update: is my former employer telling reference checkers I was fired?

Three years ago, I answered a letter from someone who had heard that her former employer was telling reference checkers that she had been fired even though she hadn’t been (#4 at the link). Here’s the update.

When you very kindly answered my question three years ago, I had been completely devastated by my time at the software job I mentioned. I had so much shame about my performance and “firing” that until late 2018 I couldn’t think about that job without having what I now know was a panic attack. In fact, I had been so ashamed after that conversation with the state employee that I never even went online to see if I’d qualified for unemployment – despite how much that money would have helped.

As you might guess, I did exactly the same thing with the email I sent you. I only found out while digging through some old emails today that you’d answered me at all!

You were spot on that my resume and cover letter were part of the problem. So was the job application process itself. I had imposter syndrome to the max and felt completely undeserving of anything – so who would hire me? And applying for a job made me think about my old job, which caused a panic attack, which meant I applied to new jobs very, very slowly. In retrospect, I hadn’t sent anywhere near the number of applications where I’d need to start worrying.

The third thing keeping me from getting callbacks was so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t start thinking about it sooner: demographics! The area I was in had only a couple larger employers. The company I’d worked at is known for making hundreds of people leave every year, many of them with similar-but-more experience than mine. Several local schools also produce thousands of graduates with very similar resumes. Ultimately, there aren’t very many jobs for that many people. I didn’t work again until I’d moved.

Since then things have changed for the better. I did very well in interviews for an administrative job I wanted in early 2019, but eventually got passed over. I got back into the workplace a few weeks later with a front desk job. I really didn’t enjoy this job, but it was crucial to me getting back on my feet. I made myself absolutely indispensable and that gave me the confidence back that I needed to navigate the workplace without flinching every thirty seconds. And six months later, I actually got the job I’d been passed over for! They’d reopened it and remembered me.

I’ve been there two years, and while I’ve still had some trouble with depression affecting my work, I’ve always bounced back and my boss thinks highly of me. I got to work mostly from home during the pandemic and I’m now making more than I did at my old software job. My girlfriend in the old letter is now my wife, and just as she was a huge factor in keeping me going at my lowest, I was able to help her when she had a similar crisis this past year. (She’s doing much better now, and I hope she’ll have some good news for a Friday very soon.) Thanks to this job’s insurance, I’ve been able to get cheap (!!!) psychiatry and therapy. I feel better than I’ve felt in the last decade; my panic attacks are long gone. We’re going to move again in the next year or two, and when it’s time to apply to jobs again, I’m very confident in my skills, my resume, and my cover letter. Even with everything that’s happened to the US in the past two years, the future is bright for me.

All this is just to say, I guess, that readers who feel like they’re near their bottom, or who are losing hope, hang in there. All of the events that helped turn me around (the move, getting those jobs, getting that insurance) happened almost completely by chance! I had no idea any of them would happen until shortly before they took place. When I was suffering, the future seemed completely set in stone, and it was a bleak one. I didn’t see any way things would get better. But that’s not realistic at all! It hurts to wait on chance, but no one has a life completely devoid of good turns. They will come to you eventually, even if you never see them coming.

Finally, about the company I left. The awful, awful culture there was one of the biggest reasons this happened to me. I didn’t even know it was toxic at the time. Leaving that job is hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I have managed to mostly forgive my manager, who I know had no experience and less support. Given what I saw just before I quit, I would like to think they have at least mostly fixed the problem. However, I have absolutely no faith in the company as a whole.

Since that time, software companies have seen so, so, so many discoveries of terrible working conditions, discrimination, cruelty, and carelessness with human lives. The 747 Max’s uncaught crash-causing bug and the recent revelations about Activision and Blizzard spring to mind. My hope is that one day someone will expose my former employer for their discrimination, their carelessness with human safety, and their cruelty to the employees who were affected. There are some other companies in the same space who I suspect have similar problems. One day, this will all be behind us.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. LP*

    OP—this is such a lovely update. I’m so glad you’re in a better place now.

