

      I would not bring all that on a new manager right away. It’s one thing to acknowledge your past mistakes. But bringing up your desire for promotion in the same breath would make the entire conversation self-serving and any promises about changed behaviour untrustworthy.

      I honestly don’t think it’s worth bringing up to the new manager right away. After 6-12 months (so they can see your track record), a general conversation about your career growth would make sense. And at that point, if you want, you could say something like “before you came, I was in a bad place which led to a, b, and c. But I hope I’ve shown you a different picture in your time here. Is there a path for growth/promotion here, and if so, what do I need to show?” But it is imperative that a conversation like this happens after you’ve already worked with the new manager for any claims you make to be believable.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        I think they need to bring things up with the new manager right away. Framing is important here. There is a difference between “I want a promotion” and “I would like to do more challenging work like XYZ” even though it’s the same basic conversation. OP would be well advised to put a heavy focus on “what do I need to do to get there” in the ensuing conversation.

        But a conversation around your role and expectations is a *normal* thing to have with a new manager.

      2. AthenaC*

        I guess I was assuming:

        1) the new manager wasn’t really “new” and had been there for a little while already; and
        2) would have already heard everything from other people.

        If neither of the above are true, then yes I would leave out the entire history lesson and just have a “getting to know you” conversation, including what your goals are

        1. Kevin Sours*

          “My manager recently quit and I’m afraid that a new manager will be filled in on what I like before”
          I don’t think it’s clear. But if they are any good then “what do you need to see from me” is going to prompt any concerns about past behavior. And OP will need to address them with candor.

      3. Tinker*

        I think this depends on the context and framing.

        The more recent the behavior is and the less concrete evidence you have in hand of a change, the more you probably need to foreground “the path to getting to where we can talk about a promotion” over “talking about the path to promotion itself” in order to demonstrate responsiveness to the tone of a social interaction — probably important considering how much the fault in this case is about that general class of skill.

        However, talking about career growth plans and goals is a significant part of the management relationship. Not talking about it, or having to heap sackcloth and ashes in front of talking about it, is a pretty substantial obstacle, and there comes a point where even if one is uncomfortable with the conclusion that a former Bad Employee deserves better, at the very least they are likely to be able to get better somewhere else.

        I think if a person can’t have a conversation in a form like “my next professional goal is ultimately this thing, here’s what I’ve done so far to go in that direction and here’s what I’m aware of as needing done” — where repairing the past situation is appropriately placed in the “have done” and “to do” items — then that would be up there on the list of signs to move on.

  17. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    Hi OP. One thing to consider is that there may be less visibility of the “new, improved you”, than there was of the “old, problem you”.

    So you might be off management’s radar, in a good way, from the perspective that you aren’t causing issues. But at the same time, you’re not seen as a high performer, so you’re not getting the opportunities you’re hoping for.

    This depends on your role, company size and structure, etc, so might not be relevant in your case.

    But you may need to actively make a case to be assigned to more visible and important projects, if you do want to stay at the company and try to make things work.

    You could also look for an under-resourced project and see if you can contribute to it, as a way to demonstrate the value you can add. If you’re a pleasure to work with, people may seek you out for other projects. Or even, if you decide to move on, just to have some recent work to talk about in an interview situation.

    1. Chriama*

      Yeah, that’s an issue. It takes a lot more effort to overwrite a bad reputation than establish a good one from scratch.

  18. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’m generally a pretty direct person, so I think I’d be inclined to be pretty open with a new manager and say something like “I don’t know how much you were told about me, but I did have some issues with x, y, and z in the past and I’ve done a, b, and c to improve. My strengths are 1, 2, and 3 and I am currently working on improving purple and red.”

    1. Kevin Sours*

      I feel like there is a needle that needs to be threaded here. OP should absolutely address the past head own their previous behavior. But there is a danger in putting an unnecessary emphasis on the thing they are trying to move past. Especially if the new manager hasn’t necessarily been given the backstory.

