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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Getting Your Name Off a Hiring Blacklist -

Wow. This Wall Street Journal article (link above) popped up in my Twitter List and it's been a long time coming. I suspect that this problem doesn't just happen during the job hunt. As I discovered recently, it may also extend its ugly hand through the years to yank you away from a newly found job. Let me explain. I need to live and work in a certain geographic area. Almost ten years ago, I made a decision to stand up for my civil rights at a state university - that's after a 21-year-career at same said institution during which I earned steady promotions, salary increases, and two additional degrees. 

Leading one to believe the university valued my efforts as their employee. 

In return I believed I was working in an unparalleled place of opportunity, flexibility, growth, and service.
But then I accepted a position with one of the large computing shops on campus. The universe started spinning in reverse when I took that job, altho it took me a while to lose my rose-colored glasses. I worked with highly competent people and the job certainly helped me to stretch and successfully acquire some valuable tech and collaborative skills which I still use to this day - even with technology's advances. But in the end I hit a really ugly glass ceiling. I found myself under the thumb of a large and arrogant organization that wouldn't let me stay and wouldn't let me leave. I'm not claiming that I did everything right - but as I made my interests known and attempted to navigate a tricky terrain under an "unpopular" supervisor and to negotiate in reasonable fashion for my career goals (as I had been lead to believe possible after I put in a reasonable amount of time), I was given assignments that my supervisor wouldn't respond to for months on end - or else handed off to someone who had too little to do. It got obvious enough that my coworkers noticed and asked me about it (so much for team morale-building). Contrary to the advice proffered by career experts in how to interview, my experience and perception of the organization (or at least my subdivision) indicated that women  were frequently hired out of pity or as a favor rather than because anyone held any real esteem for their aptitudes, capabilities, and interests. On the other hand, men were frequently given opportunities, despite their skills and experience. In my case, I tried everything positive I knew and had been trained by the university to do to get myself into a better situation. But eventually I had to take a medical leave of absence because trying to make sense of what was happening was making me sick - while supervisors kept making promises as the clock ticked away my hopes. After all, in my twenty-one years of experience, the university had helped many a good employee relocate - looking back, those were mostly men, however.

My brother-in-law, a retired head of department from the same university, advised me not to fight it.

"If you do, you'll never work anywhere again," he said.

He didn't elaborate. And I didn't listen. I thought my 21 years of good reputation, collaboration, accomplishments, and hard work would outweigh this one bad experience.

Well, turned out my brother-in-law wasn't completely right. I did work again. But mostly for people who knew me. While finalizing my master's degree, I worked a graduate assistantship, a position I somehow stumbled into under the university's radar. In my last two years with the university, I was able to finish two stellar projects which have become fixtures on the university's web site. But after that, nothing. I worked for a year or two in stop-gap jobs - restaurant, factory, and retail and collaborated on a scholarly article that came out of my master's project. Then I found work at a local not-for-profit. My new boss was one of my previous bosses from the university. I was grateful to find work again in my field - from someone who knew me and my work and was happy to rehire me.

I worked for the not-for-profit for two and a half years and continued to grow my skills. I learned about SharePoint and started setting up the organization's intranet to facilitate keeping track of complicated grant requirements. I did a considerable amount of Excel programming as well. At first the not-for-profit shared me with another organization, but when that alliance ended, my hours fell back to 30 hours a week. I was glad to still have a job. But in January of 2009 my employer's health insurance doubled. At the time, I needed to cover my husband (who had had valve replacement surgery) as well as myself. He eventually went on Social Security Disability and Medicare. But back then I knew that I would either have to find a second job or find a job with more affordable benefits. Then a wonderful opportunity came along to work for a new hospital in town -  training clinicians to use electronic medical record software. The organization seemed to have a good grasp of who I was and what I had to offer. I in turn thought the opportunity was a wonderful match to my skills, interests, experience, and education. I took it at face value. It was almost too good to be true at my age and in this economy! Six weeks into training, I was stunned when the hiring supervisor turned on me like a snake. I mean it was out of the blue. It so flew in the face of good practice that I wondered if he'd somehow heard something bad about me if not through a black list, then through quasi-legal access obtained to my medical records, and decided to get rid of me, no questions asked. Although and alternatively, he may have felt he'd hired too soon when someone else turned up that he wanted to give the job to? The thing is, I'll never know.  Why would someone would hire me in good faith, pay expensive top notch trainers to mentor me, and then go crosswise of their satisfaction and recommendations six weeks into the training process and fire me?

