Ask Helen

A skilled professional finds an insecure new boss to be a bitter pill.

Dear Helen:
I’m having the worst professional experience of my life. I left a very secure senior position for one that paid $20K more, with upside potential to replace my ambitious new boss after she moved up the food chain. The problem: She was so threatened by my skills that instead of training me, she put me on a short leash. She monitored my every appointment and even asked for access to my email account to monitor my communications. When I asked human resources about my probation process, I was told that she’d already been in to say she didn’t think I’d last a month. I’ve since learned that I’m not the first smart hire she’s put through the mill in these and worse ways. I haven’t quit yet, but I’m predicting a job change ahead. Is there a way to avoid this situation in the future?

Dear Burned:
It’s traditional for employers to check references before they hire employees; less so for prospective employees to ask for them regarding future supervisors, though not unreasonable to contemplate. All employees deserve an idea about what they’re getting into and who they’re getting into it with. That said, most organizations aren’t likely to reveal insider problems to outsiders. If you ask the right questions at an interview and listen very carefully to the answers, you might pick up hints in words or even body language and uncomfortable silences. But your insights will be more meaningful only once you’ve committed and are an insider, i.e., perhaps too late.

Try careful questions: Are there any ongoing human relations issues? What’s the turnover pattern in the department and why? You can cite prior experience as the source of your curiosity. But be very careful about bad-mouthing former employers in an interview. Listeners are subliminally subbing their own names into your future interviews. You could ask for references on the prospective new boss, but it’s the rare place that’ll tell the truth about a problem supervisor. My bet is if you ask you won’t get the job. But by sidling up to the topic in a casual way, you may learn enough to protect yourself once you land it. More on the land mine politics of a new job another time.

Dear Helen:
I’m 63. My friends range from early 40s to late 70s. In the 60+, I’m beginning to see signs of mental decay. Not so much the common or occasional forgetfulness about appointments or phone numbers but what seem like bigger chunks of their brains becoming less reliable. I don’t know whether to say something directly to them, gently ask a family member if they’ve observed anything similar or do nothing. My own parents succumbed to Alzheimer’s, so I am especially sensitive to the issue. I always said I’d shoot myself before I put my kids through what I experienced. But that sounds more like a younger person’s hyperbole than a realistic plan.

Wanna Stay Me

Dear Wanna Stay Me:
Consult folks who are experts on aging brains. Start with research online and local Alzheimer’s support groups. Look for information about early warning signals, as well as things you can do to sharpen your brain. As someone who recently studied a new language, I can attest to the value of stretching your neural network with new information. There’s lots of positive new research on neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to learn and accessible software to back it up. Scientists who study animals in new situations have observed what they call “dendritic branching” in their brains, an image like the expansion of the Tree of Life in our head.

Raise the topic of memory loss with your friends. You can make it humorous, as in “I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, had no idea why and wasn’t even hungry!” Or “I got two blocks from my house and realized that without the errand list I’d left on the kitchen table, I’d just be wasting my time.” Keep it light unless you really sense someone has something to hide or a lot of shame about the topic. Then get more serious and personal, though one-on-one. I would not engage relatives unless you have personally observed something seriously worrisome. You’ll just create anxiety and possibly an unneeded intervention. But if you think something is really wrong, and are willing to risk the “buttinski” tag, speak to a loving spouse or child, starting with, “Have you noticed so-and-so ‘slipping’ at all?” Then listen and learn how to help.

Helen is a writer and an artist ( and claims she has black belts in schmoozing, problem-solving and chutzpah. Send her your questions at

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