Ask us anything: what if a disgruntled committee member is going behind your back to wreck your career?

The next question in our annual “ask us anything” series comes from HB, who asks (paraphrased, click through for the original):

I am currently on the job market and recently learned that a former (disgruntled) committee member is reaching out to potential employers and giving unsolicited (negative) references. I have evidence of this happening at least three times. This person is not mentally stable and I have tried to distance myself as much as possible, to no avail. Thoughts on how to best approach this? They were an external member on my committee and therefore I can’t go to my department to report their behavior.

Brian’s answer:

I can think of 3 options:
1) complain to the person’s home department
2) address the issue directly in your cover letters
3) have your adviser or other close and trusted letter writer address the situation directly in their reference letter

#1 will depend a lot on the nature of the department, and there is really probably little they can do anyway (you can’t prevent a person from emailing other people and if s/he were to ever get wind that they got fired because of your complaint it would only be worse for you). And my experience (sadly) is that departments stay neutral as long as they can
#2 – there is some merit to #2, but I think #3 is better. Maybe in your cover letter just a short and elliptical reference to be sure people read your adviser’s letter (e.g. when describing your research “At this time, I also had complex and challenging interactions with a committee member from which I learned a great deal and which is addressed in detail by X” or “if any questions arise about my interactions with former committee member X during this time I encourage you to contact m PhD adviser X” (where X is name of your letter writer)
#3 – this is almost certainly the best approach. Obviously getting a person who is trusted, politic, and fully on your side is key if you are going to do this. That is more important than it being your adviser. Obviously you want a good science reference from your adviser. But for tackling this topic you want to be 100% sure they will be fully on your side and be delicate and appropriate but also forthcoming about the situation. If that is not your adviser that is fine.

While it might be tempting to avoid this and just wait until you know it came up, that is probably not the right strategy. If they have done this 3 times already they clearly have a track record, and while it would obviously be better if they never said anything, since it seems they will insert themselves, it is better to head it off, not have it come up at the last minute, and look like you are handling it transparently and maturely.

I have been on search committees where this came up and the search committee definitely was able to move on and not make this part of the evaluation. It happens more often than we would all like. I am very sorry it has happened to you.

I assume you have talked to trusted mentors who are close to the situation as well?

Jeremy’s answer:

Very sorry to hear what you’re going through, that’s awful! It must be very stressful. Your experience highlights the importance of having decent human beings on your committee–people who care about you and your career. Really hoping that everything works out for you.

I agree with Brian’s advice.

This situation has never come up on a search committee I’ve sat on. I do know of a situation that was similar in some ways (but very different in others). It was a prospective grad student who didn’t have a reference letter from a previous supervisor, because that previous supervisor was not mentally stable. The student dealt with the situation using Brian’s approach #3. But knowing my colleagues as I do, I feel confident that, had a situation like yours come up, we on the search committee would’ve been able to work around it and not let it affect our evaluation. Not least because it would be unfair and against HR rules to evaluate one applicant on a different basis than the others.

Rules aside, my own reaction to getting an unsolicited negative reference about a faculty job applicant would not be, “Thanks for the heads-up!” or even “Hmm, it’s probably nothing, but best not to take the risk and hire this applicant.” Rather, my reaction would be, “This is very odd, I bet the person giving me this unsolicited negative reference has some kind of grudge or agenda.” I suspect and hope most search committee members would react similarly. I say that not to dismiss or minimize your anxieties, which are well-founded.

7 thoughts on “Ask us anything: what if a disgruntled committee member is going behind your back to wreck your career?

  1. This is tragic to hear about. Even if someone “deserved” some scorn or otherwise did a bad job in a position or something, sending unsolicited letters to potential employers is far worse behaviour than almost anything I can imagine a student doing, and 100% not the right approach. I hope the asker can move past this with their own self-confidence intact, though as Jeremy said I can empathise with the anxiety this must cause.

    Perhaps we can generalise “importance of having decent human beings on your committee” to all of us just trying to work harder to be decent human beings, and encourage such behaviour in our local communities.

  2. Is another potential solution trying to figure out how this person is finding out about the job applications, and then addressing that directly. Or do we think this person will always discover the candidate’s applications?

    I’m surprised that someone who held a grudge against a person on the job market would find out about their job application on 3 separate occasions. How are they finding out? I can only think of 4 ways (1) someone on the search committee is violating the rules and disclosing applicant identities to colleagues (2) the disgruntled prof is committing illegal acts like hacking the applicant’s computer (3) one of the actual letter writers, without realizing the potential issue, is telling the disgruntled prof or (4) this is only occurring after you have given your seminar at the interview stage, and they are hearing about your talk through the grapevine. If you find out that (3) is the reason – tell letter writers not to discuss with the disgruntled prof. The other 3 possible reasons are probably best dealt with using Brian/Jeremy’s approach.

    • Obviously I can’t speak for the questioner, so I’m speculating here. But I’m not 100% sure from the phrasing of the question if this individual knows about the questioner’s applications. This disgruntled individual could be contacting potential employers (e.g., anyone who’s advertised a job in the questioner’s subfield) with unsolicited references, whether or not the questioner has applied.

      Either way, this disgruntled individual’s behavior is obviously appalling.

      • Oh my, that is so appauling I can’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to be on the recieving end of this. Agree that either way this is wildly terrible behaviour. My heart goes out to the OP for having to deal with this.

  3. I’m sorry to hear someone is facing this situation. Having applied to many faculty positions and spent a lot of time on in the past few years, I worry that option 3 could be ineffective in practice. I have had people tell me they don’t read letters until later stages in the evaluation process (if ever), assuming the application even asks for letters up front. Thus option 2 might be more of a safeguard.

    • There is no perfect solution, and in general there is always going to be some search committee that breaks any general statement. So all you can do is play the odds (but you should be playing the odds by applying to a lot of jobs anyway if you are serious about finding a job).

      Personally I think the passing reference in your cover letter combined with a detailed coverage by a reference is the best combination. A few committees wait until they’re down to a short list of 10 or 20 before asking for references. So on the chance the disgruntled ex-committee member has already gotten to the search committee at this point, you are covered by acknowledging the issue and pointing towards how it can be resolved. But in the vast majority of cases for Assistant Professor jobs cover letters are requested when the pool is still basically anybody who is even slightly qualified and in my experience cover letters are read (and with ~5 search committee members the odds that somebody reads them goes up).

      The downside of a lengthy version of #2 is the candidate is using their space and limited attention span from readers to explain a problem rather than sell themselves. Better to sell your self (with a brief hook just in case) and let a letter writer explain who will be much more credible in dismissing the reliability of the disgruntled committee member’s comments.

      And I want to reiterate that although committee members do have a lot of applications to read, when something unusual like this comes up committees are typically rather thorough and thoughtful. It will almost certainly be discussed by the whole committee and all data brought to bear on the problem. With pretty high odds of a fair and accurate resolution.

      • “And I want to reiterate that although committee members do have a lot of applications to read, when something unusual like this comes up committees are typically rather thorough and thoughtful. It will almost certainly be discussed by the whole committee and all data brought to bear on the problem. ”

        Yes to this, that’s my experience as well.

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