"Past misunderstandings, second chances, next years' projects."
February 9, 2013 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I was used as a scapegoat, demoted and put on a performance improvement plan due to a toxic PM. Half a year later, the tables seem to have turned, and his boss wants to talk. I don't know what to say.


My former project manager was a spineless bully who lied about my performance to cover up for his own problems. Half a year ago, thanks to his "recommendation", I was put on some improvement plan - as a simple developer instead of lead, with another team. Since then, I've flourished, inofficially taken more responsibility than I ever had, solved some really hard problems, and saved the company almost 400k with a weekend project.
Meanwhile, my former team is dissolving, projects are failing, and the golden boy has lost his shine. Rumors are that he was put on probation.
And on Friday evening, I just got a call from his boss who needs to talk.

Big Boss was really, really nice. The week before, I had already gotten an unexpected bonus (which more than compensates the wages I had lost), and some shiny gadgets, and on Monday, I was invited to lunch by upper management. He personally thanked me for my work (multiple times), scheduled a long one-2-one and told me to think about what I wanted to do in the upcoming months.
In his Outlook invite, the agenda is "Past misunderstandings, second chances, next years' projects."

I'm very, very anxious about this.
The last time he scheduled such a talk, I was almost fired. Which won't happen, but still, I don't know how to act any more.

I don't want to discuss what went wrong too much. I can't do so without blaming people and pointing fingers, and I've been hurt and humiliated, and my trust was betrayed, badly so. I had been working 70-80 hour weeks for months, and more than once, coworkers have asked me why I didn't simply quit.
I had no choice at that time. I'm a single mum and I was paying the debt my stupid ex made in my name (debt-free for two months now! Yay!)

I also really don't know what I want to do in the future.
I don't want to work with my former PM any more. I know that they'd have the perfect project and definitely need my expertise. My former coworkers have requested me, and most of upper management probably agrees, but I can't do this any more.
It would end in a disaster again.
I don't care much for my current projects either, even though I'm good at them, and people know. As I've demonstrated with my last project, there's a lot of potential for possibly very business-relevant topics, but this was never meant to be a permanent position (for me!), and doesn't utilize my knowledge at all.

I'm struggling personally, I have trust issues and need much more feedback than I used to. I feel much better now that I've been pulled away from that toxic environment for a few months, but I'm not happy.
Things need to change. I want to stay in this company for now (despite all the things that went wrong, I like the people and the products), but we need to find a solution.
I just don't know what that solution should be like.

How do I talk to him about the past while staying professional?
How can I quickly figure out what I want - and what can I reasonably ask for?
And if the worst happens - I'm asked to go back into the old situation - how do I best deal with that?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Oh boy, do I understand where you are coming from - I've spent some time under the bus myself. But, it sounds like Big Boss has may have seen the error of his ways. It doesn't hurt to listen, and that's what I recommend you do - listen to what he has to say and go from there. I think they will understand if you don't want to work under your betrayer. Try to set the emotion aside and go about this as if it were a new job entirely.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

PS - I think it is a big deal that he's owning up to his mistake so early in the game. It's a good sign. Take a few moments to think about what would be the ideal situation that would make you want to stay in this job and pitch for that.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:48 PM on February 9, 2013 [12 favorites]

It doesn't sound to me like they want you to work with/for former PM. It sounds like they want to offer you his job.

Make it an acceptance requirement that he goes away. (fired, demoted, promoted, who cares - just not anywhere where you will have contact with him.) You don't have to say why; they know.

Would that solve the problem?
posted by ctmf at 12:52 PM on February 9, 2013 [33 favorites]

You have shown great skill AND great perseverance, sounds to me that this meeting should be something to look forward to. I think it would be beneficial to you to hold THAT mindset.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:56 PM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm with ctmf here. As I was reading your description of the situation it immediately came to mind that they're going to offer you his job. Go into this meeting with a positive attitude -- sounds like good things are going to come of it!
posted by plantbot at 1:00 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

This meeting sounds fun! Tell them what you want to do. Listen to what they want you to do. Then go home and think it over. I doubt Big Boss will insist you make a decision then and there.
posted by ryanrs at 1:04 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think they are realizing how lucky they are to still have you.

Be prepared to ask for what your ideal situation would be (PMs job? working on PMs projects, but not under PM?). You might get negotiated down, but I think that you are in a great situation if you know what you want and ask for it.

