How to survive a vindictive boss

Stephen's mistake was not knowing who the new senior executive was. She knew who he was, though, so when she ran into him in the hallway and asked him for a detailed report he responded, "And you are?" The executive walked away, and later Stephen found himself in huge trouble for not immediately recognizing a woman he'd never seen before.

Granted, the proper thing to do in that situation would have been to say, "I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met. My name is Stephen." Still, although his "and you are?" question, while perhaps not the kind of introduction favored by etiquette experts, is hardly a reason to destroy someone's career -- but that is exactly the path that this new executive chose.

After several years of misery on the job, Stephen was eventually laid off, and he has been struggling to find a job ever since. When he gets to the last stages of the interview process, his former company doesn't give him a good reference, hurting his chances with prospective employers.

Perhaps understandably, Stephen has come to hate this obnoxious and self-centered executive, who seems to have won the game. She doesn't have to win, though. Here are five tips for surviving a vindictive boss.

1. Get out. Once you realize that someone high in the pecking order is out to get you, it's time to leave. Yes, you could choose to stay and fight or hope that someone above your nemesis sees the problem and fires that person. But the better thing to do is freshen up your resume and work toward finding a new job. When you find one, quit. If you wait, as Stephen did, until you're fired, it's harder to find a new job; plus, people will want to call this boss to get a reference. If you're still employed, most companies won't call your current employer for a reference.

2. Take notes. Even if you're a face-to-face kind of person, document everything and use email as much as possible. Email has a time and date stamp and provides a record of when things were sent and what was said. If it doesn't violate your company policy, blind copy your home email address on critical emails. After a meeting with your nemesis, always write up an email that says, "This is to confirm that we discussed a, b and c, and that I will be doing x, John will do y and Kate will do z. Please let me know if this is not correct."

3. Build other relationships. If it's your direct boss that is the problem, you can still work to develop relationships with other employees in the company who are senior to you. These people can later act as references for you.

4. Consult an attorney. This may seem extreme, but sometimes it is necessary. A lawyer can invoke fear better than you can on your own. In Stephen's case, a short letter from an attorney reminding the company that it is legally barred from saying anything about his performance that is not true. Because the official reason for his termination was that his department was outsourced, that is what his former employer is required to say to companies that might be interested in hiring him. Now, of course, they can give their opinion as to his work ethic, habits and what he did during the day. That's perfectly legal. But sometimes a letter from an attorney will scare them into being a bit more positive.

5. Choose your own references. Recruiters checking out a job candidate may call people you didn't list as a reference, but often they won't. Don't put your nemesis down as a reference, but also don't list no one at your ex-employers (then the recruiter would simply call the company's HR department). Instead, ask the person with whom you had the best relationship there to act as your reference. This can be someone who worked with you before the nemesis came on board. If the recruiter asks you specifically about your manager who disliked you, say, "Jane and I didn't always see eye to eye, so I suggest you call Heather, with whom I also worked closely. Here's Heather's information. If you would still like to speak with Jane, here is her contact information." This way you're not lying, and you're not trying to hide things, but the recruiter now has two sources for that company.

The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App