    And if you’re feeling guilty for leaving unemployment money on the table, feel free to chalk it up as a “depression tax” and forgive yourself. Lots of us have been there.

    1. middle name danger*

      People with ADHD often joke we have an “ADHD tax” – leaving money on the table by missing deadlines to file/make a return, late fees, interest for impulse spends on credit cards.

      Depression tax is real, too. Sometimes the cost of mental illness or neurodivergence is an actual financial cost.

      1. LC*

        I literally have a category in my banking app called ADHD tax.

        Most recent entry is the fifth monthly fee for something I intended to only use for the free trial period.

        (Categorizing it has actually helped me avoid some of it, which was an unexpected benefit, it’s how I remembered to finally cancel that particular one.)

        Yep, ADHD tax is a real thing, and I think that can definitely be applied to depression (raises hand) and some other ND stuff too.

        1. Effective Immediately*

          Thank you for posting this strategy! I’m absolutely going to do this.

          -adult-diagnosed ADHD haver who still pays a gym membership she’s never, ever used.

    2. Lime green Pacer*

      Well said. A family member suffers from crippling anxiety that I know causes indecision and “safe” decisions that actually cost mone. “Anxiety tax” is a useful way of looking at it.

      1. Recruited Recruiter*

        I am definitely taxed by the anxiety tax. Medication helps, but I cannot bring myself to ask for a higher offer when I get offered a job, because my feelings of anxiety keep me from speaking up. I think I may have left $2500/year on the table for my last offer.

  2. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Best of good fortune to you! So often it takes getting some distance from a situation to realize just how toxic it was.

  3. Steve*

    I know people are told to go into tech the way people were told “Go West Young Man” many decades ago, but I was paid as a 1099 (illegal in my state,) yelled at and cheated on commissions. What was mentally healing was when I took my case to the labor board and wound up winning. It was a small check on unpaid commissions but it was soothing to see some of what I was owed. This company now goes on Glassdoor and writes fake reviews. There are over 400 reviews for the company when they maybe had 200 employees at their peak. I don’t know why but it seems like so many engineers and software developers are just petty bullies on a power trip.

      1. Junior Dev*

        Yep. “Learn to code” as though it’s trivial to go from completing a JavaScript course online to a six-figure job with catered lunches.

    1. Krabby*

      So agree. 95% of ppl in tech are amazing, wonderful ppl, but there is this remaining 5% who have been put up on a pedestal and are relishing the lack of accountability it gives them in the workplace.

    2. Softy McSoftware*

      Let’s not generalize about people in a particular field. I’ve been a software developer for over 20 years and I’ve never encountered anyone abusive like that. Sure, there are jerks, abrasive people, smug people, and wonderful people — just like every other field populated by humans. That doesn’t discount anyone’s individual experiences, but don’t extrapolate to an entire industry, as if it’s monolithic.

  4. Been There*

    This letter literally could have been written by me… I am SO glad that OP found new opportunities and got their health back on track!

    1. ChemAnon*

      I was going to say the same thing – I felt like I had written it, lol. Down to the “ignoring Alison’s response” because he was so stressed out about the whole thing. I’m glad it worked out!!

  5. Ali G*

    OP you have a great outlook about this. When you are in the thick of it, you are right: it’s all gloom and doom and shame. I was in a similar position to you (I was forced out of my last job by an awful human being) and at the time it seemed like my career was over. Now I realize it was probably the best thing to happen for me! I got to take some time off, re-evaluate what I wanted and then really find a great fit for me. I have been at that next job for 3 years now and it’s the best job I’ve had.
    Congratulations OP!!

    1. Chauncy Gardener*

      This exactly!! I’m so happy for the OP and you, Ali G. The same thing just happened to me and I am SO much happier now than I’ve been in years. I had just been in the slog and couldn’t see out of it.

  6. River*

    Congrats on the positive update, OP! Did you ever get the record corrected with your old employer about whether or not they fired you?

    1. OP*

      No, I didn’t. It’s ultimately best for me to not have to think about them too much, so I’m happy to ignore them instead. If they ARE telling people I was fired, well, I still got to where I am now. I’ll gladly take the possibility of losing out somewhere down the line in exchange for not having to deal with whatever that HR department had going on ever again!

