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TLDR: After a long reputable career, I have seen two workplaces that I have not been comfortable in. Now after leaving one, I believe I have been smear campaigned, can't get in contact with my references and no one will hire me.

Questions
- Is there anyone who has been through this before that might have advice for coming through a professional smear campaign?

- Do I mention any of this to potential employers during the recruitment process?

- How do I go about finding references I can trust? And how do I avoid contacts that are smearing?

- What is an appropriate way to limit the 'shadow reference' checking?
(to limit any smear campaigning that could be happening)

- Any and all thoughts on this appreciated

NOVEL/Back-story:

I work in an industry that is fairly small and many people know each other.

I have had a couple of long tenures in companies that have seen me with a good respectful reputation over the course of 20 years.

Due to interstate moves (and side-stepping in my industry), I have had a couple of shorter stays in companies as well.

One of these ended up having a toxic staff member, who was jealous I entered the company at the position I was in, instead of him being promoted to it. This resulted in me being dumped his workload, and having surrounding issues with staff members "on his side", and instead of complaining and raising with management, I just moved jobs instead. (The company was too small for HR department, so it was quite rough) --- unsure if any of this back story matters?

I guess this is somewhat normal though I then went into a contract role and I got sick with Covid leaving me unable to perform my job properly.

I changed roles during the long-Covid haul to a role I had been doing previously quite easily. However the new company was also very toxic. The manager was narcissistic, and manipulative to his employees. There was a very unhealthy dynamic between departments which he would use to pit staff against each-other for competitiveness, and the culture spread through the rest of the staff. This manager however is very well connected throughout the industry.

This role was junior to my previous roles - so it should have been easy. But they saw this role as the 'whipping boy' role, which meant taking on more work from staff members who had been given their roles due to nepotism.

I raised concerns with the most senior management and handed in my resignation with thoughts that I'll heal for a few months before committing to another role.

I failed to mention I had overheard management say 'he'll never work in this industry again' - but I didn't really put this together, until later - I guess because of shock?

This same culture and overall vibe was shown through all of my colleagues there, asking questions like "where are you going? Do you have work lined up?" "Are you staying in the same industry?"

I will add here - my work ethic has always been strong, and I am quite introverted. I made sure to complete all open projects and then some, prior to leaving.

Time went by, I worked at getting my health back on track, and started looking for work.

However, aside from a couple of references, most of my management references from all previous employment will not return my calls.

Those in the industry I do still speak to, have not let on that they are aware of the circumstances and won't say anything but have also said "are you thinking of staying in the industry still?"

I have had possibly 8-10 very promising interviews, even with responses like "that's an impressive CV", or "we'd be happy to have you onboard".

For clarity, I have not been mentioning my experiences with these two workplaces, the stays were so short that they aren't even on my resume, and luckily the only two gaps in the CV are explainable from the interstate move and the time off during covid. Which are both perfectly reasonable and acceptable explanations. I obviously do not tell this story in interviews, and if I mention anything, it remains tactful and broad.

Shortly after the successful interviews, employers either ghost my follow up calls, or respond with generic unsuccessful application responses like "oh the department has chosen to go a different way". Then the ads are reposted for new candidates.

This even happens before I have sent through any references, as this is usually the last thing I would do depending on what I wanted to showcase for the next role I was applying for.

It's fairly common knowledge that recruiters and potential employers will use back-channel reference checking, (with LinkedIn and other tools). I feel like this has happened and I have been smear-campaigned throughout my industry, and I am unsure about laws against this method of reference checking.

Given there are two occasions of a bad work environments, I am wary that these can be manipulated to discredit me further and re-enforce that I am the one in the wrong. I also don't see any ability to fight these, even on a legal level.

I have never had trouble getting work before, but it's now been 6 months of applying for work without any reasonable 'unsuccessful application' response.

I have thought of changing industries, though anything close to this would result in severe financial difficulty to up-skill.

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    "toxic... raised concerns... resignation..." What are you leaving out here? Also, what country/jurisdiction? Jul 20, 2023 at 3:51
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    I think this is beyond our ability to advise you. Too much of it will be too specific to your own exact situation.The only general response to a smear campaign, if that is really what is happening, is to not dignify it with a response and simply demonstrate otherwise. It won't convince the haters, but it will give anyone not in that camp evidence that it's groundless. (Note that I have not read the details of your question because, honestly, I don't think they matter to my response and I don't think I want to see them.)
    – keshlam
    Jul 20, 2023 at 3:53
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    Your references from the 20 years in non-toxic companies have suddenly decided not to vouch for you? Also, how do you talk about the ups and downs and gaps to recruiters--- openly like you do here or do you hold back? Jul 20, 2023 at 16:51
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    Could you condense this novel down to a short story specific to the one problem you need help with the most?
    – Therac
    Jul 20, 2023 at 16:56
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    Frankly, this sounds more like you're just failing the interviews (despite the polite "we'll get back to you") than like you're being smeared. If you're telling the interviewers any of this I wouldn't be surprised by their considering you a risk and looking elsewhere; you're making yourself sound like a hard person to work with
    – keshlam
    Jul 22, 2023 at 15:30

6 Answers 6

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Use your professional network.

You worked in the industry for 20 years. You must know quite a few people, and it's likely some of them are in management now.

Reach out to them. Meet up for coffee or over zoom. Work through the problem with the most trusted ones. Then you can map out where there might still be opportunities open, based on personal referral. Ideally you will get a better idea of who is doing what. You can find out about opportunities which use your skills in adjacent industries.

Two toxic workplaces in a row, in a small industry, is a pretty bad run. Is there any chance that the industry was always somewhat toxic in this way, but you were fortunate to be in a good part of it?

