Last year, I spotted a woman at a local festival. I only saw the back of her head, but I knew it was my old boss, Carly*. The flash of recognition was followed by an instant and intense revulsion. I hadn’t seen her face in three years—but I felt like I’d gone right back in time.
When the woman finally did turn around, I saw that it wasn’t Carly. But I was still left a crying mess, dealing with leftover emotional baggage from a bizarre and completely toxic work relationship.
When the offer came in, the job sounded like a dream. I’d been laid off several months earlier, and this new opportunity offered me a great title at a good company. There was only one catch: I live in Wisconsin and this job was in another state. Carly and I agreed I’d begin remotely and move cross-country after six months to take my rightful place in the office.
At first, everything went great. I had check-in calls every other week with Carly and she always praised me and the work I did.
At about the five-month mark, though, things outside of work took a bad turn. My grandma had been dealing with cancer for a good decade, but now she was in the hospital and things were steadily getting worse.
My grandmother and I had always been incredibly close. When I was a child, I stayed with her often, and growing up she was a confidante, traveling partner, and eventually a roommate while I was in college. Whenever I had a problem, she was one of the first people I went to. So when she went into the hospital, I knew I needed and wanted to be there for her and the rest of my family.
I had to request early releases a couple days a week and a day off nearly every week for almost a month. I kept Carly in the loop the entire time and she said she understood—as long as my work didn’t suffer, it was fine. I continued to produce quality articles on time. The praise from Carly never ceased. Personally, I was struggling with my grandma’s condition, but professionally, things seemed as good as they’d ever been.
My six-month performance review came shortly after my grandmother died. We conducted the entire thing over the phone. I expected to discuss moving plans and logistics, but Carly had some news for me. She knew how close I was with my grandmother and that I needed to be with my family. After noting my strong performance up to that point, she said it didn’t seem necessary to have me move after all. I could stay in Wisconsin indefinitely.
I was thrilled. I didn’t actually want to leave my family and friends, especially not while mourning someone so important to me. My work continued to be solid, but only a few days after that call, I noticed some changes in Carly. She wasn’t replying to emails as quickly and getting her on the phone was near impossible. She began to cancel our regular video calls almost every time.
Two months later, Carly scheduled a conference call. The invite list—which included the two of us, plus the CEO and the company’s HR representative—raised alarms. I’d been laid off before, and this seemed an awful lot like a crowd that’d lay somebody off. But I tried to be optimistic. Maybe it was a review of my performance review. Hey, maybe it was even a promotion! That hope was quickly dispelled when the CEO said, “We’re firing you. You never moved out here, and that was the agreement.”
I was stunned. And confused. Hadn’t my boss just said two months prior that I could stay in Wisconsin? I pushed back, trying to relay calmly exactly what Carly had told me. But the longer I thought about it, the more I began to seethe. How dare she?
As I grew angrier, Carly lost it: “You’re lying. I never said that. You told me you didn’t get along with your grandmother. You told me you refused to move. I can’t believe you’re trying to take advantage of someone’s death to make me out to be the liar here.”
I was furious and try as I might, I couldn’t keep it together. I yelled at the CEO. “She’s lying! Do you let all your employees lie like this?” But it didn’t matter. By the end of the call, I was in tears—the same kind the Carly lookalike would provoke at the fair years later—and I wasn’t able to salvage my job.
I couldn’t understand what had just happened. I hung up the phone and just stared at the floor, feeling the pain of my grandmother’s death all over again, with an extra, cruel twist courtesy of a boss that had once seemed so understanding.
The experience with Carly scarred me. The unfortunate reality is that I thought I was doing everything I could to make things work out, but my boss had other ideas. I never got any closure on what happened.
To this day, all I know is my side of the story. I have no idea what caused Carly to turn on me, what was going on in the office, or anything else that could’ve led to this sudden about-face. That’s hard to come to terms with, but it’s something I’ve learned to accept about the workplace: There’s not always an obvious, justifiable reason people are horrible to you.
But the fact that I’m in the dark about my firing doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything from the experience. And in retrospect, I could’ve protected myself better.
Because I worked remotely, I hadn’t developed friendships with many of my co-workers. Had I been in the office or made more of an effort to connect from afar with current employees, I might’ve had at least an inkling that I needed to watch my back.
I have to imagine that if I’d befriended a few people and had weekly virtual coffee meetings with them, someone might’ve hinted that Carly had been talking negatively about me, or that other leaders were mad I hadn’t moved, or even that Carly was clearly going through some personal drama (if any of those things were true, that is). It wouldn’t necessarily have changed the outcome, but I wouldn’t have been so blindsided.
I learned the hard way that just because you work remotely doesn’t mean you should keep your distance. Instead, it means you have to make even more effort to stay connected and create those friendly work relationships.
Even without suspecting any foul play, I should’ve gotten something as major as the update to the moving agreement in writing. If I’d confirmed with Carly over email that I was all set to stay in Wisconsin, I could’ve presented the CEO with proof when I needed it.
And that’s what I recommend to my friends and family now—anytime your boss approves something that’s not aligned with company policy, get it in writing. Hopefully you’ll never have to whip it out, but in case you do, you’ll have it.
Carly’s betrayal really took a toll on me and my ability to trust. While my therapist has helped me realize that not everyone plans to turn on me, it’s still hard to imagine diving back into another job. It’s why I currently work for myself. Right now, I love knowing what my boss (me) is thinking at all times. But should I ever tire of running my own business, I’ll be better equipped to handle a new manager.
And I’ll have to remind myself that just because I got one bad egg doesn’t mean I’ll never find a good one.
*Names have been changed.
Photo of upset person sitting at a desk with glasses, phone, and a mug in front of them courtesy of kieferpix/Getty Images.