Am I being slandered?

My former co-worker is spreading lies that are hurting my reputation. What can I do?

Published June 12, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary:

Recently I left a librarian job that I loved in many ways and did very well in. I left for two reasons: to pursue a dream of finishing my degree and because my co-worker was so difficult to work with.

My co-worker had worked at the position for many years as an assistant librarian but when her boss left, I was hired instead to be her boss. The boss and the library board had decided that my assistant was not ready for the librarian job due to her immaturity and lack of motivation/innovation. Her ex-boss was a difficult woman who yelled at everyone (including my assistant) but was never disciplined due to having no personnel department.

My assistant is 40 years old. I should mention that her mother is a classic borderline personality and is/was verbally abusive to her. She is still very involved in her family and seems to live her life through her brothers' and sisters' families, as she is single and unattached -- which I respect as her right but she would often leave work to take care of one problem or another for her siblings or parents.

When I was her boss, I tried to give her opportunities to do new things, included her in everything and tried to be a boss that helped her grow. Her resentment of me was always in the picture and she often did things to undercut my position. I tried to be the grown-up in this situation. I also felt badly for her because she had worked for the library for a long time but was not promoted.

When I left, I recommended my assistant for the position. I felt that despite her issues, she deserved the chance to have the job and opportunity. She was hired as my replacement as the board liked me and listened to my opinion.

Well, now I have left the job and accomplished my dream. However, I still love libraries and would like to still be involved in our local system by volunteering and helping (I wrote grants for the library when I was there that brought in much needed money and were the first grants written for the library). The problem is that my former assistant has told my old boss lies about me and has spread many rumors about me. Unfortunately, my old boss is very insecure so she believes these rumors. My old friends in the system are afraid to be associated with me because the boss was told (by my ex-assistant) that all the librarians were organized by me to get her fired.

Should I confront my old employee or just hope things die down? I feel very betrayed by her because I treated her well and instead she turned on me and is telling lies about me. I don't understand this behavior.

Please feel free to edit this as I know I am going on but I am so upset and hurt at what my assistant has done. I feel like I helped her out and instead she stabbed me in the back.


Dear Librarian,

This person was difficult. She often did things to undercut your position. Yet when you had the choice, you recommended her. That was noble of you but perhaps not wise. Now she is harming your reputation.

There is a slight possibility that this person is committing defamation. You could talk to a lawyer. That would give you some perspective. It's not likely that you will want to pursue it legally but it is always good to understand the legal side.

But here is what I think is important: your relationship with your ex-boss, the person who hired you and whose good opinion you seek. I suggest you focus on that. Go to her directly. Meet with her for lunch. Befriend her. Tell her your plans and ask for her support.

Do the same thing with the other people whose support is vital. Pursue your plans. Seek support for them. If support is lacking and you suspect it is because of things this woman has said, then deal with that as it comes up. If specific allegations are material to the plan, address them. If refuting certain accusations will help, then refute them. But proceed with your plans. Make personal, individual approaches to those whose opinions and decisions matter. Plunge in!

And do me a favor. Indulge my perhaps-idiosyncratic opinion on one matter: I hate the word "boss." It think it would be helpful if we referred to people wherever possible by their titles or functions. I think we place too much emphasis on power relations when we refer to a person as "the boss" or "my boss" or "my ex-boss." It would be better to say, "the library director" or "my former associate at the library" or even, though this may seem wordy, "the person who hired me and supervised me."

It is a subtle shift but one I favor: to de-emphasize the dominant/submissive element connoted by the word "boss" and emphasize the functional and practical element in work relationships; to shift the focus, neurolinguistically, to the work, rather than the power relations.

What is important is how you serve people, how you meet the mission of the organization. It sounds more egalitarian, doesn't it? And if there is one thing that is great about America it is the many ways that we Americans find to embody the egalitarian spirit.

No more bosses!

We're all workers!

Appendix: Good general career advice on slander with the personal/psychological angle.

Another good post on defamation in the workplace.

By Cary Tennis

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Bosses Co-workers Gossip Libel Malicious Gossip Since You Asked Slander Work Workplace