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When You Run Into Your Ex on the Job


Gene Caballero recalls feeling confident as he walked into his interview at Dell’s call center in Nashville, Tenn. He was nearly 30, had relevant work experience and a business degree. Under normal circumstances, a panel interview with four hiring managers wouldn’t faze him.

He glanced at the individuals seated at the table, and froze.

“Lo and behold, my ex is one of the interviewing managers,” says Mr. Caballero, now 37 and co-running his own company, GreenPal, which he describes as Uber for lawn care.

It wasn’t just any ex—it was his college girlfriend, whom he had dated for three meaningful years. He says the breakup was amicable, though they didn't keep in close touch. He had heard she was married. He was, and still is, single.

“After the initial shock, my split-second thought was, ‘She still looks nice,’ ” he says. “Then it was, ‘Hey, focus! You’re here for an interview.’ ”

Running into an ex in any setting can be awkward, but when it happens in a business context it can be particularly confusing and requires deft handling.

“Brain wiring towards former partners, especially those from our younger years, can be incredibly strong. Seeing an ex might trigger instant feelings of regret, hopefulness, anger, jealousy, sadness and even attraction,” says Jonathan Bennett, co-founder of The Popular Man, a relationship coaching business in Columbus, Ohio.

These feelings are completely normal, if inconvenient, he says, adding, “I’ve known clients where it’s almost a limbic system response—fight or flight—that just overtakes them.”

Fortunately for Mr. Caballero, he recovered quickly. “She asked questions any hiring manager would ask. She wasn’t trying to stump me,” he says. He got the job.

What’s the best way to handle a surprise run-in with a former lover and preserve your professional reputation?

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