Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

For some workplace aggressors, bullying someone out of a job isn’t enough. In addition, they must find ways to continue the torment even after a target has left the aggressor’s place of employment. Especially if the aggressor is the target’s former supervisor, these behaviors may include ongoing efforts to sabotage the target’s attempts to obtain new employment. Common examples are innuendo-filled whisper campaigns spread through a professional or vocational network and maliciously negative references presented as “opinion” rather than “fact” in order to preempt defamation claims.

The aggressor’s goal? To blackball (others might say blacklist) the target out of a career and to undermine his or her ability to earn a livelihood.

Last spring I wrote about how the “eliminationist instinct” may manifest itself in our workplaces:

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented or brutally excised. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Blackballing is a prime form of eliminationist behavior. It also is awfully hard to detect and trace, because it typically occurs under the cloak of confidentiality and private communications. Bullying targets often put the pieces together when they encounter odd but consistent difficulties in their job searches, such as hiring processes that went very well until — they surmise — the prospective employer started to contact people not on their reference list. Blackballing also may be at play when applications for jobs where the target is very qualified are repeatedly met with radio silence.

If the bullying supervisor is well known in the particular profession or trade, it makes things ever more difficult. The same superficial charm and facile ability to lie that allows the aggressor to thrive inside the workplace may have managed to fool those in the aggressor’s external network, too.

There are no easy tactics for dealing with this. Negotiating a positive reference as part of one’s exit strategy may be an option, but even if successful, it doesn’t guarantee that the aggressor won’t find a way around such an agreement. Oftentimes, overcoming malicious blackballing is a product of perseverance and certain pieces falling together in the right way.


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25 responses

  1. David – Your post about blackballling and the eliminationist instinct is very timely for me, since it’s something I’m experiencing right now. It is very insidious. I’ve left the primary toxic environment, but the challenges continue. Still, it all has made me stronger, and I’m learning more about perseverence and resilience as time goes by. Thanks for your very informative blog. It continues to bring me new and helpful insights into my own situation.

  2. Nursing is especially a prevalent area for black balling. There are hospital associations that share information on past employees. In Arizona if a member hospital of the AZHHA lists you as a non re hire you practically have to leave the state to find employment. I think there should be a database of reference forms that shows the offending hospital with the name of the employee blacked out. This would make management own their actions and embarrass the hospitals into This making their managers accountable for their toxic behavior.

  3. Thank you, David. So glad I found your blog site after experiencing some of the very problems in the workplace that you address. At times I have actually felt as if I was losing my mind, i.e. this can’t be happening. But narcissists and bullies are found everywhere in positions of power and what is sad they can really destroy one’s confidence and spirit. I am currently job seeking in a very difficult market and sense that I will only be able to land a low level service job as age discrimination is also a reality in today’s world.

    • Liam, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences, but thank you for letting me know that this blog has helped you to understand what you’ve been going through. Best of luck to you as you strive to move forward. David

  4. “Blacklisting” of healthcare professionals is particularly insidious in Canada, where public healthcare means there is no alternate employer for many. Public sector unions have not yet mounted a defence of their bullied members, and our laws preclude a unionized employee from taking legal action against an employer. We already know that health care environments are high risk for bullying, and the institutions that suffer are not yet motivated to address it…even in provinces where legislation exists. I don’t expect we’ll really see much improvement until the public truly understands the scope of the problem, its cost to taxpayers, and risks to he public needing care.

    Government is too busy trying to secure the public’s trust in our institutions to admit there are significant problems.

  5. The term “sadist”- a person who gets pleasure by causing others to suffer- has been very present in my mind as an appropriate descriptor for the bully boss. The term/phrase you use would be the end game for the sadist; an economic assasination as “the cherry on top” of the mental, emotional and physical injuries. Yes?

  6. …dehumanize…. When I was removed from my position, as you know without any reason ever given, the administration told colleagues, ” I wanted her fired on the spot, but I was told she should be treated humanely.”

    • The term wouldn’t be sadist. It would be psychopath or sociopath because when as person abuses of their authority, recruits others to target someone, defames, slanders, gaslights, and creates havoc by destroying careers and human lives, and uses manipulations and lies to poorly influence others to make you a scapegoat…. Is by all means an inhuman person. But there will come a time when karma comes through and they’ll eventually pay the piper for it.

  7. Pingback: Workplace bullying, blackballing, and the eliminationist instinct | survivorheal

  8. I do not know about the legality or effectiveness of this, but I have read that people can pay some firms to contact previous employers for written and oral references about themselves. (Apparently, the firms imply to the former employers that the person has applied for a job with these firms.) Supposedly, the person might have a legal case against a previous employer who makes illegal comments. I have also read that, therefore, some employers have decided to give out only dates of employment and job titles of former employees. Because I have no professional or legal knowledge about all this, I don’t know if this strategy would help — or even if it still exists as a possibility today. Also, this practice probably would not be very helpful for combating an informal rumor mill.

  9. A very interesting concept you put forth. When workplace bullying is discussed, the after effects and ‘blackballing’ is something that is often left out. It’s a serious issue when not only workplace bullying takes place, but it manages to follow a victim even when they have left. People should not always trust what they hear and should make decisions for themselves. It’s a really difficult process though as there is no way to clearly detect it- unfortunately, it is a constant battle between determination and meeting the right people.


