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I have been at my job for about six months, and started during a time of major transition. I started just weeks before our new executive director started. The new director assessed the financials of our nonprofit social service organization and realized what a bad position we were in, and decided to make some major changes. This included eliminating the position of one of the longtime employees here, who also happened to be my direct manager.
While it was definitely a decision for the financial well-being of the organization, it was clear that there were also some personal differences between my supervisor and the director that probably factored in.
The decision to let her go was a big shock to the rest of the organization, and my manager was absolutely blindsided. It was upsetting for everyone, but we accepted the change as growing pains and necessary for where the organization is headed, and we were told that the rest of our jobs were secure for the foreseeable future.
This is where it gets difficult. My former manager has not been able to let go. I really do feel for her; I know she has a compassionate heart for clients and that work was her life. I know this can’t be easy. However, I feel that I am in an awkward position ethically and personally. I want to keep in touch so that hopefully she will be a contact in the field, possible mentor, and future reference, especially since I am early on in my career. She is the one who hired me, after all.
But. She has stopped by the office (and we are not a come-and-go public office) multiple times since being let go to make the rounds and catch up with everyone. She invited me for lunch and did her best to get me to talk trash about the executive director, and I spent the whole hour trying to diplomatically dodge her inquiries.
I am wondering what the boundaries should look like between a former manager and the organization they no longer work for.
She has also decided to be a community advocate with some of our clients, which is fine if we have their consent, but I am worried that it will undermine the work I have done with clients, since she is now a go-between for them instead of them getting in touch with me directly. She will sometimes text me on weekends about clients (I don’t reply until the workweek), and she emails me tips and work-related resources that I didn’t ask for. It makes me feel like she is still my supervisor, and undermines my sense of autonomy at work. I feel like when she was my manager, she wasn’t really around that much and rarely provided timely feedback or direction, so it’s strange and honestly frustrating for her to be so involved now.
I feel like I am being pulled to choose allegiance to her or our executive director. It just feels weird and unprofessional, and I don’t know how to set boundaries without offending her (since I can tell that she does take it personally if I don’t respond right away or I dodge her questions), while still maintaining a positive relationship. I work for an agency that does work in a small, cultural community (which I am not a part of but she is), and I think that is also factoring in to this whole situation. Anyone outside of work that I have talked to about it has told me how weird they find the situation. What’s your take about what’s going on here? What advice would you give me for dealing with this and maintaining my sanity and professionalism? I need your help!
Yep, this is weird.
Sometimes people do have trouble letting go of an old job — and it’s more likely to happen when they haven’t yet started a new job, since there isn’t anything to take the old one’s place. It’s also easier for this to happen in nonprofits, where people often feel a strong sense of connection to the organization and the work feels like more than “just a job.”
In your former manager’s case, it sounds like she’s having trouble fully separating from her old job, and she might be relying on her old work connections for a sense of identity and purpose.
It’s fine for her to stay in touch with you and other colleagues, of course. But stopping by your office multiple times is pretty unusual, and even more so when there’s tension between her and your organization’s leadership. It was especially inappropriate for her to try to draw you into trashing the executive director — you work for the executive director, and it’s not fair of her to put you in that position. The fact that she’s your former boss adds an additional layer of “not cool” to this, because while she no longer has authority over you, she did have it very recently, and she should have known that would make her attempts to dig for dirt especially awkward for you.
Generally when someone leaves an employer, they should remove themselves from the inner workings of the organization and its internal politics. They no longer have standing or authority to be involved in those things, and can get pretty messy if they’re half-in, half-out or otherwise interfering in things that they’re no longer charged with working on.
Your former boss is clearly having trouble making that sort of clean break — whether it’s out of resentment over how she was treated, a longing to remain involved, a lack of something new to take the old job’s place, or something else.
But whatever’s causing it, that’s something she’ll need to deal with on her own; you shouldn’t let it become your problem.
A low-key but effective way to set boundaries with her is simply to make yourself less available. Say hello when she stops by the office, but be busy with work that you need to get back to fairly quickly. If she asks you to lunch again, tell her you’re swamped these days and lunch is hard to schedule but you hope she’s doing well. Continue ignoring those weekend texts until you’re back at work the following week — and even then, feel free to take your time in responding, if you can do that without it affecting real work needs. And when she emails you unsolicited work tips and resources, go right ahead and ignore those. If it feels too rude to ignore them altogether, respond to them only occasionally, and be breezily uninformative when you do. (“Thanks for this! Hope you’re doing well.”)
If she’s put off by this … well, it’s okay if she’s a little put off. You’re not doing anything rude or unprofessional here. You’re just doing your job, and she’s not your boss anymore, so it makes sense that the relationship will change.
That said, assuming you might want to use her as a reference in the future, you should continue being warm and cheerful when you do interact with her. But that means using a genial tone when you greet her, exchanging a few pleasantries, and then fairly quickly getting back to your work — not allowing her to violate your very reasonable and very normal boundaries.
And if you do get the sense that she’s undermining your work with clients or that she’s challenging your allegiance to your executive director, talk to your new boss about that. That’s not tattling or undermining your old manager; that’s looping your new manager into something relevant to your work. Your old manager may be on her way to becoming A Problem for your organization, and if that’s the case, they need to know about it — and should be able to give you guidance on how to navigate her attempts to draw you in. Having that conversation is likely to give you some peace of mind too, because it’s very likely that your organization will have your back in dealing with this — and it’ll help to know that you’re not stuck figuring this out on your own.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.