Q: I quit my job last year after a new boss took over. We had numerous disputes, she threatened to terminate me, and I decided it would be best to leave.
I've had over 25 unsuccessful interviews since then, many in positions I was easily qualified for. Recently I set up a second interview with an employer, who called two days later to tell me they wouldn't be filling the position. With 15 years of experience, I find it baffling that so many have passed me over. This has been going on since at least last fall, so the coronavirus pandemic is not to blame.
I know I sound paranoid, but is it possible that my former boss is bad-mouthing me? I don't list her as a reference, but the employer is on my résumé, since I worked there for five years. Would potential employers call her just to check on my résumé? Is there any way to find out if a former boss is sabotaging you?
A: It's possible your former boss is shivving you, or even just giving a lukewarm reference that says everything between the lines. But before acting on that assumption, let's back up and eliminate other possibilities.
You're landing interviews, so clearly you're making a good first impression. It sounds like the common breaking point is post-interview, when hiring managers who like what they've seen so far might start digging a little deeper into your backstory and your references. The pandemic may not be directly to blame for your lack of opportunities, but it has created a competitive environment where employers can afford to reject candidates with any marks on their record.
So what marks do you have against you? "Search me," you say? Excellent idea. Plug your name into Google and see what pops up. Use your browser's "incognito" mode, and maybe ask friends to run some searches as well, so you can get the outsider's viewpoint. You may uncover damaging things being said about you -- or, more likely, you may see damaging things you yourself have posted or shared on social media that ended up with a broader audience than you intended. If so, do what you can to clean up those tracks.
Once you're done checking yourself, then move on to what your references may be saying about you. Even though you don't list your boss specifically as a reference, people calling the employer may still end up speaking with her -- especially if it's a small business or if she's a big figure in your industry.
For a fee, reference checking services can find out firsthand what your former boss is telling prospective employers. I'm not above suggesting that route, but it's rather like hiring a private investigator. One, some are more reputable and thorough than others, and two, it might be overkill; you don't always need to prove that the worst is happening before taking preventive measures against it. Yes, if your old boss is campaigning against you, a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer could put an end to it. But the simpler, cheaper route would be to line up enough positive references to counter any negativity.
Track down your original boss, the one who was presumably happy with your work. Comb your professional network for colleagues and acquaintances who are willing to make introductions and maybe talk you up. Consider working with a recruiter, who may be able to help bypass obstacles and polish your narrative to make you more marketable to prospective employers.
And while you're polishing, you might engage in some reflection about the "numerous disputes" between you and your former boss. How volatile were they? What was their substance? How might she characterize them? Acknowledging other angles might help you anticipate and defuse attempts to torpedo your prospects.
Pro tip: It's a common misconception that former employers can't legally do more than confirm basic details about your employment. Employers often make that practice their policy to minimize the risk of lawsuits, but they aren't prohibited from saying negative things that are truthful.