Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I was fired after I took the initiative on a project that my boss did not specifically approve. My ideas were great, but I got fired anyway after my boss sabotaged my work. Some of my friends are telling me I should let this go, while my husband wants me to get a lawyer involved. What should I do?

Here’s what happened. Last summer, I decided to re-enter the workforce after five years of raising my kids. I spent the first four months on the job doing a lot of learning on my own. My manager (let’s call her Betty) wasn’t very involved with my training at all, always claiming she had tons of work to do. Instead, she gave me lists of resources (training manuals, online certification classes, etc.) to go through, checked in with me maybe once a day, and assigned me a “starter project” so that I could “learn on the job.”

So I basically taught myself everything I needed to learn, and the project I worked on was a huge success for the company. It launched about five months after I was hired. I got a raise out of it, and everyone in management seemed very happy with my work.

Once I had finished that project and the account I’d launched was doing well, I noticed some of the tactics/skills I’d used could be implemented on another account that wasn’t performing as well as the one I’d just launched. I told Betty about my plan, and she completely blew me off. Basically she told me that she “already had plans” for this account, that she didn’t need my help, and instead assigned me to another (less important) project.

I was more than a little insulted by her attitude, so I waited until the next day when Betty left for a vacation, and I went to Betty’s boss (Veronica). I walked her through the improvements I wanted to make on this other account. I was given the green light to go ahead and start that work. Clearly this was the right thing to do! I mean, Veronica wouldn’t have given me the go-ahead otherwise, right?

Well, Betty returned from her vacation on a Friday a few weeks later. I came in that Monday morning and found that she had sabotaged all of my work over the weekend! She went through everything I’d worked on that had already launched, and made a bunch of changes, took down some stuff, and more. Essentially she did everything she could so that I wouldn’t be able to show the improvements that I’d made to the suffering account, and reverted it to how it was performing in the past. She also sent me a very passive-aggressive email along the lines of “let’s chat about this first thing Monday.”

In order to preempt another hissy fit from her, and once I assessed the gravity of what she’d done, I went into the meeting with Betty, but pulled Veronica into the conference room as well. I proceeded to explain to Betty that this project had been assigned to me by Veronica, and that she had no business interfering with my work. I was very clear that what she had done was unprofessional, extremely disrespectful, that the results I’d produced were speaking for themselves and that she shouldn’t meddle in things that don’t concern her. Of course I was very angry and maybe I was a little forceful during that meeting, but I feel like I had every right to be upset at what she did!

Betty was very quiet during this meeting. At the time I figured she just couldn’t think of how to defend her actions. Now I understand it’s because she’s even more conniving than I thought she was.

The next morning, I was called in to sit down with Veronica and the CEO. They told me that things weren’t working out, gave me a severance check and told me I was laid off.

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I feel that I was treated extremely unfairly by this company. I had a clearly incompetent manager, I never received proper training, and when I tried to help by taking on important projects, my work was sabotaged and I was punished for my initiative. I think Betty may even have spread harsh rumors about me in the industry because despite applying to a bunch of jobs since then, I’ve had very few interviews, and the ones I’ve had never went past the ‘references’ stage.

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A: You weren’t fired for taking initiative. You were fired for undermining your manager by going around her to her own boss after she already told you no, and for not being clear with Veronica that Betty had already told you no, and for having a bizarrely aggressive attitude about it when called out on it.

Here’s how this looks from a manager’s perspective:

* You offered to take on a particular project, but your manager told you she had it covered. You found this insulting, even though it’s your manager’s prerogative to decide who will work on what projects, to have her own plans for accounts, and to decline your help.

* As soon as your manager left for vacation, you went over her head to her own boss to ask the same question that you’d already been told no about. You didn’t tell Veronica that Betty had already told you no, which means that she didn’t have the full context to make a decision.

* You interpreted Veronica’s “yes” as meaning that Betty had been wrong, when all it really means is that Veronica didn’t have full information. When you write, “Veronica wouldn’t have given me the go-ahead otherwise, right?” the answer to that is no. Betty probably knows the work she oversees more intimately than Veronica, and could have all sorts of good reasons for saying no that Veronica didn’t know about (for instance, that your ideas had been tried in the past but didn’t work for particular reasons, or that a stronger plan was already in progress, or that the client specifically rejected those ideas in the past, or all sorts of other things). But even leaving that aside, there’s no way that Veronica wouldn’t want to know that Betty had already weighed in on this, and it seems like you intentionally didn’t tell her that.

* Then, when called out on it once Betty returned, you disingenuously claimed that Veronica had assigned you the work — when in fact you’d asked Veronica to let you do it without telling her Betty had already said no.

* Most incredibly, you had the audacity to say that Betty had no business “interfering” with your work — when she is your manager. Your manager’s business is to intervene in your work, if that’s what she judges is needed. She has complete standing to interfere in your work. You even said she shouldn’t meddle “in things that don’t concern her,” when your entire job is her concern.

* To make matters worse, you describe yourself as being angry and forceful in the meeting where you asserted all this.

* Throughout this, you interpreted all of Betty’s behavior in the worst possible light: You say she wasn’t involved with your training when she was meeting with you daily, gave you what sounds like significant resources to learn from, and assigned you work designed to help you learn on the job — all of which sounds pretty good, not something worthy of contempt. When she undid the work that you did after she specifically told you not to, you called that sabotage (!). You described her as “passive-aggressive” when she told you she needed to meet with you to discuss all this, when that’s just straightforward and direct. You describe her as having “hissy fits” and being “conniving.” This is just a bizarrely adversarial approach toward Betty, and it’s rooted in a really fundamental misunderstanding of what your manager’s role is and the authority that she has over your work.

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I’ll be blunt here: I would have fired you too. Most managers would. This isn’t a matter of making a mistake. This is a situation where you deliberately went around your boss, deceived your boss’s boss, and attacked when called out on it, and you still don’t think you did anything wrong. Firing was a logical response.

As for getting a lawyer involved, I’m not sure what grounds your husband thinks you’d have for legal action, but nothing you’ve described here is illegal. Companies are allowed to fire people for any reason they want, as long as it’s not based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristic and as long as it’s not as retaliation for exercising a legally protected right like reporting discrimination. Even if Betty was wrong in her assessment here — and it doesn’t sound like she was — it would be perfectly legal to fire you for any of this.

The best thing you can now is to use this as a flag that you need to do some serious re-thinking about how offices work and what it means to have a manager. If you find another job without doing that, you’re going to see this repeat itself.

This question are adapted from one that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.