I work in legal compliance in a growing industry. My skills are in demand and up to date. But I’m struggling to get anyone’s attention and I remain unemployed after a start-up I worked for failed. After conversation with a former colleague, I suspect that I may have been blacklisted either by recruiters or by a past employer. I discussed this suspicion with two career coaches and received the same pat answer: “Get those suspicions out of your mind! Stop worrying about it!”

I know about typical recruiter conduct (ghosting, ignoring), and I know to be professionally patient myself because folks are simply so busy these days. And I know there may be very good and logical reasons for getting no response from two specific industry recruiters who have always been friendly, responsive and supportive in the past.

But what if something really has occurred to hurt me? How to discover it, how to deal with it, and how to clear it up? How to get any feedback if they never write or reply to my job search e-mails? Would calling them to inquire or attempt to resolve be received as too direct or confrontational?

Nick’s Reply

blacklistedSorry to hear about this. You’re right, it might be nothing – just busy recruiters. Or it might be something. I don’t want to be dismissive, so if you really believe you have evidence, I’d talk with an attorney for advice and legal help. Interfering with someone’s right to work can be a serious issue — if that’s what’s going on. A lawyer might put a private investigator on this, though that may be a stretch.

Blacklisted? Maybe, maybe not

I don’t think I’d call the recruiters or employers about this. If they have really blacklisted you, how would it help to call them? If they’re not, your call may set them to wondering about you – Is this person paranoid? Without hard evidence, you just may create a problem where there isn’t one.

One measure you can take on your own is to hire a good reference-checking service to find out what’s being said about you. But that won’t be conclusive. Negative judgments about people are usually traded via back channels, not out in the open.

Blacklisted by A.I.?

In a recent column (Is Artificial Intelligence Adopting Recruiting’s Worst Practices?) my good buddy Suzanne Lucas discusses how A.I. is infecting employers and recruiters with a more insidious form of ghosting behavior. She asks whether high-speed rejection of job applicants is a new thing, and suggests employers should beware:

“This should be a concern for talent acquisition professionals and hiring managers because they remain legally responsible for their decisions — except they don’t know precisely how A.I. decides.”

This just might be your real problem. In the end, you must follow your own judgment.

Don’t chase after recruiters

My best advice is to avoid getting stuck in just one job-search mode. Stop relying on recruiters. The best solution is to learn to go straight to the hiring managers yourself. That’s the only way to control your job search.

This requires creating referrals and recommendations that will trigger employers to meet you. That is, by talking with people that surround your target employer, and giving them reasons to refer and recommend you, you will “go around” any possible blacklist problem. You can create your own positive buzz. Please read Want the job? Go around HR. It works with going around recruiters, too!

If you feel you need to discuss the confidential details of this, please check my Talk to Nick service.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever been blacklisted in your job search, with hard evidence to support your conclusion? It’s rare, but it does happen. Whether or not that’s the case in this reader’s story, let’s discuss what real blacklisting really looks like — and how to deal with it. What’s your blacklist story?

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  1. Absolutely agree with your response and advice, Nick. And to add a little fuel to the fire, let’s take control of our emotions, shifting from ‘OMG, What if I’m blacklisted’ to ‘What type of person am I dealing with?’ Then, behind closed doors, we can have some wicked fun with nicknames like ‘NARC Barbie’ or ‘Karen.’ ? After all, I’ve crossed paths with recruiters who put on an air of privileged arrogance and talk like human traffickers to lure job seekers into their blind pool web of job roles. ?

  2. Not long ago I discovered that the company that I work for put ‘no poach’ clauses into our service contracts, after upper management got bent because one of our employees left for an opportunity with one of our customers. It was never formally announced, but mentioned to me by managers who have an ethical concern about it. This really annoys me, because I feel that it changed the parameters of our employment without our knowledge or consent. Fortunately, my expertise is more general, and I don’t need to stay in our industry segment to change jobs. But some of my colleagues are highly specialized. What this is more likely to do is cause someone, who is going to make a move anyway, to find a job working with our competitors or their customers. The silver lining here is that this talented individual is still a member of our own professional community. If anything, they are likely to be biased toward us. But I our upper management can’t see beyond their own sour grapes.

    So for the OP, consider whether your last, or different former employer, could have had a similar reach into the places where you’re applying.

  3. I worked as office staff in law firms for about 5 years. At one time I worked for a well known group of attorneys who treated staff extremely poorly. I was desperate to get out as the stress was killing me. No one in the local area would interview me and my belief is no other attorney wanted my old bosses to know they had hired me (if they had) because my old bosses were difficult people who liked to do retribution.

    Not saying you are being blacklisted but saying sometimes it’s more insidious, a potential employer reaching out to someone you once worked with who badmouths you, before the interview. I’ve also noticed a lot of only hiring specifically trained staff, only if someone fits all the boxes, looks good, fits in. The legal field is smaller and closer knit than people think. There are lots of solo attorneys who get out of the grind and office politics. I had to move to get hired again.

    • @Kathy: You’re right. Sometimes it’s more insidious and even covert. I recall a manager I was trying to place who had a former boss that hated him because he (the manager) was “disloyal” for quitting. The boss was notorious for exacting revenge. Knowing this, I told my candidate to provide the former boss as a reference — while I would inoculate employers before they interviewed the candidate. I’d call my client in advance and explain what the former boss was doing. To my surprise, none of my clients were surprised. They knew the former boss’s rep and thanked me for the reminder. My candidate got a great job with a very good company. So, two can play at this game.

  4. When I finished college, I got my dad to call my employers and references. Just to know what they would say (I was quite flattered what he reported back…and he was a proud papa).

