Skip to main content
ask a career coach

Agitated businesswoman in meeting with coworkers.Jupiterimages/Getty Images

The question

I have a question about recovering from bullying in the workplace by a direct supervisor. I was hired on an 18-month contract and found out six months after I got the job that I had been hired against the HR director's advice for a job that I was technically less qualified for than other candidates. Others on the panel thought I'd be meek and mild enough to work for a known bully and that my lack of experience would prevent me from being perceived as a threat. Instead, as the HR director predicted, I was still seen as a threat and my direct supervisor marginalized me, kept me out of meetings and kept me from doing work in my job description. She tried to have me fired on the basis of "poor interpersonal skills." The effort nearly cost her her job, and though I was told I have a case, I decided not to go ahead with harassment charges for the sake of salvaging my job reference.

My question has to do with how I prevent this from affecting my job prospects after this contract ends (because she will not be renewing it). Her supervisor – the now past-president of the company – has agreed to be a glowing reference for me. My supervisor has also agreed to be a reference, but I'm worried that her tone and belief that I have poor interpersonal skills will come up in the reference check.

Is it better to take the risk on an iffy reference from a direct supervisor, or leave her out of it and hope that having the past-president as my reference will be impressive enough to justify excluding her? They will no doubt ask him questions about how I worked with my supervisor and I'm not sure how he plans to answer that. Also, when asked questions in an interview about a past job where you were legitimately bullied, is it better to pretend like it didn't happen? In my case, as a result of being so marginalized, my job title implies a lot more responsibility and diversity of tasks than I was actually allowed to perform. It makes being honest in interviews tricky. I usually imply that it was a one-off contract that didn't allow for renewal (which isn't true) and talk about what I did accomplish even if I know that that work sat unacknowledged on her desk without follow up. Thoughts?

The answer

Ahhh, the bullying boss, the toxic boss, at best the difficult boss. I have a feeling there will be many readers here who will relate to your situation. Supervisors – like any other role – come in all shapes and sizes. A difficult situation indeed, but the good news is that this tough chapter in your career does not have to define your future career prospects.

First, I would encourage you to not focus exclusively on this one contract when preparing to tell your career story. Without knowing your background, I suspect you have a track record of some career experience that enabled you to earn this role. Make sure you recall those parts and include them in your narrative. Take time to reflect on your successes, accomplishments and acquired skills.

But alas, you still will need to have something that speaks to this 18-month contract. My advice on this front is to not make "bullying boss" the central theme. It's very important to prepare thoughtfully how to appropriately side-step that or at least deal with it professionally.

You are wondering if you can or should include your direct supervisor as a reference. That depends on whether or not you trust what she would say. You can certainly ask her but if you don't trust her, I would caution against including her.

You wrote that your supervisor's boss agreed to be a "glowing" reference for you. That is a very good thing! And because he was your boss's supervisor and a past president of the organization, this brings even more credibility. It may not hurt to have a frank conversation with this individual to ask what he would say about you – especially in light of the challenging relationship you had with your supervisor. Additionally, if there is another person at the company who could be included as a reference, that couldn't hurt either. And of course, references from other work experiences outside of this contract would be good to include.

If asked by a prospective employer why your supervisor is not a reference, it's important that you do not step into the muck of detail about that situation – and never utter the word bullying. Rather, do your best to be graceful in your explanation. This is a balance of providing some honesty without getting into a lot of detail. An example could be to say something like the fit with your supervisor's leadership style was not conducive to allowing you to bring the best of yourself to the role; however, others at the company have had the opportunity to appreciate what you can do and can speak to that. Then perhaps focus on the positive experiences with others. Or you can say that you had hoped to have the opportunity for more responsibility but although that didn't come to fruition in this contract, you are confident that you can do more.

An experienced recruiter or HR professional will hopefully understand the gist of what you are diplomatically not saying and might appreciate your professionalism in not bad-mouthing your boss. That said, it is important to have a strong narrative about your abilities, values, overall career experiences that can allow you to shift away from that sensitive situation into a more compelling area for conversation.

The other thing to note is that this is a contract vs. a full-time, permanent situation. This makes your situation a little easier because you would less likely be asked why you didn't get invited to stay on permanently. Do not volunteer the information that this may have been an option. But I would encourage you to be very deliberate in your last months at the organization to diffuse any further tension with your boss. Be as pleasant as possible so that if she ever had to speak about you as a past employee, she would be less inclined to speak negatively.

You raised a concern about your job title possibly inferring more responsibility than you were allowed to take on. Job titles can mean different things at different organizations. The best way to honestly demonstrate the scope of your role is to include appropriate detail in your résumé and interview discussions. Be honest about the breadth of areas you were engaged in. Even if not as deep an experience as you'd hoped for, do take a good look at what you did manage to accomplish.

You mentioned your boss tried to fire you on the basis of poor interpersonal skills but almost lost her own job as a result. If interpersonal skills are truly not an issue for you, then the best way to deflect that possible criticism is to showcase good skills in your interviews, networking and even with your references. You may consider checking in with your existing references to gage their perspective on your interpersonal skills.

Finally, it's worth remembering that while your career prospects may be just fine despite this setback, a toxic boss can sometimes shake our confidence and put us on the defence. Make sure you don't let this situation unsettle you or define who you are and what you are worth. Take time to remember your greatest assets and to take stock of your skills, strengths and even allies. By reflecting on this, you will be better equipped to put your best foot forward as you get going in your search for your next job.