      1. Chauncy Gardener*

        Great idea, OP! Don’t go courting toxicity now that you are in a lighter and brighter place.
        And congrats!!!

      2. kicking_k*

        That seems sensible. You have moved on, so very much!

        As the life partner of a depressed person, I can’t tell you how heartwarming and encouraging I find this letter, and I wish you and your wife all the best for the future!

    2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      If the employer is anything like my old employer that did this, they’re assigning her fault after she’s left and eventually firing her retroactively to protect current employees from the discipline system. They can say what they please and there’s no real consequence to throwing OP under the bus, so there’s no real leverage to get them to change the story.

  7. Former prof*

    OP, it was really kind of you to send this message who others who are struggling. I’m so glad it all worked out for you.

  8. Cinderella Sparklepants*

    I’m so happy things have worked out well for you, OP. Congratulations on your job and being able to move on from a toxic environment. What a wonderful update!

  9. MissDisplaced*

    It’s sad how much a really bad job can give you PTSD and sap your confidence and energy.
    Glad to hear things have gotten better for you.

  10. It's Too Late for Me, Save Yourselves*

    OP, thank you for the update and for your kind words of encouragement. I wanted to cry after reading them, because know that what you say is true, and I’ve told other people versions of what you said (only not as eloquently as you) over the years, but I don’t think it’s true for me anymore. So long as the pets get fed and the mortgage is paid I’m good. I’m so glad things got better for both you and your wife.

  11. The OTHER other*

    Great update! It’s amazing how in retrospect people are generally glad they left toxic jobs, even if the results are tough in the short term. I hope letters like these give people some courage to move on from awful jobs and say goodbye to terrible managers.

  12. Brain the Brian*

    A side note from an aviation nerd: the airplane that OP references at the end of the post is the 737, not the 747, Max. (I know it’s not the point of the letter, and I’m very glad to hear that OP is doing so much better!)

  13. Mayor of Llamatown*

    OP, this is such a lovely update and I’m so glad you are in a better place.

    I recently realized that a long-past job had left some big scars on my psyche and that what I went through there was actually trauma. My therapist suggested EMDR therapy. It made an amazing difference in the shame and pain I felt from those memories, even after one session. I know therapy is expensive and time consuming, and I’m definitely not qualified to offer medical advice, but as someone who has been where you are, it’s made a huge difference.

    1. drsunsets*

      Yeah, EMDR is amazing. I, too, was carrying around a lot of trauma from actual traumatic life events as well as years of a shitty, demeaning, soul-crushing work environment. A few EMDR sessions helped so, so much. And the positive effect has been lasting.

  14. Okay, great!*

    Thank you for the update OP. I’m very glad you are doing so much better, it sounds like you put in a lot of work towards that. I had just happened to read a short article on Blizzard/Activision. I had no idea how bad working conditions were. It’s insane.

  15. Chantel*

    One of the most heartfelt and inspiring letters I’ve ever read on this site.

    So happy for you, OP. I’m sorry for the bad things that happened, but in utter awe of how you handled everything with grace and patience.

  16. Goldenrod*

    This is a fantastic update! I can relate to so much in this letter. Confidence is such a huge part of finding jobs, and also the lack of confidence can keep you stuck in toxic jobs. I am so glad you regained your confidence and got away from that awful place.

    Congrats and well done!!

  17. TemporarilyWrecked*

    Thanks. I think I needed to read this. I’m in the middle of a crashing spiral where my job is causing me physical effects – not quite so severe as a panic attack but rapid breathing, tenseness, occasional chest pain. It feels like whatever I do, I’ll be wrong and in a worse off spot than I am now. The kicker is, I know it’s the job because when I don’t have to work, I’m not a wreck of a human being. I appreciate the hope it gives me, and I wish you continued success.