    I know in the age of the internet and social media, there are more back channels. Even so, making some calls can check the temperature in the room.

    As for ghosting, that is the accepted norm. I have talked to hiring managers an executives, and they do not see it as a problem. Their reply invariably begins with “What you have to understand…”

    My take on recruiters is to first remember that their job is to fill roles. Not find us a job.

    If you work with a good recruiter, nurture that relationship. They are a rare find.

    Finally, in an age of CRM, there is absolutely no reason (beyond not giving a s*t) that an automated “Although your resume is impressive…” email to let the candidate know they will not be progressing. The further in to the process, the less forgivable. I refuse to speak with anyone who ghosts me. And I block them on LI.

  5. After applying for several positions with one company I did find out that I’d been blacklisted there, although I never found out why. I’m successful in a particular content field where several online players emerged over the years. Several of my coworkers and former staffers were hired there, which made me feel I’d be a good fit. I had one bad interview with someone at the firm when an executive or recruiter I hadn’t been communicating with called me unexpectedly, catching me off-guard at a hectic moment. I should’ve asked to reschedule the conversation.

    After that, I received no response from any of the execs I contacted — completely ghosted. When a friend at the company recommended me to a hiring exec, she was told, “Oh, we know all about HIM,” with no further explanation. My friend was as baffled as I was about that response.

    None of my other close contacts in the industry have heard anything bad about me, so I can only assume someone at this particular company put me on a “don’t hire” list, either because of my poor interview, some personal interaction (perhaps I didn’t hire them in my earlier positions?) or because of a critical opinion in one of my published pieces. I do know that “don’t hire” lists were kept back in the day in parts of the publishing business, so it’s possible.

    In one previous job, I was given a folder of resumes where a former abusive boss of mine was included, with the written notation from my boss that read, “Do not hire — lunatic” that was added after he’d done some contract work for her. She wasn’t wrong.

    • Let me add that I worked at one publication where many of the senior managers came from a competitor that had downsized them. These managers were still friendly with hiring managers at the competing publication and they regularly traded opinions about people on their staff when hiring decisions came into play. This gave managers at both publications ample opportunities to badmouth people they disliked for personal reasons or because they held grudges. Of course, it also gave them an incentive to talk down employees they didn’t want the competitor to hire, as well.

      That’s not so much blacklisting as gossip, I suppose, but in a small industry that all it takes to keep you away from opportunities to move.

      • @Brian: Oh, I think gossip is the worst form of blacklisting because it’s so casual. Please see my comment to Marilyn below.

  6. I believe I have been blacklisted by a former employer…a large red cell phone company.

    When I worked for them, another employee moved to one of our vendors. My manager got pissed and told the vendor that he was not to have any interaction with our account.

    I think the company went further after this. I suspect they have told all their vendors not to hire ex-employees.

    Several times, I have been contacted by other vendors with job descriptions that are basically written for me, and whenever I get past the recruiter and/or manager, and encounter HR, I get ghosted. even when a manager says, “I am going to hire you, I just have to run it by HR”.

    The only commonality is the companies are all vendors of the big, red cell phone company.

    And I should add, here, I left the company after I had complained to HR about being followed home by a manager. I do not feel like the two are not connected.

    Companies do blacklist. you can say they are doing it on the “down-low”, but they are still doing it. They don’t care about legal or moral.

  7. Nick,

    What causes you to conclude blacklisting is infrequent or non-existent?

    • I haven’t seen much blacklisting, and I think there’s less today than before job-board job hunting became prevalent. Today the database technology employers rely on so much provides less opportunity for employers/HR to really get to know applicants well enough to blacklist them! Another issue is that HR people simply don’t talk to one another between companies as much because they’re buried in those databases and so focused on keywords. They don’t go to conferences as much as they used to, where they could easily gripe about this or that candidate.

      I think the real bias is in the HR technology, which does a good job of a kind of blacklisting all by itself. And I don’t mean racial, gender etc bias — I mean bias introduced by reductionist keywords that affects everyone. For example, when you apply to Company A which uses a third-party assessment tool, your “results” (which are often based on binary metrics like what keywords you used) are stored and likely shared by that third party with Company B – which uses the same tool from the same third party. You don’t even know you got rejected because of the assessment done by Company A. That assessment can follow you around for years. That’s an insidious form of blacklisting.

      So I guess I’m saying I believe there’s less of the conventional blacklisting, but perhaps more of the “stupid A.I.” blacklisting – where an employer doesn’t even realize its HR technology has blacklisted you!

      • I agree and would add that when a large company is using a database system it most likely means if you’re rejected for one job you’ll be rejected for any following items. If you apply a second time, you’ll notice that the site identifies your email address as already being in the system, requires you to log in, etc. Then the AI says the machine language equivalent of, “Oy, this loser again!” and you’re finished.

      • Hi Nick. I need to speak with you in private. If possible, could you call me, Tasha, at 336-995-1086 anytime. Thanks.

  8. I had a rep from Republic Airways call me upset because I emailed them back over a position they jumped in my face at a job fair for acting like they “love vets”. I really think after our phone conversation this guy hit up all his airport buddies. I have applied to jobs well below what I previously did as a Site Manager and all declined. Indianapolis airport isn’t that big and Republic is the new fish in town so I am starting to wonder. I’m not dwelling on it, just seems to be the old “good old boy club” I seen so much in the military.

    • @Michael: Sorry to hear it. I’d try to make friends with someone at the airport in question. Get yourself personally referred/recommended for the next job you want. One good word from an insider usually overcomes negative comments that might be spread around. A good word goes a long way. If you don’t have such a friend, take time to make one (or two)!