Joe worked for years at the same company, but ownership changed and he saw the handwriting on the wall: They wanted to bring in some new faces. Joe updates his resume and applies to your company when you list an opening for a sales director.
You hired Joe because of his longtime experience and you thought he’d be an asset on your team. When Joe came on board, he frequently talked about the past in one-on-one conversations with you and others, as well as at team meetings.
At first, you thought it would pass — just a natural “phase” he was going through in adjusting to having left a longtime employer.
But now, 6 months later, Joe continues to reminisce and people are starting to complain. If he loved it so much, why did he leave? Why can’t he stop talking about the past? Can someone snap Joe out of it?
Helping a new employee leave their past company behind can be critical for fully engaging them in the current job. It’s also important because co-workers, peers and supervisors grow tired quickly of hearing stories about the past.
Psychologically speaking, telling stories about the past is a way of processing unfinished business from a prior job. It wasn’t Joe’s idea to leave — he had a sense that he was going to be replaced — so telling stories is a way of processing and getting on top of what happened.
Telling stories is also a way of showing new co-workers that Joe has high value — he hopes that by describing past successes that people will view him as a highly valued employee, and that somehow that will transfer to the new job and give him instant or quick credibility.
Ultimately, people like Joe wind up alienating others, and the unconscious desire to be accepted and valued backfires.
What to do?
If you have someone on your staff who arrived recently from another company who tells story after story about the past, consider these options:
1. Meet with them to discuss the prior job. Ask if they had an exit interview at the prior job. Any “unfinished business” or conversations they feel they need to have with the prior employer? If there are, encourage them to get in touch with the prior company and settle anything that’s unsettled.
2. Be direct about focusing on the future. Often, people like Joe are unaware of how much they are talking about the past and/or the impact it has on others. Let Joe know that you want everyone at the company — not just him — to be focused on the future. If he talks about how important the past is for planning the future, encourage him to bring the lessons of the past forward, but not the stories.
3. Get Joe’s permission to shift from the past to the future. You might say, “I was wondering if I could have your permission, when I sense you’re discussing the old job too much, to politely point it out and ask how we can bring that lesson into the future?” Getting Joe’s permission to point it out may — all by itself — reduce the frequency and duration of story time.
If you’ve had an experience with someone who’s had a difficult time letting go of a past job, company or supervisor, post it as a comment (and disguise identities) or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org