    1. SansaStark*

      I have been there and my heart aches for you. I don’t know what it is, but I promise you that this is NOT the end. Do whatever you need to do to make it bearable for now and try to find a way out. This part struck me so much: “When I was suffering, the future seemed completely set in stone, and it was a bleak one. I didn’t see any way things would get better.” I thought that I’d only work in terrible jobs for the next 40 years, which has not been the case at all! I have a great job, amazing job prospects as I look to leave that position, and a fantastic network of people who wouldn’t recognize the person I was 10 years ago in that soul-sucking job.

      You’re worthy of a job that doesn’t take a toll on your mental and physical health. I’m rooting for you!

  18. Elizabeth West*

    This is a wonderful update. I’m so happy everything is going better for you, OP. And thank you for sharing it—my situation just feels endless at this point and I really needed to hear that good turns will come. (sooooooooooooon I hope lol)

    1. Purple Pineapple*

      Good turns will come – we have to believe it!

      And although this is obviously a career site, our jobs are only one part of our lives, not the be-all-and-end-all. Although it for sure feels like that sometimes, especially when times are tough.

      You got this :)

  19. I was also mis-reported as being fired*

    OP, I was going to say something about how I’m sorry I didn’t see your original letter because I would have shared something that happened to me, but then I saw that you never even saw the reply at the time. (And my heart hurts for the you-of-then, I must say.)

    So here’s the thing that happened to me once: I was denied unemployment benefits, I was baffled, I asked for a review, and it turned out that someone in the employer’s office mixed up my records with those of someone else who really was fired. They actually reported back based on what turned out to be the wrong SSN! I got my benefits, which was good because I was young and poor and didn’t have any real savings.

  20. Chilipepper Attitude*

    Dear OP,
    My son has gone through some mental health challenges and it is so hard to understand what he is going through and how to help him (he is in therapy and has always asked for help). IDK exactly how but your comment here is so helpful.
    When I was suffering, the future seemed completely set in stone, and it was a bleak one. I didn’t see any way things would get better.
    I think that is what my son has been trying to say and I finally heard him through your words. Thank you so much for making things clear to me and maybe helping him in the process.

  21. Vanilla Nice*

    As someone with a history of depression, I really empathize with this letter. I’m thrilled to hear the the L.W. is in a better work situation.

    I really wish that U.S. culture would be more open about these struggles. I stayed in a toxic work situation for almost seven years because I didn’t have the self-confidence at the time to recognize that I deserved better. It was the kind of environment where management constantly told employees how incompetent we were and treated us like sh**, but never actually fired anyone because they knew it would be difficult to replace people. I ended up leaving the job under circumstances that were not my own, and only after I started taking a new medication did I recognize how messed up the old situation was.

  22. LC*

    In fact, I had been so ashamed after that conversation with the state employee that I never even went online to see if I’d qualified for unemployment – despite how much that money would have helped.

    As you might guess, I did exactly the same thing with the email I sent you. I only found out while digging through some old emails today that you’d answered me at all!

    Oh wow I relate so hard to this. I’m better at it these days, but it’s one of the ways my “freeze” shows when it’s “fight or flight (or freeze).” (See also, if I can’t see it, it can’t see me. Shame can really fuck a person up, it’s tough but so worthwhile to try and overcome.)

    In addition to all of the other awesome things in this update, I just want to say that this internet stranger is so proud of you for sending this update to Alison. Even when it’s all good now, revisiting something that’s caused that kind of unnecessary but horribly real shame is a huge achievement.

    Go you! I love this update and I’m glad we heard from you.

  23. Purple Pineapple*

    This really hits home, I’m actually close to tears reading it! Particularly the part about “I had imposter syndrome to the max and felt completely undeserving of anything – so who would hire me? And applying for a job made me think about my old job, which caused a panic attack, which meant I applied to new jobs very, very slowly.”

    I’m in an extremely similar situation (think worst parts of a tech startup crossed with worst parts of public sector) and I hope I can be as charitable as you are when I finally get out of the clutches of my micromanaging, gaslighting, incompetent boss (who I know is struggling just as hard with her own role, but doesn’t excuse the behaviour).

    A huge thank you for sharing this, and making me realise through the post and through the comments section that I am not alone.

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