      1. Chriama*

        I agree that bringing manager’s attention to it isn’t necessarily in OP’s best interest. Especially not as a first impression.

  19. Dust Bunny*

    How long has it been since you turned it around?

    If it’s been years then, yes, you might need to move on to get better opportunities.

    If it’s recent, then you can probably stay but you might need to put in your time. It seems to be a common mindset when people feel they’ve turned over a new stone that everyone else should have turned that stone over with them, and that’s not how it works. Former bad employees (alcoholic or absent parents, rebellious kids, bad friends, etc.) don’t get to erase a history just because it’s inconvenient to them now–they still have to clear the smoke so everyone else can see the new “them”, and that involves work and time.

  20. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    I’m very impressed with the LW’s attitude. Owning previous mistakes is really important if you want to earn respect in future, and self-awareness will prevent a repeat.

  21. NYC Taxi*

    If you want to succeed somewhere you should find a new job. This is what struck me in your letter: “I just want to be seen for who I am now and not that person who desperately needed help.”

    I’ve been on the receiving end of coworkers like you, both as their manager and as a teammate. Alot of people have intense personal issues and don’t use it as an excuse to take it out on their coworkers. You aren’t taking responsibility for your actions. You’re deflecting blame onto your circumstances and hoping it will sweep it under the rug.

    You expected people to accept and put up with your egregious behavior and now you STILL expect people once again accept your behavior because you’ve changed. No way. I would never promote you or give you a recommendation, either bad or good.

    1. Managing to Get By*

      As I read this I was thinking something similar. That the behavior had a bigger impact than the LW realizes or admits, and that stopping the bad behavior may not be enough to make up for the damage done. The gossiping, for example, may have been mort hurtful and damaging than the LW can see. It may not be a coincidence that most of the coworkers who were there during the worst of the behavior have left.

      Also, with regard to not getting put on projects and committees, it is possible that even with stopping the bad behavior, the LW may not be the best performer when compared to new people. The energy put into the bad behavior very well could have impacted their ability to perform in their job, and new people may be outpacing them.

      It’s also possible that even though the LW has stopped the worst of their behavior, they still are not the easiest person to work with. Their ability to recognize what is acceptable and what is not may still be miscalibrated.

    2. LeslieYep*

      “You aren’t taking responsibility for your actions. You’re deflecting blame onto your circumstances and hoping it will sweep it under the rug.”

      Wow, I didn’t read this letter that way at all. I think the OP sounds like someone who IS taking responsibility for their actions by getting the help they need and working hard to repair their relationship.

      Sometimes circumstances really are the reasons for things like poor work behavior. People handle things in different ways, and we have no idea how extensive the OP’s personal issues were. It would be one thing if they blamed their circumstances and used that as a reason to not get help or become set in their ways, but they didn’t. They owned up to what happened and are doing everything in their power to move forward.

      They’re not expecting people to put up with their behavior – this is a new manager and new coworkers. These people weren’t affected by her past behavior. They’re asking if there’s a chance for redemption in this company and, if not, they’re open to moving on.

      It sounds to me like you may have been burned by people who legitimately acted like you described in your letter, and for that I’m sorry. But I think you may be judging the OP a little harshly based on past experiences. Saying things like “I would never promote you or give you a recommendation” when you don’t know this person seems extreme.

  22. Bookworm*

    I think it’s really a matter of how important this is for you. If you love the job in itself, then by all means, many of the tips given here sound like the way to go. But if you want to try to salvage your reputation, it may be too late for that, since you’ve been there for awhile. If there’s been a lot of turnover and you’re dealing with people who aren’t as familiar then maybe.

    But sometimes a fresh start is for the best. I’m not sure there’s a “right” answer any of us can give you since it can very much depend on who you are now, who your supervisors are, who your co-workers are, how much people will remember/hold a grudge, etc.

    Good luck. I’m glad you’re in a better place now, if only in a personal sense.

