“My former employer is trying to sabotage my career, almost like a stalker. What can I do?”

Question: For three years I worked as an analyst in a small consulting firm. Recently I resigned, and went to work for the consulting firm’s largest vendor, as did two of my colleagues.

Recently my former boss and I were in contact, and we had a falling out concerning a decision I made while I was working for him. I assure you I did nothing illegal, or immoral; it was simply a matter of a difference of judgment. I understand why he is upset but, again, I did nothing improper or harmful. (By the way, I never signed any kind of non-compete agreement.)

Now my former boss has contacted my new employer, I think to say bad things about me, and my former employer wants to speak with me. My former boss also told me I am not suited for consulting work, and unless I leave the consulting field entirely, he will always give me a bad reference. This is the reason he says he needs to stop me from working in this field: he says that, if I work for a consulting firm and do poor work, it will reflect negatively on him.

My goal is to simply get my former employer to stop bad-mouthing me, and instead to provide only a “name, rank and serial number” reference.

Also, if I lose this job due to my former employer’s antics, do I have a “case” against him? Thanks.

Houston, Texas

Answer: You have what I sometimes call a “Stalking Former Employer.” He is an uncommon variety of the somewhat more common “Sociopathic Employer.” Like a jealous former spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, these people can be hard to get rid of. (In all fairness, we must all acknowledge that there are also jealous, stalking, sociopathic former employees out there, too.)

What can you do? These are my suggestions.

A. Halt the Stalking: You need to do something to put a halt to your former employer’s interference in your life. I suggest you retain the services of an attorney for two simple – hopefully inexpensive – tasks: (1) To send your former employer a “cease and desist” letter, and (2) To be available to you if the stalking continues.

The attorney need not be experienced in employment law, although that might help. Rather, the attorney needs to be someone who can write what I refer to as a “Maalox Moment” letter. To me, that is a letter that makes your former employer feel – in the pit of his stomach – that continuing his wrong behavior will cause him serious trouble. A “cease and desist” letter is just what it sounds like: it tells your former employer to “cease and desist” from his bad conduct, or else suffer the initiation of a lawsuit. You should consider choosing a lawyer who can not only threaten a lawsuit, but carry out on that threat, as well.

Incidentally, we offer for purchase a Model Cease and Desist Letter on the “Private Library” section of this blog. To obtain a copy [click here].

If you would like to obtain a list of five or more experienced employee-side employment attorneys close to your locale, just [click here].

However, you must understand that your former employer is entitled to his opinion, however poisonous it may be. And you need to avoid one potential “trap.” The “cease and desist” letter must not sound offensive to other employers, who may see it as an attempt to hide the truth. It should be strong, respectful and specific. It should mention the false things he is reported to have said, and the witnesses. Remember that the “cease and desist” letter might one day might be shown by your former employer to prospective employers as evidence that you are someone who “likes to threaten, hides the truth, and runs to lawyers.” Tell your lawyer to write it with that in mind. Strong words, but always a tone of respect.

Also, your former employer has a right to respond to requests for references, but no right to go out there and contact prospective or current employers to intentionally interfere.

If you lose your present job due to your former employer’s antics, or lose a prospective job due to his antics, you do have the basis for a lawsuit against him for what we lawyers call “tortious interference with present or prospective business relations.” You may also have a good lawsuit against your former employer for defamation, which is damage to reputation. These are subjects that you should speak with an attorney about, preferably at an initial consultation.

B. Test the Stalker: After the “cease and desist” letter is sent out, wait a week or two, and ask a friend to call your former boss, or write to him, and ask for a job reference for you. Do this every two or three weeks. There are also companies that will do this for you, for a fee, that you can find on the internet. If anything negative is said, you should report it to your attorney, who should then send a second, more menacing letter. If it doesn’t stop, litigation is something you may need to consider. Once your former employer starts spending legal fees to defend himself, he may develop a new sense of self-control. Maybe, maybe not.

C. Prepare a “Positive Reference Package”: So, what are you going to do when a prospective employer says, “I see you worked for XYZ Company for three years. Can you provide a reference from them?” That question is likely to arise.

There is only one thing you can do: deal with it, with a plan and proactivity. Prepare a “Positive Reference Package,” which is exactly what the name sounds like: positive work and character references from former employers, customers, industry leaders, professors, perhaps even clergy.

So what about your former employer? His company must appear on your resume. If you still believe you may be bad-mouthed, consider preparing one letter, yourself, that says something like this:

“To Whom It May Concern: One of my former employers, Bob Smith of XYZ Company was upset with me that I chose to resign from that company for a new job. For that reason, Mr. Smith may remain upset with me to this day. Just as former employees who are let go sometimes hold on to negative feelings, so do some former employers who feel abandoned or betrayed by resigning employees. I can only assure you that I provided the same positive performance for XYZ Company that I did for all of my other former employers. In fact, enclosed you will find contact information for four of the clients I served well while I was with XYZ Company. Clients are the ultimate arbiters of good performance, and I invite you to contact them; each has offered to serve as a reference. Of course, you may wish to speak with Bob Smith directly, and for that purpose I provide his contact information, as well.”

D. Keep Perspective and Don’t Make Yourself Sick: A jealous, stalking former employer is something like toenail fungus: no one deserves it, but lots of people get it. You must deal with a stalking former employer as you deal with all other obstacles, road bumps and frustrations in life: with perspective, professionalism, planning, and – if possible – a touch of humor. As one former client in your situation once said to me, “It could have been far worse – I could have married him.”

You’re in a difficult spot, but not an impossible one. I believe the odds are that, sooner or later, your former employer will find another target for his insecurities. In the meantime, I hope this helps.

Best, Al Sklover

© 2009 Alan L. Sklover, All R ights Reserved.

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