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The ghosts of employers past
Just leave us alone, plz.
Some people can’t accept that they were the reason a relationship ended. Think of the stalker-ish ex-boyfriend, the vague Facebook post from a former friend clearly meant to get under your skin, or the manager from your last job who won’t leave you alone.
Sometimes the person can’t accept that you don’t want to be around them anymore and that you opted to leave. Other times, the person is completely clueless, especially if you avoided direction confrontation before you left.
Former colleagues are an interesting dynamic and former managers in particular. The balance of power has shifted: you’re on an equal playing field.
Should you preserve professional decorum, or should you protect your peace?
The innocuous interactions
A lot of people never tell employers the real reason they’re leaving. And it’s totally understandable: a lot of things can still happen during the customary two-week notice period. You want to be safely out the door, and by then there’s no way to reveal what really happened. Or you flat-out lie during an exit interview because what’s the point? The company won’t change anyway.
But if the company isn’t aware of the real reason you left, it can leave the door wide open for post-employment interactions. It could be as simple as a “Hey, how’s it going?” text or a “like” on a social media post. Little things that bring your former employer to the forefront when you were really trying to leave the situation behind.
Such interactions aren’t limited to traditional employment. I had a friend-turned-client who never paid me for work I delivered. She pretended that nothing happened and interacted with my Facebook and Instagram profiles. And every time I got a notification, I stiffened.
I also have a friend who was contacted by a former employer for help with a project. The company had been a complete train wreck and my friend was glad to leave it behind… but clearly, the former colleague was either oblivious or a willing participant in the company’s shenanigans. It was awkward. My friend debated between shutting the conversation down by responding with how much they loathed the company and replying with a more courteous “Sorry, I’m too busy to help.”
Pretend Nothing Happened and Clueless are not in the same place as you. They think nothing of their interactions, even though they may stir up a lot of frustration, anger, or anxiety for you.
The friendly-but-hurtful communication
Then there are the people who know that something bad happened, and try to help or make amends. Or play the victim themselves.
My last 9-5 job ended badly. The entire story is for another day, but basically, I opened up and was vulnerable with my manager and it came back to bite me. I was blindsided, because I thought that this manager cared about employees enough to handle the situation with more compassion. I was wrong.
After I left, the manager sent me a string of emails. He told me how terrible he felt about the way things ended. In my head, I thought, “Maybe that admission makes you feel better — it certainly doesn’t make me feel better.” But I was polite, albeit brief, in my response.
Then he didn’t stop emailing. I was baffled that he continued to show up in my inbox. Was it some act of contrition? Who knows, but I wasn’t in a place where I could interact with him or forgive what happened.
I also saw a LinkedIn post from someone stepping down from a manager role. In his very public goodbye note, he tagged some former employees that he had just laid off a few weeks prior, due to his own mismanagement of the company and its finances. He went on and on about how much he enjoyed working with his entire team.
If I were one of those laid-off employees, I would have been furious. This soon-to-be-former manager clearly thought that “being a nice guy” was enough to offset putting the ex-employees in a precarious financial situation as they search for new jobs in a tumultuous job market. He should have gone off quietly into that good night, as the saying goes, and he did not.
Both situations put the burden on the ex-employee to make a decision about their boundaries, and how much they want to let a former manager, company, or colleague continue to hurt them.
The worst is the former manager or colleague who can’t let things go. The ones that are offended by your departure — thinking you’re disloyal for wanting something new or better. They continue to worm their way back into your life, knowing that it bothers you or unwilling to accept that they no longer have power over you.
They might even take it a step further and try to sabotage your career or a new job.
Meanwhile, you’re thinking, “Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
But that person’s ego was bruised when you left. And they become fixated on asserting whatever power they feel they have left by making you miserable. It’s like a messy breakup when you just want to move on.
Your reaction should guide your response
And here’s the thing: you can move on from a bad work situation and not let it continue to impact your life. You can maintain your boundaries: if being nice doesn’t work, you can block the person’s phone number, block them on social media, and send emails directly to the trash.
You have a right to move on. You have a right to create space. You have a right not to engage with that person, no matter the circumstances surrounding your departure.
If you don’t create boundaries, it’s harder to let go. Those interactions are reminders. If you flinch every time someone contacts you, that’s a sign — no matter whether the person is trying to be courteous or not.
You shouldn’t have to relive bad memories. Don’t feel obligated to interact with former colleagues or managers.
You can make peace with whatever happened while also leaving it in the past.
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