Congratulations on living well in the wake of all of the horribleness -- the fact that people are realizing how good you are and how bad PM was, means that you are getting the best revenge against PM.

There's also good chance that Big Boss might be looking for honest feedback against PM (especially if he wants to get rid of him). Think about how you would discuss your interactions with PM in professional terms that don't involve any hurt feelings or intentional character maligning. For example, if you've got things like "On the X project, PM communicated that I was the cause of Y failure, however, I had informed him of the potential for Y many weeks before and asked for more resources to be assigned." This kind of stuff is really hard, but if you can come up with a few, it might give Big Boss whatever ammo he needs.

Remember to keep it professional, but don't be surprised if Big Boss starts to get unprofessional to see if you will go along ("PM sure is a prime asshole, isn't he Anon?").
posted by sparklemotion at 1:05 PM on February 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you want to work on projects that are more in line with your skillset, you'd like a less punishing workload, you'd like to be valued and respected for the work you do, and you'd like to not have to work with your former PM. These come through in your question as things that you want. Listen to that voice, it is telling you what you need to know.

It sounds like the boss has plans for you and is trying to make up for past injustices so you'll be receptive to those plans, especially by giving you respect and showing that your work is valued.

You don't have to accept what the boss proposes, and you can propose something else regarding your career trajectory, and there may be a way to make your goals align with the organizations'. Asking for what you want is the first step.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:06 PM on February 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Unless I'm misunderstanding these roles, it seems... very unlikely that they are going to offer someone who was a lead developer a job as a Project Manager as if that was a promotion. That said though, it does sound like this meeting is a good thing. Go in there with confidence! Don't lie but like you said I would avoid any accusations, but I think it fair to be clear that you will not work with this person again (don't bring it up in a vacuum, but if that situation gets suggested, something like "I'm uncomfortable with that working arrangement").
posted by brainmouse at 1:07 PM on February 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Depending on your specific situation, this might not be realistic, but:

It might be helpful if you can have one or two shorter, informal talks before the big one-on-one -- something like stopping by his office when the door is open and asking for a basic idea of what you'll be talking about, or saying "hi", or asking what prompted the meeting, or something innocuous that will still give you more of a feeling of solid ground.

In other words, you have a history of unpleasant interactions with this guy; if you could make a more recent history of more pleasant interactions, or at least reduce the unknowns, you might not have as much involuntary anxiety.

If you can follow the current schedule, that would be great, obviously, but if you really start feeling like you can't handle it at all, maybe you can delay the meeting by a few days to give yourself a chance to talk less formally.
posted by amtho at 1:16 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have a throwaway email? (Or DM me, I promise to respect the anon.)
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:18 PM on February 9, 2013

I too thought that your description - big bonus, new gadgets, lunch with senior management, and now a one-on-one with the big boss - sounds as if you're going to be offered a promotion. It might be back to your old team, with you in charge, or it might be starting up something new. That would explain the question about what you want to work on. If your weekend project saved the company the best part of half a million, I can see why they'd be interested.

If it is a job with your old team, you could explain that you and old PM did not work well together in the past and you can't see that changing in the future. That keeps things in terms of your interaction, rather than making it a matter of his fundamental character. If they have seen the team falling apart since you left, they'll already have made judgments about his character. In my experience (which is in academe, not industry), managers value people who can remain professional when discussing co-workers, even if both sides know that the co-worker in question is a major glass bowl (or something rhyming with it).
posted by brianogilvie at 1:29 PM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

There is nothing to be anxious about here. Nothing at all. You are in the driver's seat. Figure out what you want and ask for it. You might not get it, so also know what you are willing to compromise on. Be professional, and don't badmouth the former PM. I think the boss understands anyway.
posted by COD at 1:46 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can completely see why you're gun shy, but this is one of those rare cases in which the system actually worked. You got blamed for something, you proved it was not you, and now they want to apologize and make it up to you. Great!

If I were in your position, I would demand to never have to work with the PM again. Beyond that.. a raise? a promotion? different department? You have lots of options here.
posted by zug at 1:53 PM on February 9, 2013

They have figured out what happened. They know. It will probably be an oblique conversation - so you can take comfort in the unlikelihood that they'll want you to talk about specifics - because they don't want to end up in a liability situation, but I think you should talk less and listen more for them to get in the neighborhood of admitting it.

