Question: What is a professional way to defend against smear campaigns?

Earlier last year my employer for over 10 years and I parted ways. The ownership of business recently changed hands, and I resigned as GM of retail division after disagreement on the new direction company was heading.

It was with mutual agreement and I gave an extended notice to make sure the company had ample support.

Yet I was surprised to hear (from other sources) the new management refer to me as "deadwood" while I am actively looking for employment.

How can I professionally respond to such smear?

5 Expert Insights

In politics smear campaigns are devastatingly effective. That’s why politicians complain about negative ads. They’re difficult to overcome, because people believe some part of it is true.

In your case, it may not be intentional. Your former employer may be saying negative things about you because he is still angry with you. That being said, he may not have intended to hurt your job prospects. Most people wouldn’t purposely say negative things if they knew it kept you from getting a job.

I suggest that you go to the source of the negative statements and have a non-confrontational conversation. Begin on a positive note by stating how much you enjoyed working there for 10 years, and mention how it was your pleasure to provide an extended notice to help them through the transition period.

Next say that you need his help. Share that you understand his disagreement with you about the direction of the company; and that he has that right, which is why you moved on. Then share with him how you heard that someone in the company was making negative comments about you, and how those comments are hurting your opportunity to find a new job. Then ask, "You don't think anyone here would want to keep me from getting a new job, do you?" Then ask him to get whoever is making the negative comments to stop. Finally ask him to write you a letter of recommendation. He will probably happily do this out of guilt.

If the smear is intentional, then you need to start a crisis-management campaign. It needs to be addressed immediately and aggressively. This is no different than when a company gets negative publicity for a problem. Think of Toyota having to recall 8.8 million vehicles for the car's accelerator jamming and killing people.

If you learn that the smear against you is intentional, and the person making the negative comments won't stop, then there are techniques you can employ to combat the problem. I would be happy to help you put together such a campaign.

Having headed my own consulting firm for twenty years before recently going in house, it is clear every situation is different and certainly so when you are coming from having been an internal employee. Situations like this occasionally come up with disgruntled former clients and, although rare, do happen to the best of us. It's called scapegoating.

Smearing a former employee under any circumstance, whether to internal audiences or even more so to external stakeholders, is extraordinarily bad form on the part of the employer. Such conduct, under the right circumstances, may even rise to legal exposure, i.e., defamation. Especially if the allegations are not true, widely known to not be true, cannot be substantiated, and can be proven to negatively impact personal reputation and future employability (i.e., damages).

I favor the swift and direct response, especially if the former employee has a demonstrated track record of a consistent quality performance on that job. Try to get evidence or attribution on specific instances of the 'public' smear from reliable former colleagues that may be sourced blindly. Then have your attorney serve the former employer notice. In most cases this will terminate such behavior quickly. Many states do not look upon this type of passive-aggressive employer retribution kindly. And the courts are quickly evolving their view around employee rights - i.e., non competes and other matters.

You are unfortunately not in a position to fight negative "Smear" with negativity. It will not help your cause of finding another meaningful job. here are a few tips for your consideration:

1. Do not talk about this smear campaign to others who do not know about it or to companies you talk to. It will just spread the bad news that is not helpful for you at the moment.

2. Start an "Anti-Deadwood Perception" Campaign, which includes personal and compelling examples for why you should never be perceived as "deadwood". Create a 10-point list of exceptional and recent examples of why you are the opposite of Deadwood.  Add those points to your resume, tell them to headhunters and to companies who interview you.

3. Take a few new short courses to learn a few new skills you never had the time to learn in your old job. Add them to your resume. A few years ago, the Detroit auto industry was devastated and many great professionals and executives with multiple degrees were laid off for long periods of time. I trained such employees with a government grant to teach them new skills in Lean and Six Sigma It helped over 95% of those professionals land new jobs in other industries just when they had given up hope of finding a good job.

Fight this "Negativity" with ample proof of your "Positivity" and a new and re-invented "You".

If this is the only negative comment you have ever received, I would not worry about it affecting your career. Furthermore, I have found that these kinds of comments can be explained away in future interviews with your truth, documented work ethic, and integrity.

Unless they can follow-up with proof, it will never affect your future employment. Remember, everyone has opinions and this is just another opinion, from my prospective based on the information you provided above. And, if your conscience is clear, you have nothing to worry about.

Move on and Keep the Quest Alive! is my motto in these kinds of and similar cases.

If you're in an industry where the smear stuff follows you, switch industries. There are also concrete ways to make sure your recommenders are giving you top recommendations.

You can have the last laugh here, if you're strategic.

Contact me if you want to talk.