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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