Prepare yourself 3-4 sentences summarizing the damage done. The personal and professional stress, your trust level, and how the "second chance" is the one you've given them, not vice versa. Practice those sentences, and stay on message when you're in the room. Do not be drawn out into personal attacks - think about how common sense says to never badmouth your last job at an interview? Be that diplomatic. Be generous, to the best of your ability, without telling anybody you're going to forget what happened.

Make yourself a list of projects you'd be interested in, so you'll be able to speak to that when asked. If you have a couple of ideas for things that don't exist but you'd really love to see happen, put those on the list too. Come into this meeting facing forward, and take advantage of this opportunity to speak one-on-one about ideas you have.

But do more listening than talking. It's hard to say what it is you can ask for here, because you don't know what's going to be offered. You are absolutely in your right to refuse to work with that person again, but you may need to decide ahead of time whether you're willing to be lateral to that person (which probably means you'll at least have to communicate occasionally). Maybe you decide that a limited level of interaction without a direct-report relationship is okay, but you would be within your rights to state plainly that you will have a zero-tolerance policy regarding a repeat of the previous shenanigans, and you want a clear plan for addressing any repeats.

Do NOT accept a shit project with more responsibility/pay just because they've decided you'll shovel all manner of shit. That can happen sometimes, where you end up being the sucker because you put up with some stone cold bullshit once already. Hopefully they won't do that, but keep a watchful eye.

It's also within your rights to hear him out and say you need time to consider whatever options it is he's offering. Don't feel cornered into agreeing to anything in that meeting. If you're feeling pressured, ask right then to schedule a follow-up in 3 days or whatever, and then go on talking about options with the understanding that all responses will come at that time.

Do not be anxious. This agenda, in writing: "Past misunderstandings, second chances, next years' projects." is basically code meaning he too remembers the last meeting you had, and he's hoping you don't stab him with a letter opener, or even yell at him very much. You are coming into this as the wronged party, and everyone knows it. Do not be afraid of silence. Do not be afraid to acknowledge statements about that debacle with "Okay." and waiting for him to continue. Bring a notepad and take notes.

You are golden. This kind of thing doesn't happen very often in a person's career.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:23 PM on February 9, 2013 [21 favorites]

You're now in a very favourable position. I would recommend a few strategies:

- don't engage in any re-hashing of the past. Just say "it's water under the bridge" or some such thing when it comes up. Even though it sounds like the big boss realizes the error of his ways, it does nobody any good to go back over it. Talking bad about someone else only makes the person talking look bad, even when the person listening actually agrees with what they're saying. Be the bigger person here by refusing to trash talk anyone - that is a much more impressive way to behave. At the same time, you don't have to agree to ever work with the PM again. The big boss will understand why.

- think about what you really want to be doing at this company over the next year. You're in a great spot to get what you want so make sure you actually know what that is.

- don't be afraid to ask for time to think over any offers that are made to you in this meeting. You don't have to make any decisions right away.

After what went down six months ago, you've lost some confidence in yourself. This is completely normal and don't beat yourself up about it. Just be aware that you need to work on your self-belief a little after what you went through.
posted by hazyjane at 2:25 PM on February 9, 2013

The week before, I had already gotten an unexpected bonus (which more than compensates the wages I had lost)

I'd try to find out if this bonus was related to the lost wages or for that $400k savings you created. If the latter, you might try to get compensated for the lost wages if the chance presents itself. I'd go into the meeting knowing how much you lost as a result of this person's statements.

I'd also know what you want. It sounds like you want to work with a supportive team. Is there someone in particular that would give you the support you seek?

But since the meeting invite says "next years' projects," it makes me think there are a few specific projects that would start next year, and he plans to talk to you about which one you'd like to work on. So, no need to feel nervous. Just prepare to say "thank you," ask a few questions, and then say something like "that is a very significant offer. Can I have a few days to think about it?"
posted by salvia at 2:25 PM on February 9, 2013

Definitely have some kind of answer for what you ideally want to do, even if it's vague. Anything but I don't know, or I haven't thought about it.

Asking you that, even if sincere, doubles as a "is anonymous floating resumes around outside the company?" probe.

"I've been thinking about that. It's no secret that what I'm doing now isn't my favorite thing, even though as always, I do my best. I'd prefer to use more of my primary skill set, or even try something new" doesn't give them a denial that you're looking elsewhere, while not being a direct threat.

