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‘Can I Recover From a Bad Reputation at Work?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

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, 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 now. I’m so embarrassed and ashamed of how I acted. Luckily, many of my co-workers from that time are no longer at the company, but most of the managers are still here. I’m 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 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 was like before.  

I’m sorry you went through that! It sounds like you had a really tough time, and I’m glad you’re in a better place now.

The truth is, it can be hard to get people at work to see you differently once a negative view becomes ingrained. When they’re used to thinking of you a certain way, often everything you do will be interpreted through that lens. You could be at your desk working all day and then get up for a cup of coffee and have a short chat with a co-worker in passing, and someone could see you and think, “She’s always chatting when she should be working” … because that’s the mental box they put you in a long time ago.

It’s also possible that people do see that you’ve changed, but are being cautious because when they contemplate giving you higher-profile projects or leadership opportunities, the stakes just feel too high if some of that behavior were to come out again.

One factor that really matters is how much time has passed since these changes happened. If it’s been less than a year, people will understandably still be cautious; it’s going to take a lot longer before they’ll be confident the changes will stick. In their minds, there’s too much risk that you’ll backslide into old behaviors, or maybe even that stress will bring them out again. When you do the kind of hard work on yourself that it sounds like you’ve done, it can be easy to feel so changed that you can’t imagine it’s not obvious to everyone else! But it takes time for people around you to believe the differences they’re seeing will be lasting ones.

On the other hand, if it’s been several years, that’s a different situation; that’s long enough for people to see that the changes are real. If they’re not treating you accordingly, that’s a stronger sign that you might never be able to alter the way people at this company view you.

I’m curious about whether you ever talked with your manager about the situation before she moved on. Did she acknowledge the changes you made, and did you discuss how your past might still be affecting your reputation? I can’t tell from your letter whether you clearly expressed an interest in being promoted or given additional responsibilities at any point, but if you did, ideally she would have been forthright with you if your history there made those things unlikely to ever happen. If she hadn’t recently left the company, I’d see her as your best chance for an honest discussion about your future there. (Actually, if you had pretty good rapport with her, there might even be room to reach out to her now and see if she’s open to giving you any advice about your situation. Being gone could make her either more or less willing to have that discussion; it’s hard to know without trying it.)

But it’s also possible that getting a new manager will give you an opportunity to reset things. You’re right that she may hear the whole history from others, but she’ll also be assessing you and your work with fresh eyes — and if all she sees is “capable, mature professional,” that could outweigh whatever she’s heard about the past. And in fact, at some point after you’ve worked together a bit and have gotten to know each other, it might make sense to talk candidly with her about your concerns. She may be more willing to give you opportunities, or to tell you if her sense is that there are too many obstacles to make that happen.

Ultimately, though, the reality is that it could be very hard to escape your history at this company, and moving on might be the only way to truly start over. That’s not the worst prospect in the world — you’ve been there for seven years, which is a reasonable time to move on to something else anyway. 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.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘Can I Recover From a Bad Reputation at Work?’