  23. MarketingGal*

    This sounds as if it was written by me pretty much word for word with the exception of being insubordinate. A few years ago I was in a abusive relationship and made the bad decision of confiding in someone at work. Long story short, my abusers sibling works with us as does my ex best friend. Let’s just say word travels fast and I had to take several trips to HR, ironically not to scold me. One person threatened my job, another who was spreading info on me also was spreading info on my boss.

    After all this I ditched my abuser, put my nose to the grindstone, pretty much stay to myself and key folks in my department that my boss values and I’ve been promoted twice.
    Yet… I’m not as valued as others on my team. My boss whose own relative was part of my smear campaign (smearing me) and even smeared my boss to other departments within our organization is a senior manager with an office. She even did a few illegal things that got her a slap on the wrist but I can’t get ahead which makes little sense. I’m actually more respected and liked by our immediate co workers than this person is.

    Last year I was informed I was being promoted because I exceeded my pay grade. It had nothing to do with my effort although my former boss sent me a card that said “well deserved”. Over the past year my boss was promoted to a VP level and I have a new boss that absolutely adores me, is a total joy to work with and possibly the best boss I ever had. Problem is she reports to my old boss who holds all the cards. While I’ve definitely changed and grown in my position, my career is halted because of my former boss who is a micromanager. My boss could love me to death, value me to the moon but she has no authority to help me take my career to the next level and my old boss seems to think I lack skills (which she told my new boss as she was advocating for me, yet never mentioned this in 8 years of great yearly reviews).

    I gave it a year and watched my boss continue to advocate to our VP to no avail. Working remote made me realize I don’t want to return to this environment which we will be doing in the near future (other dept are allowing 100 percent remote our boss is against it and not even allowing hybrid. Again, micromanager).
    My suggestion is give the new boss a chance and see if he/she can advocate for you. If they are a strong negotiator and well liked by senior management you may have a chance, but if you notice things not moving in the direction you are looking to go, start putting the resume out there or you’ll regret it. I probably should have started looking 6yrs ago. I’m a little late to the game.

  24. Lacey*

    In my experience, you need to change jobs.

    I got labeled a complainer early in my career. Nothing as intense as you described, I was really depressed and couldn’t quite leave it behind at the office. But I worked there for 10 years and even though my depression/attitude improved significantly after the first two, I never escaped that label.

    But, I was able to get a new job and I didn’t bring that label with me. It’s really lovely.

  25. MissDisplaced*

    I don’t think this is an urgent “I must quit,” but given the situation and length of time you’ve been at this company, it might actually be time to think about moving on anyway after 7 years and that would seem completely normal in a job search.
    Now, you say you’re getting a new manager, which could be a good thing, and an honest talk with them might clear the air and bury what was past. I think you’d have to really assess if this company is a place you really want to stay long term? But honestly, seven years is a good run anywhere nowadays, and it’s quite common to want to move on and up somewhere else.

  26. Tomalak*

    Is it possible the letter writer is being very hard on herself about behaviour that just isn’t that bad – and therefore hasn’t been a big factor more recently? While it sounds a bit annoying to have a colleague who gossips a lot, can’t sit still, but ultimately always meets her deadlines, I am not necessarily seeing all this the same way she does. Maybe I’m completely off base but it just doesn’t sound that bad to me.

    1. AlwaysAnon*

      The OP herself said she was loud and obnoxious, insubordinate, etc. Those *are* that bad and can be very toxic to a workplace. Not to mention, often that person can’t be ‘trusted’ to be customer/client-facing so someone else has to pick up that slack.

      1. Tinker*

        It’s funny, “loud and obnoxious” didn’t fully register for me as being a reputation that would be bad for one’s actual career.

        … it is DEFINITELY relevant here that I work in tech.

    2. gbca*

      I think the “management had many serious talks with me” line at the end of the 3rd paragraph indicates that it was in fact a big issue.