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    Alternatively, just because it has to be asked, is it possible that the workplaces you perceived as toxic weren't, and that it was just your own interaction with them that was the problem? Or, alternatively, has your experience given you any insight into how to recognize when a situation is going bad and take steps to correct it before it gets worse? I've seen very few people with a job so bad that they couldn't improve it to at least be less continuously bad.
    – keshlam
    Jul 21, 2023 at 15:37
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    @keshlam Based on the novel above, I'd say you're likely close to the truth here.
    – SnakeDoc
    Jul 21, 2023 at 23:13
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Let me give you my summary of what you wrote. This is what I'm interpreting your story to be.

I left my last two jobs because my toxic, jealous, and nepotistic co-workers kept whipping up on me and dumping their projects on to me. Also, Covid messed me up bad and left with me some health issues to deal with. Now all my co-workers have conspired against me to make sure I never work in this industry again. I tell you, I've been blackballed!

I have this bad feeling you are repeating some elements of your story in interviews. And the interviewer is hearing something close to my interpretation.

Change the framing of your experience to this:

Prior to Covid, I had some long and successful stints with two great companies. But my relocation led me to some smaller companies where the environment was different. And then Covid came along that disrupted my work life balance. I didn't intend to leave my last job so soon, but some personal and family issues required me to step away from working for a while. But those issues are gone now. I can't wait to get back to working in a professional environment again and doing what I love.

I respect the other answers others are giving with regards to utilizing your professional network. But the moment you repeat your original story to anyone in your network or in an interview, they will likely write you off as having as having awareness issues. Try to project your story with a different lens.

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    This is a good pickup, and also fits with the short turnaround times on some of these interview rejects. The OP mentions they are quite introverted, so they may not be as aware of the vibes they are giving off.
    – Adam Burke
    Jul 22, 2023 at 6:27
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    I like your reframing and this helps me get my head around how to combat this part of it thank you. However, I have not mentioned this during interviews as yet, exactly for this reason. Everything written here is open honest perspective, hoping for some guidance and obviously not reflected in my job seeking process. As I said above, the interviews have usually been very positive including second interview call backs. It's during the final part of the recruitment process that it falls apart. But I appreciate the above, as I am thinking I will need to mention something during future interviews
    – Cam
    Jul 28, 2023 at 2:11
  • If you are getting callbacks, odds are that nothing is going wrong except that they found another candidate they liked more. No need or reason to assume evil, that's just how job hunting goes. Polish your presentation and keep trying.
    – keshlam
    Jul 30, 2023 at 11:03
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Good answer already about leveraging your network.

My thoughts are that you're worrying about something you don't know and exaggerating the importance of toxic workplaces. In my experience toxic workplaces in small industries are well known to be just that.

Having worked for them is a more likely barrier than them bad-mouthing you. Unless the industry is full of family and fools.

So don't be discouraged, you have a hard enough job getting employed due to age and experience without worrying about former workplaces. As an employer I wouldn't hire anyone who worked in a couple of outfits in my industry, their experience was worthless to me and they probably had bad habits I didn't need to deal with.

Likewise having too much experience can be a liability if there is no demand for it due to cost. (In many jobs someone with 20 years experience doesn't know more than someone with 5, just costs more, their unique knowledge is outdated or company specific)

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    Also, having stepped down to a more junior role just to get out of a bad work environment and then having a gap in employment could be an additional obstacle. It's really hard to know sometimes how an interviewer perceives certain things.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 20, 2023 at 15:53
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  • How do I go about finding references I can trust? And how do I avoid contacts that are smearing?

This is easy, ask a trusted friend or family member to call your references as a "company" and listen to the responses. Strike anyone from your list that isn't glowing.

"Hi, this is Jenny, from XYZ Corp. We are considering Jim Smith for a position here at XYZ. I'm calling to verify that Jim worked there from 2019 to 2021."

It depends on the jurisdiction, in the US it's generally legal to ask for employment verification and nothing else.

What happens is references either say something like this:

"Oh yeah! I LOVE Jim! He worked with us from 2019 to 2022. He was just a great person and a superstar employee. We really miss him around here!" Positive!

OR

"Yes, I can confirm that Jim worked from 2019 to 2022." Negative!

A big part of your fear is that someone is saying bad things about you behind your back, so you need to verify if this is the case or if you are just being paranoid.

Call the references!

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It doesn't sound like there is any way to confirm for sure about your suspicions that people are bad mouthing you. Therefore, it doesn't make sense to dwell on it since you don't know it to be the case and you have limited levers to change it. There could be many other reasons your interviews are not successful. I would work on this front instead. One thing to be aware of is that over the past 10-15 years job applications and interview processes have been more and more about speed and volume. I.e. any job gets 100s of application mostly no hope ones from India / China and then for the rest it's a race to give offers to suitable people as fast as possible. So recruiters optimise for speed and not for accuracy (I.e. every suitable person gets an offer). So it could just be you not ticking the boxes in the process.

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  • Good insight and perspective - thank you
    – Cam
    Jul 28, 2023 at 2:06
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There is nothing that mandates that you list every employment on your CV. People often have gaps. Sometimes they get asked about it. You can always say, "It was not worth mentioning" or "the work you did was not related to the new job", or "Your CV was getting too bulky so left a few off".

But if its really that small a place then they are going to find out anyway.

For future, maybe you have learnt your lesson that you shouldn't go over your manager's head. Don't be abrasive, sometimes, you just have to suck it up. In my first job, every time I made a mistake, my boss used to scream at me at the top of his voice, with his spit often going in my ear. I ignored it and carried on; he stopped doing it after a while, maybe a made fewer mistakes. Eventually I got promoted.

Even when I have had disagreements and when I have resigned, I have always left on good terms.

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