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Saturday, June 6, 2009

how to explain previous boss was demented?

A reader writes:

My last job was really successful and exciting and I would love to talk about it at length with future employers since I think it's very interesting and highlights a lot of my strengths. I started as an unpaid intern and was promoted to paid assistant within two months. I had a massive amount of responsibility as it was only me, my boss (the owner), and a couple part-timers and interns. In fact, I can honestly say that I ran the office singlehandedly when the boss had a personal emergency that caused her to be out of town for five weeks. All the bills got paid, all the clients were taken care of, I cleaned the office, and I rounded up some new business, all on my own.

The problem is with the reference. My boss has undiagnosed dementia. She has eight out of ten of these symptoms. I have a family member with Alzheimer's and what those symptoms don't really go into detail about is that a person with dementia, especially early-stages, can be really paranoid, angry, and lashes out. My boss was always "eccentric," in fact, everyone I spoke to said that the mark of a good assistant to this woman wasn't any progress in trying to streamline or organize her business in any way, but merely to survive her daily abuse and mercurial moods and whims.

However, after she got back from her emergency, she sweetly told me that she had to let me go because her business was suffering terribly. I asked if there was any feedback or any problems with my performance and she said that no, she loved me and would give me a glowing reference. At first I was ecstatic. I would make way more money in any other job and frankly, it was like I'd suddenly been released from a terrible prison camp. We emailed once or twice over the next couple weeks, when I got two painful surprises:
1. I had been replaced with a paid assistant (i.e., "secretly" fired, I guess).
2. I asked her for that reference and she sent an email that said, essentially, "how dare you ask me for help after all that you did!" along with some personal insults.

I know as well as I can (my personal experience, and asking others who worked with me) that I worked my butt off and I didn't hide dead fish in her office or anything like that when I left that would warrant such anger. My best guess is that this is like my relative with Alzheimer's. She'll accuse other family members of "stealing from her" when they merely pay her utilities, etc. I think that instead of being happy that I took care of the office in her time of need, the experience terrified her, and anything I had moved was stolen, any bills she later forgot to pay was actually something I had messed up, contracts that disappeared into her hoarder apartment I had probably taken away, I stole clients.....I really have no idea since she won't elaborate. I sent her a long apologetic email to that end, but no answer.

The best solution I can come up with is to allude to "difficult working conditions" in my applications, use my coworkers as references, and if I get to the interview stage, plainly state that my old boss has dementia. I can't help but thinking that some future employers may not believe me and that this is hurting my career tremendously. Any ideas?

I think your plan is the right one to use, up until the point where you mention dementia. I wouldn't mention the dementia -- because, no matter how confident you are in your diagnosis, it's your diagnosis, not an official one, and -- when you're talking to people who don't know you and thus don't know that you're not in the habit of throwing around such terms lightly -- it could end up sounding like you're being pejorative or overstating the situation.

But fortunately, you don't need to specify that your boss was suffering from dementia in order to make the basic point you'll need to make to prospective employers if they ask for a reference from her -- which is that your boss promoted you and promised you a glowing reference when she laid you off for financial reasons, but was extremely mercurial and since you left has been freezing you out, but that your coworkers can vouch both for your work and for the difficult temper of the boss.

By the way, any chance you have got a written performance evaluation while you were there? If so, you could also offer up a copy of it to demonstrate that it wasn't until you left that your boss changed her tune.

By the way, speaking of terrible, crazy bosses, I highly recommend this two-part horror/comedy from Radiant Veracity: The Devil Really Does Wear Prada and Part Two.


Rachel - former HR blogger said...

I work in the human service field. I can't tell you how many times our trainers have told trainees outright - "you may notice signs and symptoms in people around you but you are not qualified to make a diagnosis."

Forget the whole dementia thing. Use your coworkers as references.

Charles said...

"I can't help but think[ing] that some future employers may not believe me and that this is hurting my career tremendously"

The answer would be YES, but not tremendously. Certainly there will be some recruiters who will choose a candidate without the "previous employer problems" instead of you. Believe me, I know, life can sometimes so suck!

But good recruiters will keep an open mind. They will see your record, speak to your co-worker references, and contact the former boss. Then the good recruiters will read between the lines to know that she is the one with the problems and that you have great perseverance to have put up with her (and received more responsibilities and a promotion to boot!)

I think you run a risk of blowing all that by saying anything negative about her. If asked, and only if asked, just explain it the way AAM stated.

P.S. Those links - The Devil Really Does wear Prada - any chance she is a bi-polar, currently anorexic, recovered bulimic who works in New York? I think I worked for her when she was off her "meds"

Anonymous said...

Why is it always everyone else that has the problem? Maybe it is you who is demented. Why don't you tell the truth and let us all know what you did to your boss??

Take responsibility for once in your life.

Anonymous said...

Those "early symptoms" are actually pretty vague. Are you SURE you didn't do anything you weren't supposed to?

If a subordinate subbing in for me for six weeks rearranged my office files, possibly went above the scope of their authority without consulting me regardless of where I was, and "cleaned the place up" without my permission, I would also be angry and insulted and depending on the changes, I would consider disciplinary action. Were you authorized to rearrange things to your liking, drum up new business, and run the show, or were you just there to help make sure the bills got paid? Only you know the answer, but I'm guessing you might've overstepped a boundary, and it is that and not the possible mental disorder, that got you let go.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you had to deal with this woman, but that type of personality, the overly paranoid one is rather common in managers, especially in women. I have one supervisor who in my opinion is absolutely unqualified to be in any management position and she is one of the most paranoid control freak individuals I have met. You don't do anything that deviates from the norm because you don't know whether she's in her nice mood or her flat out nasty one. The only reason she gets away with it is because she's been there 30 years and it would require an act of god to get rid of her.

Perhaps your ex-boss was one of those types. I think that a lot of people who really aren't all that intelligent and for some odd reason get into management, both men and women, show traits of paranoia and too much control. It doesn't matter that their subordinates are probably more qualified for their jobs than they happen to be, they're more interested in protecting their job at the expense of being a good and fair supervisor.

jaded hr rep said...

I have a psych background, and I would absolutely not share this "diagnosis", regardless if it's true. First, I know I'm not qualified to make one. It's also personal info (I'd love to see the HR person's reaction to personal private medical-related info - candidate or not - HIPAA anyone?). An open-minded recruiter should understand if a candidate discusses the odd work conditions and environment and why this did not work out. Sharing this specific shows an incredible lack of judgment and appropriateness and would make me question whether I would trust this person with anything confidential.

Anonymous said...

From the LW:
Yes, I definitely think that asserting dementia could be misconstrued. I will just mention some of the milder stuff she did and let the recruiters connect the dots.

Anon 5:32 PM: Duh, they're vague. Did it occur to you that someone writing about their demented ex-boss would keep it vague? No, I didn't overstep my boundaries (she called twice a day and I verified everything with her). But, I guess you would discipline employees who went out and bought cleaning supplies and cleaned their office, so maybe you're not a great authority. I mean, seriously, you would fire an employee that brought in new business? Yikes.

office cleaning said...

I can't believe that you cleaned your office and your manager didn't thank you for it. I do it day in and day out, but then I do get paid for it - She'll have to employ us now!