I can tell you this - that both he and his line leader got much more personally involved in the training of an employee who transfered in during my brief tenure. As well as being very qualified (she had onboarded as a unit tech when the hospital started in 2010), she also had the beauty of her youth. Nothing against her at all - she was a nice, knowledgeable, personable individual. She would have been fun to work with. She both deserved and fit the opportunity.

So, June Bug, coincidence or meow? Well, okay. I admit my experiences as an aging female employee may have made me overly sensitive.

Anyway, we hadn't discussed the negative aspects of my experience at the university computing center in any great detail during my interview - and not because I tried to hide it. I do not omit anything or anyone from my application and resume. What could be a greater peace offering to my former bosses than to say, "Hey, I learned a lot of good stuff when I worked with you guys which I still put to good use and eventually, you even used some of my work. No matter what our differences were, I'm in a place where I trust you to do the right thing - and however you may choose to respond, others will balance out the picture - so I won't deny you your chance to be heard."  After all no one is perfect. In arriving at the final group of candidates, interviewers seek to satisfy two basic requirements - do we have a good (best) match in compatibility and do we have a good (best) match in skills? I was certainly prepared to address any of my interviewers' concerns, while hopefully keeping my best foot forward. But the "right" opportunity to discuss these particular experiences did not come up in the initial hiring process - so I am left somewhat sadly wondering what happened at the end.

The irony is that my previous employer, the not-for-profit, wanted to keep me. They couldn't compete with the offer from the hospital but they did make a counter-offer that would have helped me afford the health benefits. But I'd  had previous experience in the nineties bringing in new systems at a university medical facility, and I thought it would be so exciting to work in a new hospital, training clinicians to use state-of-the-art electronic medical records software, something we only dreamed of at the university health center. The fact that the country now had a universal healthcare initiative under our newly elected President only fueled my enthusiasm. And the salary would have made me and my family more comfortable than we've been in a very long time. Ah well, I did get to write a four part series on training the EMR afterwards and then spend time on working my old farm house ...

My latest job search has lasted a while, and has not yielded results as yet. It probably doesn't help that I am now pushing sixty. It doesn't help that I'm not feeling as confident about that. But the good news is that at sixty, you really DO have less to lose - so why not just be yourself?
Ah, Sweet Freedom ... to just not have to give a damn about participating in dog and pony shows which may or may not yield up the best candidate ... It's like ... here I am, folks. I certainly enjoy a mutually enlightening conversation. But really, my work is out there and it speaks for itself, so take it or leave it.  I'm a good person, a good employee, and a good worker. I'm flexible, I'm very open to change, and I'm very committed to (re)learning, improving, and furthering my professional development. I'm humble. In the absence of knowing best practices, I gratefully recognize, admire, appreciate, and follow good examples. I do good work, I get things done, and I get along well with people. And while I am putting on a few gray hairs, I have a lot of knowledge, wisdom, and experience on which to build, and there's still a lot more I'd like to learn. And a word to some of you younger folks coming up behind me in the workplace -  if I have mentioned opportunities here that you envision being in your future - then you'd better start helping to build it now - by creating a workforce that includes opportunity for aging employees - because one day, they will be you.

In closing, this Wall Street Journal Article on black lists is interesting - in the fact that it acknowledges that they exist. The comments are good too. These black lists, among other things, serve the dubious value of re-opening old wounds. What good does that serve when all people really need and want is a chance to heal, to go forward, and to move on? In short, to be able to learn from the gifts of their experiences and their lives? While losing my job at the university seemed devastating at the time, in retrospect it opened other doors and allowed me to realize life-long dreams. It also allowed me to continue to season and mature as a human being and as an employee.

So in lieu of black lists, let's hear it instead for second chances!

June Bug

Are Applicant Blacklists Legal? (

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