If they DO beg you to go back and salvage the project that former PM FUBAR'd, definitely make clear that you will need support from them to get what you need to pull off the rescue. Including, for a start, getting former PM off of the project. Including direct access to boss's boss if you think you are not getting the support you think you need.

On the one hand, going to a project that's already in trouble makes you look good eventually - you can hardly do worse, right? Problem is, the rescue actually does need to happen, and in the meantime your name is associated with a fiasco. You need to be not only good, which it sounds like you are, but also be a pretty savvy self-PR department to keep your role appearance as a savior (who may be too late) vs. "Oh, anonymous. They were on that project that tanked." I like those kind of situations, but it's not for everyone.

Fortunately, you have the high ground here. It sounds like you can spend some of that political capital you have right now to say "eh, thanks for the offer, but no thanks" without getting fired or ordered to do it anyway.
posted by ctmf at 2:41 PM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with everyone. When Big Boss was told you were the problem he moved you. After that you kicked ass and your old Sleazy Boss' projects went directly in the shitter. What that indicates is not lost on Big Boss.
posted by cmoj at 3:03 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

My old company was pretty savage, and a lot of the advice above allowed them to toy with me for ages. Until I got smarter.

I can give you a handful of reasons why I think you're right to be a little anxious. I would at the very least expect you are going to be offered something you don't want to do and what it's going to cost them.

The way they treated you in the past is who they are. It was phenomenally shittier than it needed to be. I would assume they want something, especially because you've already been rewarded with money and gadgets for work well done.

Like I said, I'd be happy to give more detail privately. As an aside, I loved that job and I even loved the people. But it was business and realizing that made my life there a lot easier.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 4:16 PM on February 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think you're nervous because your instincts are saying you might be asked to return to that PM's team to help him out of the hole he dug for himself. I also think there's a good chance this will happen. If it does and you are asked to work with him again, there is NO way this can work out well for you. You are a star right now, he's a liability, they know it, and they are going to ask you to "help" him so they don't have to fire him. If they ask you to, I think you need to be honest about your feelings, but keep it short. And you don't need to think it over, either, you need to turn it down right away. Calmly, coolly, professionally. Demeanor is key, clear communication is the goal.

"It would be very difficult for me to be successful working under former PM. It should be obvious that I was the scapegoat, and I have no desire to go through that traumatic situation again. I want to continue to move forward and would be happy to work on anything else. But I just can't join his team again, I'm sure you understand."

And then if they keep pressing the issue, just keep saying "No, thank you."

This is the worst-case scenario, and if you prepare for the worst then anything else will be a relief. And you should ask for time to think over any other offer, as noted above.
posted by raisingsand at 5:02 PM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

how the "second chance" is the one you've given them, not vice versa


It's not something you need to say, but it is definitely something you need to believe. Work from the assumption that Big Boss believes it too (handing out a big bonus and shiny things is Big Boss code for "oh shit we've blamed the wrong employee and I hope we can still persuade her to stay").
posted by flabdablet at 5:05 PM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Disagree with a few of the above answers in that I really think you should minimize what you say about the other boss. His performance and your performance speak for themselves.

You don't need to say that he traumatized you or that you were the scapegoat, or any of that sort of thing - as brianogilvie suggested, I would go no further than "we didn't work well together in the past and I would prefer not to work with him again."

Simple and doesn't get into any finger-pointing (no matter how right you may be to point the finger, when it sounds like you're about to get a very positive offer here, you can afford to take the high road).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:30 PM on February 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding treehorn+bunny here - I would say getting too deep into the past here is not likely to benefit you. Unfortunately this sort of thing is less uncommon than anyone would like it to be. Every organization has bad apples and it can be hard for those at the top to figure out where the rot is coming from. Management appears to have figured their mistake and are looking to correct their course on this one. I say go in with an open mind, let them talk and just listen for the most part.

You've shown that you can be mature and perform well despite a challenging work environment and that speaks volumes about your potential to grow into a leader at your company. Being in management is full of complicated and uncomfortable situations like what has happened to you, and being able to move past it and do great work is what separates you from people with similar practical skills and less "soft" skills. If you're not totally soured on this place (and it sounds like you do still like things about it), this could be a great opportunity for you. To get overly confessional about how upset you were now doesn't win you any extra points or help everyone move forward. You've already won, so this is the moment to be graceful. Very few people get vindicated in a situation like this.

