by Meridith Levinson

Job Survival Tips: What to Do When You’re Set Up for Failure, Before You’re Fired

Oct 02, 20086 mins

When you’re more qualified for a new job than the individuals with whom you’re going to be working, your mere presence can threaten them–so much that they conspire to make your life miserable, and ultimately, to get you fired. That’s precisely what happened to a software engineer, whom we’ll call John Doe, this summer. (John didn’t want to use his real name in this story because he’s pursuing legal action against his former employer.) Here, John explains how he was unfairly targeted at work and shares the lessons he learned from the experience. (Note that certain details have been changed to protect John’s identity.)

John Doe had been working for a manufacturing company as a contractor when he was offered a full-time software development/project management job with the company in Spring 2007. When the hiring manager offered John the full-time job, she told him that two other developers he’d be working with opposed John’s hire. She told John that they didn’t tell her why they didn’t want her to hire him, just that they didn’t want her to do so.  

John says this information sounded alarm bells in his mind, but he took the full-time job with the company anyway because he needed the work and because he was excited about the project he was being hired to work on. It was a big, strategic initiative for the company with lots of visibility, and it touched virtually every function inside the company. John says that the hiring manager also reassured him that he would never have to work under these two individuals.  

After John was hired full-time, John says the two software engineers who opposed his hire were made managers. Though John did not report directly to either of them, he had to work with them.  “That’s when life started going downhill,” he says.

John says the two managers conspired to set him up to fail. He says they wanted the project he got and were threatened by his knowledge and expertise because it made them look unqualified. John says the two managers gave him contradictory verbal and written instructions. They would tell John not to do something, only to later ask him why he didn’t do what they told him not to do (they implied that he should have done it.) They gave him unreasonable deadlines. They told him to ask them for help, but when he did, they always replied that they were too busy to help him. They also complained to John’s manager (the woman who hired him) that he was not doing his job properly and that he spent too much time chatting with co-workers. John couldn’t get a break. 

Early in 2008, one of the developers who opposed John’s hire was put in charge of the project John was working on.  

“I was supposed to be the project manager,” says John, “but he, for all intents and purposes, was made the project manager. The guy I was told I’d never have to work for was suddenly in charge of the project I was spearheading, and I was told that I would be answering to him.”

Though John was wary of having to report to someone who was making his life miserable, he wasn’t overly concerned about his job at the time. He thought it was safe because he was the only person in the company with the unique skills the project required and because his boss had told him repeatedly she was thrilled to have him on board and was very happy with his work. “I had known that my job was secure as long as the project I was working on needed me,” he says.

John, dedicated as he was to finishing his project, muddled on for several months into the summer, constantly battling the two managers who had it in for him. John says his manager, who had long been his advocate, turned on him during this time.   

At the beginning of July, the engineer who had become John’s supervisor on the project called John into his office for a meeting with HR about his performance. John says they presented him with a performance improvement plan that was chock full of lies and inaccuracies. John challenged the information on the performance improvement plan. He says he was told that he needed to sign the performance improvement plan and that he would be fired if he didn’t. John signed the performance improvement plan.

Later that month, John’s project went through some testing and passed with flying colors.  When he found out the results of the test, he knew his days at the company were numbered because the test results meant his work on the project was complete.

Concerned about his job, John says he contacted HR several times over the course of two weeks to request a private meeting. He says he was finally able to schedule a meeting with HR, but he wound up getting firedbefore the meeting took place.

John suspects that the two engineer managers had it in for him because they knew John was more capable of leading the big project than they were, yet they wanted control of the project, along with all the visibility and glory that would come from it. John believes they have so much sway in the organization due to nepotism.

John has consulted a lawyer and is pursuing legal action against his former employer. At the very least, he wants the severance pay he was denied for being unfairly fired.  

John says he’s learned three valuable lessons from this experience that he hopes he never has to implement. He shares them with because he knows these kinds of machinations are not uncommon in the workplace.

First, he advises documenting every verbal conversation you have with someone whom you think is out to get you. He also recommends contacting a lawyer immediately.  “It’s far better to talk to somebody for $200 an hour than to soldier on for six months with no recourse,” he says. “Corporations are getting really good at outing people and not having to pay the piper for it.”

Finally, he says to encrypt your hard drive so your employer can’t get access to it. Personally, I think encrypting your hard drive could get you into more trouble than you’re already experiencing since your hard drive is your employer’s property (you could be accused of sabotage.) Instead, you might consider storing duplicate copies of e-mails and other documentation you keep on a personal computer. 

“I should have known better,” says John in retrospect. “I should have seen it coming. I was so dedicated to making this job happen and seeing this job through. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I know what’s happening. I hope I can get the project done before anything happens, and then I’m going to look around for something new’.”

Perhaps the ultimate lesson is to put yourself first. Don’t be martyr to the company or the project. Don’t soldier on but start looking for that new job before the conflict spirals completely out of control.