    3. Tinker*

      It’s possible, and it’s also possible that LW is in an environment that is disproportionately hard on them for these faults and that influences their perception of it. Particularly, “mouthy” and “insubordinate” are odd words to me for describing someone at work, even someone who really is being obnoxious — they read to me as implying an expectation of deference that I consider questionable (professionally, I come from cultures where that is not highly valued).

      That being said, there are degrees of gossiping that are intensely corrosive (somewhat, LW is now in a position to see just how harmful that sort of thing is) and degrees of not sitting still that are a major impediment to the work being done (call center? bus driver?), and then there’s the matter of oversharing — that, particularly the trauma-fueled sort, can get real bad, and if LW is saying that their coworkers were uncomfortable I would bet it’s at least as bad as they think it is.

      1. Tomalak*

        I think we are all inclined to look back with horror on embarrassing moments involving ourselves without realising how little others even remember them. I really don’t know the truth of the situation – but I wonder if that’s part of this.

        Either way, it’s great the letter writer is in a better place now. I just wonder if she is being too hard on herself.

        1. Tinker*

          Yeah, I think this is a case where both things can be true and where indeed it’s rather likely that both things are true. Particularly, I about wonder if a person actually has grown if they don’t find some of what they used to be at least a bit horrifying.

          Hmm.

          You know, something I would call out explicitly to think of: how much is the employer involved in the development of this pattern? I definitely do not mean by this “how much is the employer at fault” or “how much is the employer actually to blame instead of LW”, but sometimes part of being a wise person is realizing that some venues are not ones that bring out the best in us.

          I mentioned my skepticism about the language around LW’s relationship to management — my snap reaction to this is that “mouthy” says more about the person describing than the person described (but, like I’m queer, sort of anarchistically inclined, and I work in tech, so take that with the appropriate amount of salt). Also I notice that the phrase was “gossip with other gossipers” and not “I personally brought the scourge of gossip to this place where it wasn’t before”. Furthermore, although a commitment to solving problems rather than moving them along can be admirable, I wonder about a place where a person can be an extended trashfire and only receive stern talkings-to.

          While still holding to the point that a person is responsible for their own actions, how many sources of temptation does this particular environment provide that comparable employers might well not? It could be pertinent to make an inventory.

          1. boo bot*

            This whole thread made a lot of sense to me – I don’t at all doubt that the letter writer was behaving badly, but I’m also bothered by characterizations like “mouthy” and “insubordinate” and a little skeptical at the idea that the LW managed to destroy their reputation forever while also keeping their job.

            I also just feel like there can be something particularly unhealthy about spending a long period of time in a workplace (or relationship, family, housing situation, etc.) where people are constantly upset with you, regardless of how reasonable their frustration may be.

            You (general you) get used to the feeling of constantly falling short, other people get used to being upset with you, and ultimately I think that dynamic can start to make it feel like you have to dig your way out of a hole and fix all your past mistakes before you’re allowed to move on, when that energy might be better spent… moving on.

      2. Managing to Get By*

        I have worked with people who refused to do their jobs for no actual reason. That is what is characterized as insubordinate at the organizations where I work. There are specific tasks that are part of a job, everyone in the same role does them, one person decides to not do the tasks and possibly to do something else instead, manager has a conversation with the person to outline that they need to do their standard job duties, and the person flat out says no.

        It’s not about deference, it’s more about you in most organizations and most jobs you are not able to dictate what your job’s roles and duties are.

        1. Tinker*

          That would be the cultural gap I touched on in saying “to me” regarding that impression and in adding the parenthetical about the working culture I come from.

          I also have worked with people who could be roughly described as “refusing to do their jobs for no actual reason”, but… actually this kind of goes to the heart of the matter: the word that comes first to mind for me to describe that is “uncooperative” rather than “insubordinate”. You’re saying “it’s not about deference”, and also the way you have phrased this description reads to me as being pervasively about what I would put in that general bucket.

