Is my former company sabotaging my job hunt?

Logging off and taking time to live in the real world doesn't hurt, and may even help you

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have been unemployed for about 14 months now. I have applied for many positions, even multiple times at the same company over time. I was with my last employer for about seven months, but was abruptly discharged even though just a couple of weeks before I had been told by HR that I was doing a great job. The company investigated me because they had received numerous phone calls from some staff that I supervised. I was never told what the complaints were and never had any counseling notice or disciplinary action. Nevertheless, I was discharged. I was given a severance package and praised for my work by my supervisor, who said she had enjoyed working with me but that the company had decided to make a change.

I am not sure if they (HR or an office manager at one of the facilities) is giving me a bad reference, but companies say they will follow up with me and then don't. Even when I have followed up with them, I have been told everything from "we decided to go with someone else," to "we put the position on hold." Often there is no call-back at all when I submit a resume. I leave messages and they just never call back. The last two potential employers went as far as to test me for my leadership skills and said they would call HR to see if they could move forward, and then never called back. One employer was impressed with me, but wanted me to speak to his wife, who was a partner in the business, before moving forward. I never heard back from either of them. I have not provided any references, or given permission for any of them to check references, so my guess is that they are calling a particular company on my resume as noted above and getting a bad reference, or calling people they know in the field who may have hear something about me.

Very few companies do reference checks before the absolute final stages. Checking references is time consuming, and if you don't know whether you want to hire someone you're not going to bother them. Second, very few companies will check references without asking for a list of yours. However, you do not have to give people permission to call references or prior employers. If I wanted to, I could pick up the phone and call anybody's boss and ask for a reference. (Whether they'd give it to me or not is another story.) 

Recruiters will often call people who are not on your reference lists, but they generally ask for lists to begin with. In other words, while this may well be the reason for one of the places you've applied, it's highly unlikely that this is the reason none of the jobs work out.

Another possibility is that somehow you have developed a bad reputation. If your industry is small or your town is small, and everyone knows each other, then this is a possibility. However, then you wouldn't even get initial interviews, as you'd be blocked at the resume stage.

The third, and most likely scenario, is that recruiters aren't getting back to you because they don't get back to anyone. Seriously, it's a plague. For some reason, recruiters have got it stuck in their heads that they are so busy that they cannot possibly take the time to get back to someone who sacrificed a day or more of their lives to interview with the company. Because the 30 seconds it takes to send an email saying, "Thanks for interviewing. We've decided to go a different direction" is so burdensome that they just can't do it.

Or they don't know precisely what is going on and don't want to admit that to the candidate. But this would be nice and would treat the candidates like actual humans, and for some reason many recruiters do not want to do this. (And if you are a recruiter who wants to defend the practice of leaving candidates in the dark, please email me.)

The two companies that told you they "decided to go with someone else" and "put the position on hold" were undoubtedly telling the truth. This is what happened. You're definitely not the only candidate out there, and positions get put on hold all the time. Budgets change, needs change, headcount changes, management changes and income changes. All of those can lead to a position being put on hold. Companies would far rather leave an open position vacant than hire someone only to have to turn around and lay somebody off. This is normal.

You're getting interviews, so your resume isn't the problem. You're not getting the job, so it could well be your interviewing skills. It could be how you come across to people. It could be that you can't give a convincing explanation as to why you were let go after only seven months in your last job. Ask a friend in the same industry to give you a mock interview. Record it and study your performance.

If you're convinced that your previous employer is the problem, call and ask them. Call your former supervisor, who praised your work, and ask if she's been asked to provide a reference. Ask what she said. If she's still nice, ask her if it's possible that HR is saying something negative. Most HR departments simply confirm dates of service, but there are a few bad apples out there. Most recruiters will look to speak to the supervisor, not the HR department.

Since you received severance, you undoubtedly signed a release. This release may well contain information regarding what the company agreed to say about you. Check that out as well. If they are giving out information that is prohibited by the release, you can take them to court to get them to stop. (This, however, is unpleasant. They will generally stop it after a simple letter from an attorney bringing it to their attention.)

The most likely scenario is that it is a tough job market, you aren't the best at interviews and recruiters are just being lazy about getting back to people.

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