How Can I Handle Negative Comments By Former Co-Workers?

A question to the Workplace Doctors about negative comments by a former colleague:  How to keep the comments from tainting the attitudes of coworkers in a new job?


My former job was crazy, all of the employees were miserable and, as expected, the turnover rate was pretty high. I’ve moved on to a new job in the same field at a better place and love it! In fact, I’m doing quite well at the new gig and my good performance is known across the board. However, one of my former colleagues met some of my new colleagues at an annual conference event and, in a very subtle way, said things about me that could be interpreted as negative (and this did not surprise me since I did not have a good relationship with my former colleagues considering the company culture, high school antics and cliques).

For example, “Oh, you know John–he loves to talk, doesn’t he? We used to listen to John babble on and on about rock n roll. How do you deal with John’s babbling at XYZ company while you’re trying to work? Hardy har har.” My colleagues came back and relayed the negative remarks to me like “Oh, btw I met your former coworker and he asked me these things about you.”

I have a good working relationship with all of my new colleagues, but some are a bit gossipy (and possibly jealous of my speedy accomplishments) and I sense that they are curious about these “negative” traits that my old colleague slyly highlighted. I’m not interested in any communication with my former colleague because he is irrelevant (and it would likely make him feel like he’s gotten under my skin and he will continue), but I want to make sure my new colleagues’ opinion of me is not tainted by external gossip that they may view as reliable since its coming from someone who worked with me longer.

I’m pretty sure my old colleague will continue doing this…how should I respond when people in the field bring up his negative remarks about me? I don’t think talking poorly about my past employer or about my relations with former colleagues would be professional but leaving people to fill in the blanks (by avoiding the question altogether isn’t ideal either. Advice?

(Signed) Stabbed in the Back Remotely

Dear Stabbed,

What would you think if you heard negative things about a new co-worker from someone he or she used to work with? If you had already noticed similar things, you would believe the person making the remarks and it would reinforce your own negative thoughts.  If not, you would probably wonder about it and keep your eyes and ears open for a repeat of that behavior. If it didn’t happen or was not a problem, you’d figure the two of them didn’t get along and the situation would become ancient history in your mind. If you had a very positive feeling about the new coworker, you would think less of the gossiping person and probably feel empathy and more supportive of the new co-worker.

Those reactions are probably similar to the way your co-workers feel. If you are a good co-worker now and your behaviors are OK for close-quarters, they may be interested in negative remarks and wonder about them, but  the negative comments won’t stick in their minds. If you are doing the same kind of negative things now, they will believe the negative comments because they see it happening again.

The bottom line is that, as you have acknowledged in your question, you cannot control the negative, snippy or gossipy comments of former co-workers. However,  you can ensure that you are so effective in your new work that your positive reputation will outweigh the things that are said by bitter, envious or mean-spirited people.

If you can think of some things that might be said, you can be purposeful about not doing those things in this new job. There may be a bit of truth in the snippy remarks, even though your behaviors or habits were not as extreme as the gossipy person says. The negative comments may actually help you be much more successful than you would be otherwise!

If a co-worker mentions a negative comment he or she has heard, say truthfully that you’re sorry such a thing was said, because it is not true. Then, you can add something like, “But, you know how it is. In this line of work, there is always someone who wants to spread negative comments, just to be doing it.” Your co-workers know the truth of that and it will put the negative comments in the proper context.

If you have friends from the former workplace, maybe you can invite them to lunch and have them drop by your office to show them around. That way you can show your co-workers that you had good relationships there, as well as the usual few people who were not supporters. Or, you can simply deal with the negative person for a while, knowing that soon he or she will have other things to occupy their time. Few people can focus on someone who is working somewhere else for very long, positively or negatively.

It sounds as though you are doing well in this new work and have already built a good reputation. That will speak louder than anything else and will allow you to leave the other person in the dust as you move forward. Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how you handled the situation.

Ask the Workplace Doctors
Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.