          To illustrate the contrast, here’s how I might describe a thing according to my inclinations: “There are specific tasks that we need to do, this person is in a position such that we need them to do this type of task, and they aren’t doing the task. We’ve asked them what the obstacle is to their getting this thing done, and we’ve even talked to management about how to prioritize our request against other priorities, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they should not do it and yet somehow they aren’t.”

          I’m not in an environment where I work much with cases of many individuals occupying a type of role with a standard definition of common responsibilities — we have pay grades and there’s a correlation with the level of complexity expected from a person, but it’s not an absolute correlation and on an everyday level you are primarily “the person in charge of sharpening the clippers for the eastern pasture llama team” rather than “a grade two llama shaver”. Beyond that, even if I were in such an organization, by a combination of habit and also philosophical choice I’d still describe problems in terms of “llamas left unshaven” over “disobedient with regard to llama shaving”.

          While a lot of this is stylistic, and I think we probably are ultimately on similar pages regarding that the ultimate point is to get things done, I also will say that there is an extent to which I explicitly don’t approve of centering hierarchy over function. In that light I give the side-eye to “insubordinate” and think of “mouthy” as being straight up out of line as a way to describe someone.

    4. Allonge*

      I think it could have been bad, but maybe not equally bad to everyone? If the behaviour towards peers was more the gossiping part and the insubordination was not directed to every sigle manager, there may have been people who did not experience all this and maybe wrote it of as a bad day or two. Management most likely did not, but with the new manager, it’s easier to get a blank slate, or show consistently good performance.

  27. MJ*

    OP. My post here is due to my experience with an ex-co-worker like you. They had some serious outside of work problems and, at times at work, would lash out at or talk trash about people who ironically continuously helped her manage her work load. Like me.

    I do give you credit for realizing how your behavior impacted your colleagues and management and hope you’re doing better. I think the best thing you can do is to tell a manager you feel you can comfortably share and trust what you’ve been going through and how you want to change. You have to be genuine about it though. Focus on your work; deliver on results and reliability.

    Be respectful and understanding if the longtimers don’t want to open up about their outside life or chitchat. Don’t be angry about it; concentrate on yourself.

    However, this job can become your turnaround spot. Develop new and keep current skills so you can move on to the next one.

  28. thatoneoverthere*

    Do you happen to have a review coming up? Perhaps you can chat with your boss about things then. Maybe (if you feel comfortable) talk to them about how you used to be, why and how you think you have changed. Ask them if they have noticed, and if there is anything else you can do.

  29. Lalala*

    Can’t read due to paywall so sorry if I repeat something already said- but honestly regardless of whether you can recover in your coworkers’ eyes, that must feel stressful and depressing to always have to wonder if their judgement is influenced by the past. I would definitely get a fresh start elsewhere for your own mental health!

    1. Lizzybee*

      Removed. Please do not post ways to get around paywalls here; you are telling people how to cheat writers out of being paid for their work. – Alison

  30. Tinker*

    I’m sort of in the obnoxiously extended tail of working through a similar problem — though the specific reputational problem is more in the form “nice guy but” rather than the other thing. I also don’t yet have a definitive solution and hence a definitive moral, but I do have some strong suspicions and some experiences that may resonate.

    One thing that looms large: is the negative reputation actually currently accurate in any part? It could be, and so the question is worth examining. Something that has been remarkable for me in considering this is looking at myself across time and across context — with some things it is striking how something that is characterized as a relatively fixed trait of mine by people at work is dramatically not the case when I’m not at work , while other things are striking in their consistency across my life… dating back to the early developmental period, one might say. If the data stacks up to indicate that you are the common element in all your failed relationships, or alternatively if it indicates that there are four specific walls within which you are a problem, this informs your course of action.

    To turn back on this from another perspective: you do not owe it to your employer to stay out of penance or gratitude, and doing so “to build character” is dicey. In that latter case, if the common fault is you there’s no sense in trying to outrun it, but equally well if there’s someplace else where you would clearly thrive better… well, “make the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth,” as they say.