I agree with those who think you may be offered a promotion. Take time to consider the offer and negotiate your terms as you would any other job. It's also fair to say you aren't open to working with that PM again. I doubt they'd even suggest it, but a simple "I think my work product will be of higher quality on a different team" is perfectly sufficient and proves you are the bigger person in this situation.

Congratulations! Speaking as a PM myself that hates bad ones, that PM can go suck it!
posted by amycup at 7:25 PM on February 9, 2013

I agree with the others, there's not much to be worried about in your job any more, so try to take care of yourself for a bit.
Being a single mum, paying for someone elses debt, 70hour weeks, being demoted and working on boring projects in a hostile environment without a way out: Sounds like a horrible time.
If anything, try to get a few days off and use some of your bonus (actually, I'd ask for a raise!) to simply pamper yourself. Go to a spa, get a massage, a haircut, read a good book and see a bad movie, buy outrageously expensive and comfortable shoes, drink hot chocolate with extra cream..
posted by mathemagician at 12:56 AM on February 10, 2013


I do understand there were some issues involving my perceived performance in the past but as you may have seen i've been doing {X} really well and i greatly enjoy it!

I look forward to moving on and continuing to prove that I'm a valuable asset for this company and look forward to hearing you thoughts."

It's simplistic, and I'd paraphrase, but it dismisses the previous issues, and puts the ball back in their court for what they hope to accomplish with you as an employee without being too self-aggrandizing or axe-grinding.
posted by efalk at 3:15 AM on February 10, 2013

Also, if you saved a company 400k in a weekend project i'd be hardball negotiating for some relief for your situation, if the meeting starts turning in a favorable direction.
posted by efalk at 3:17 AM on February 10, 2013

I've / I'm
inofficially taken more responsibility than I ever had,
solved some really hard problems
saved the company almost 400k with a weekend project.
been hurt and humiliated
my trust was betrayed
struggling personally
have trust issues
need much more feedback than I used to.
feel much better now that I've been pulled away from that toxic environment for a few months
not happy.

I don't want
to discuss what went wrong, blaming people, pointing fingers,
to work with my former PM
my current projects

I don't know
what I want to do in the future.

I want
to stay in this company

I know
that they'd have the perfect project
they definitely need my expertise.
My former coworkers have requested me
most of upper management probably agrees

current position
there's a lot of potential for possibly very business-relevant topics,
this was never meant to be a permanent position (for me!),
it doesn't utilize my knowledge at all.

old position
I like the people and the products
former coworkers have requested me

You have a meeting scheduled. They now recognize that you have a great deal of value to the company. You're in a complicated situation.

How do I talk to him about the past while staying professional?
Mostly listen. If you are asked to comment on some aspect of the past, a colleague, your feelings, and you don't want to discuss it, you say "It's kind of you to be concerned, but I don't feel that it would be productive to bring up those issues." or "It's flattering to be asked for my opinion, but I'm really not comfortable assessing a colleague."

How can I quickly figure out what I want - and what can I reasonably ask for?
You don't have to. You know what you don't want, and you have no way of knowing what they may offer. No matter what they offer, you always have the option of saying "What an interesting/ terrific/ unusual/ etc. offer. I'm going to need some time to think it through. Can I contact you as I have questions about it?" Especially since they have abused you and given you cause to lack trust, you need time to think it over, and to come up with the right questions about it.

And if the worst happens - I'm asked to go back into the old situation - how do I best deal with that?
"I'm going to need some time to think it through. Can I contact you as I have questions about it?"

You've been through a very hard time, and have shown that you are tough, resilient, smart, competent, etc. I think it would be a bad idea to make any decisions too soon. You may have some post-traumatic stress (it would be surprising if you didn't) and your brain is trying to protect you from being put through it again. Listen carefully and take notes. Don't let him push you into a decision. If you get really stressed in the meeting, make a conscious effort to take a full breath, and when you let it out, let out some stress with it. Consciously relax your chest, arms, legs, and mouth (CALM) and shoulders. Imagine the answerers in this thread giving you cheers, support & hugs. You're a star and a great asset, and Boss knows it. Keep that in mind, be cordial, and listen far more than you talk. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

OP: Also, if you have time, follow up with the mods. We'd like to know what happened and how you handled it. (Useful for future readers as well as our interest!)
posted by lalochezia at 8:33 AM on February 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

"It's flattering to be asked for my opinion, but I'm really not comfortable assessing a colleague."

... is the correct answer. Ten points.
posted by flabdablet at 5:17 PM on February 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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