Should You Try to Make Amends With a Past Employer?

You might need a reference from an employer you left badly.
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A smug smile in your boss’s face as you’re walking out the door might feel great. However, the gesture can come back to bite you in a variety of ways that might make it worth swallowing your pride and biting your tongue. Burning a bridge can force you to move forward and avoid looking back, but you also lose access to potential future allies. If you’ve got any bad relationships with previous employers or bosses, consider whether enough time has elapsed to mend those fences.

Reasons to Make Amends

If you burn a bridge with a former employer, you might later find you need it for a reference in the future. Even if the job you took immediately after you left didn’t need a reference, you might lose a nice six-figure position if you send up any red flags with potential employers. Additionally, one of your future companies might need to do business with your old employer. This can help you move up with your new company or can give you a black eye if your old company won’t work with your new employer. A well-connected old boss might also prevent you from serving on a professional association committee or winning an industry award. Once tempers cool down on both sides, you might find yourself welcome back at your old job or in line for a better position, especially if you made a point the company now understands.

Assess the Situation

To help you decide if you need to make amends with a past employer, review the situation under which you left, consider whether you overreacted, if your employer was dead wrong and whether you or anyone you’re involved with will ever come into contact with the employer again. Depending on your industry, multiple employees at the company might spread word that you have a bad relationship with that company and are persona non grata. If you left without giving two weeks’ notice, find out if that badly hurt the company or if it was no big deal. Think of scenarios where you might use that former company as a partner or ally.

Sending Out Feelers

Before you go straight to your old boss or the owner of the company you left on bad terms, talk to former coworkers who might still be there or who have also moved on. Ask what happened after you left, who was upset with you, who understood your motives for leaving and if there is anyone in particular you should approach about mending fences. If you have any trusted contacts who work with your old company, ask them to drop your name and see what reaction they get.

Talk Them Up

If possible, before you re-establish contact with your old company, give them a reference, send them a customer sales lead or put something complimentary about them in a letter or email to an industry peer who might pass that info on. Don’t gratuitously brown-nose for self-serving purposes. If you can help your old company in some way, people there will see that you don’t hold a grudge and that you are not a threat or enemy. Once you know they have heard you are talking them up, wait to see if you get a thank-you email or call and use that opportunity to make amends.

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