    And then also, the other thing is to look at moving on in the light of expected career trajectories in your industry. Is it a big deal to leave — would it seem weird, or would you be leaving the center of the thing that you do? Conversely, would someone in your position ordinarily have moved on already for routine career reasons?

    With me, I think that the cards have arguably come up “leave” for something like the past four years — I actually have a not-entirely-joking joke that my tarot deck will straight up curse me out if I lay hands on it again having not yet landed the exit — and yet staying, which is what I’ve done thus far, has not been without merit.

    For one thing, this is pretty much the opposite of a situation that calls for leaving without another job lined up — without at least having convinced someone else sufficiently to make you an offer, the theory that you would be better elsewhere is entirely hypothetical. If you actually can’t land viable offers, better to not have said any words (e.g. “listen, bub, I did this for ten years before I met you and I dare say I’ll do it after you as well”) that you may later have to eat — conversely, rendering something evident is better than having to say it with words.

    I’ve also created a stronger narrative, and possibly some stronger references (though still not ones I would unambiguously rely on) by staying on long enough to be able to tell the story of this time as “it was bad, but then I learned something and scaled the mountain to small yet concrete triumph that integrates the learning” rather than “it was bad, and then eventually I left, I think something good came from that time but there’s no distinct evidence”.

    And then also, I have benefited from struggling a bit with a less than great situation that I had a significant part in creating — some of the things that ended up being on the list of “me problems” were things that I wasn’t inclined to confront until I had my nose rubbed in them repeatedly, and there’s something to be said for having that experience. Although also, there’s arguably something to be said for cutting bait in year one with the existing functional level of self-doubt, rather than finding in year three that no, actually now that has gone from “persistently lurking in the background and suggesting an undue degree of risk aversion” to “screaming in the foreground every time I try to do the thing I want people to hire me to do to the extent that I don’t have a plan B that is even roughly lifestyle-preserving, loudly enough to significantly impact my ability to do things children can do” and having to then spend another year unwinding that problem.

    So there’s a lot there. I think it’s a hard problem, I think it’s good to step back from guilt/shame thinking into one centered more around business deals, and I also think that either decision is likely to be reasonable and often understandable (at least to folks who are likely to be reachable, which is where it matters).

  31. Jane*

    I also have a bit of a sporadic career history due to mental health issues and being a single mum. I’ve had periods where I’ve been the star performer and getting really good feedback. And then my role/ manager has changed and/or my mental health issues have taken a turn for the worse and suddenly I’m on performance plans and worrying about losing my job. It’s not easy but I have found by knowing myself and what roles I work well in and talking to my managers early has helped get my career back on track. Now when I start a new role or get a new manager I flick them an email or arrange quick face-to-face chat and explain (in general terms) that I have a medical condition and caring responsibilities that may impact my work performance and ask them to give me regular feedback so I can spot when I am slipping and put a plan in place to get back on track. I’ve also gotten better at proactively asking for the support I need. In my experience managers and colleagues are much more understanding if they have some idea what’s going on – as apposed to being left in the dark and assuming you’re just a bad employee.

  32. Trinh-ity of Evil*

    I was in a similar situation. I have struggled with severe anxiety and depression for a LONG time. And I grew up in an abusive household, so when I started working, it was really hard not to feel stressed and resentful of everyone who made working seem easy. I think at some point, people wrote me off. I realized there were colleagues who would never associate with me because they thought so little of me. I honestly quit without a job lined up, and it was the best decision I had made for my career.

    I took time to really meditate on what went wrong, what I did wrong. What commitments I needed to make in order to be a better person. I also took the time to think about the things I couldn’t control. Like the bullying, or people making me cry, or people humiliating me in front of directors during meetings. Or the people in HR who lied about the responsibilities and then saddled on 80+ hours of work for an entry-level job.