  10. Pingback: How Whistleblowing Closed ITT Tech’s Doors – Ashland University COM 305: Organizational Communication

  11. I am sitting here reading your article and the comments with tears in my eyes. I’ve been searching within myself and talking with others about my difficulties trying to post for a job within my company. I suspected I have been blackballed but wasn’t sure until recently. I’ve worked for my company for 26 years. I ended up on a project with an officer in the company that was very disrespectful to me. I confronted this officer thinking this was the best way to resolve the issue. I found myself moved out of my role and into another position in her area and now as my officer. I have tried posting for other jobs in my business unit only to be declined consistently for jobs I know I was qualified for. I couldn’t even get an interview. I finally got 2 interviews outside of my business unit only later to be declined with no real feedback after they called my leader. I feel hopeless and really don’t want to leave the company.

    • Have you been to human resources and had a confidential conversation with the generalist? Maybe you could approach it from the standpoint of wanting to utilizing your talents in another department. Is there any policy covering your bosses behavior? Up until this point have you had good ratings?

  12. There is no such thing as “confidentiality” when it comes to Human Resources. By the very nature of their position, Human Resources is firmly on the side of Management. It’s their job! No one should go to HR expecting confidentiality or neutrality. For that, you go to a private counselor outside of work, who is unacquainted with anybody at your workplace. If you’re lucky, you will find confidentiality with somebody like that.

  13. We live in a generation where privacy is nonexistent as we speak and in an era where anyone can hack. My termination was leaked, the bad thing of it all was that i was terminated for something i didnt even do rather what someone else did. it was later determined that I was cleared of any wrongdoing but by then they had already leaked sensitive information. It did cost me job opportunities. When I tried to file a wrongful termination lawsuit because all evidence pointed to someone else committing the crime and not I and the company didn’t really have any evidence against me nor did I ever have any criminal history, so many lawyers declined my case. When I asked why, they declined to give me a reason. But I guess that’s what is suppost to happen when you go up against a corporate giant right? You have enough money to buy off silence and anyone in general.

  14. It’s amazing that while being a target you can fail to see the wood for the trees, then after handing in notice of resignation your coworkers break their silence concerning some details you may have missed. I left a toxic work environment at a University three years ago, am now self employed and trying to get enough work to take on my first employee about a year from now. I recently had confirmation that I was blackballed by that University out of resentment and envy not attitude or performance. But because this organisation could potentially be 5-10% of my business I really should address this and would probably need to act strategically and try to discredit anyone who has been flapping their gums. The way I look at it, there’s nothing to lose except a few hours of my time.

  15. So how do you overcome such efforts when former managers are going out of their way to keep you unemployed…??

  16. Hi David, I am a clinical worker and have undergone this form of treatment. I know that it is a pattern in the field and am wanting to bring it to light. I can’t name names or organizations but want to speak about the issue. Would you mind if I include your article on my website when I get it up and running? I can give you the website details to review once it is ready before agreeing of course. I want to write about organizational murder in terms of how individuals commit suicide after being targeted and harassed so brutally.

    Thanks for your consideration

    • Hi Christine, I’m glad this piece has proven helpful to you. I only wish that your own work history wasn’t such a framing part of your experience. Please feel free to include the article on your website; I ask only full attribution and a link to the blog. Thanks much, David

      • Thank you so much for getting back to me and for providing this approval. I absolutely will respect your work and ownership of it! I appreciate your work and others who are speaking out and I may be part of this.

        Thank you again

        On Wednesday, December 4, 2019, Minding the Workplace wrote:

        > David Yamada commented: “Hi Christine, I’m glad this piece has proven > helpful to you. I only wish that your own work history wasn’t such a > framing part of your experience. Please feel free to include the article on > your website; I ask only full attribution and a link to the blog.” >

  17. Thank you very much for talking about blackballing because I am facing it right now. However, I need to know what should I do? go My aggressor is really hurting me financially by providing false accusation against me. It has been over a year now that I can not really get a job. If I do get a job they make the work environment so hostile that I would quit.

  18. I went through this for years after I left the finance and later investment banking industry. Many psychopaths in those industries as there are my current industry also…Government. My family did not get it that I could be sending out thousands of resumes monthly and not get another job with my education and experience for such a long time, months and months, but that is what was happening, and it made it more difficult because those I thought I could rely on were also turning against me. Worst time of my life and I will never forget it. All is true and very good information. As one person noted here, in time all that goes around comes back around, all reap what they sow.

  19. Many years too late but Interesting describing some concerning behaviors especially eliminationsist instinct. It really helped me put a name on my experiences.
    I’ve been on starvation wages since a suspected blacklist – I attempted suicide when I started to catch on. Thing is I still don’t know for sure and my mental health had taken a severe downturn that I’m not sure I’ll recover from. To this day I blame them for my suicide attempt and in a way it feels like attempted murder. How many other lives have been destroyed by this behaviour? How many have taken their own? I really don’t think it’s that uncommon.

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