    And essentially, I ID’d the things I wanted to work on personally. And then I ID’d the kind of things I wanted to avoid in my next work environment. And it helped so SO much. Because when I found my next job, things actually got better. I think being deliberate, reflecting honestly with myself, and trying to hold myself accountable got me to a better place. And now I am on a career track I’m really happy with.

    Suffice to say, your career isn’t over! Sometimes you get a disability, and it becomes really hard to manage. It takes time and mistakes to realize you need help. And YOU got help and you’re in a good place. Good for you! It’s something to be proud of. Maybe your chapter is wrapping up at this job, but that’s okay. There’s light at the end of the tunnel! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you. :)

    1. Vector*

      Me too, had an abusive childhood and lots of issues and have managed to create a decent adult working life. I’d say there are so many in similar situations.

  33. Hmmm*

    What popped into my head when I read this was a possible way to be seen differently by management is to actually LOOK different. For example, if you got a different hair cut, a more formal way of dressing, an office with more professional looking decor (if that’s something you can change, such as what photos or desk accessories you have) … some may start thinking that you have changed because they actually see a change.

  34. PspspspspspsKitty*

    Hey OP – I’m so happy that you improved and are doing better! That is a LOT of stuff to overcome. It’s not easy. I still say some of the bravest people are the people who can look at themselves and change and understand why they were like that. I too have been through similar things. Ironically I realized how dysfunctional and abusive the work environment was once I moved to a new company. Moving to a new company isn’t bad. In fact, I found it a great change that I can be whoever I wanted to be without that mental pressure of my past self.

  35. The Other Dawn*

    A few years ago I managed someone like the OP and the details are very similar. Mary was A LOT, to say the least. She was there for many years and the previous manager, Jane, completely concealed Mary’s behavior to her own manager, and also treated Mary as her pet, which Mary loved. Basically, Jane enabled Mary’s behavior to continue unchecked for years. When I arrived, Mary eventually rage quit. It was a relief, but she had done so much damage over the years. People thought of our department as Drama Central, that we were difficult to work with, people didn’t want to approach us for anything, etc.

    Had Mary had a revelation like the OP did, it would have taken a very long time for me to believe the change was real and to trust Mary to behave as a professional. I would have been keeping an extremely close eye on her the whole time until I got to the point. I would have been asking around to see how things are going, are people having any problems with Mary, etc. I also would have been looking to see that Mary had made amends with people still at the company who were affected by her bad behavior. I probably could have gotten to a point where I believed the change was lasting, but it would have taken probably a year or more of sustained improvement.

    OP doesn’t say how long ago she changed her behavior so it’s hard to say if she should move on or not. I also don’t see that she made amends to anyone who is still at the company. Those two things are important.

  36. Professor Ronny*

    Just leave. I had a terrible employee once, so bad they ended up being fired in academia. After two years of putting up with them, there is nothing they could have possibly done to recover from all they bad things they had done across campus. Even if I (their manager/chair) had left, there were just too many people who had seen their bad behavior for them to ever recover. It sounds like you behaved like they did for a much longer period of time.

    It’s a hard lesson but sometimes there is just no recovery from bad behavior.

  37. Kaitydidd*

    I worked with someone who was going through a rough divorce (among other things) during the first year or so after we’d been hired. She was difficult and teased in a slightly too true kind of way. She’s since remarried happily, and taken at least one promotion. I really enjoy working with her when I get to now.

    I guess what I’m getting at is it’s definitely possible to turn your reputation around. It took me about as long as my coworker had been unpleasant to adjust to her new pleasantness. Depending on how long you were the old you it may not be worth it to you to stay, in terms of advancing your career. Or it might. Congrats on the self improvement, regardless. It’s hard work that goes unseen a lot of times. Genuinely, you should be proud of yourself for doing it.

  38. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    Here’s a possibility that I didn’t see suggested yet – could it be that managers don’t want to “pile on any more burden to the OP” with a promotion or additional responsibilities? Not really because they have a negative opinion per se, but as they see it she is getting back on her feet and they don’t want to push her into a ‘relapse’?

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