Backdoor Guests Are Not Always Best


You’ve found your perfect candidate, the interviewers all came back with glowing reports, and compensation expectations seem to line up. All that’s left is to speak with the candidate’s references, so you can verify that this candidate is the dream-come-true you’ve been looking for. The most straightforward approach to references is to ask the candidate for a list. Of course, one can be hardly surprised that references provided by the candidate would be friends and staunch advocates. Last fall, my colleague and fellow TAG blogger Amanda Brady provided great tips on how to get the most relevant and useful information from that list of cheerleaders. But what about going off the list, and speaking with others that person worked with or reported to in the past to get an off the record reference, or “backdoor reference”?

We’ve noticed an increase in clients asking us for these off-the-record references, and truth be told, it makes me a little uneasy. Let me tell you why.

1. You can put a candidate’s current employment in jeopardy. When you contact someone out of the blue as a backdoor reference, you have no indication or control over whether this person will turn right around and give the candidate’s current employer a heads up that they are interviewing. Very often industry circles are small, and people chatter. Even if they don’t lose their job, if they don’t end up getting an offer or don’t make the jump, now their current employer suspects that they aren’t 100 percent invested in the company and their position. Not a good situation. Even worse? A potential law suit if that person is terminated by their current employer without an offer in hand from the prospective employer.

2. Let’s say you decide to go to LinkedIn and find a shared connection that also worked with your candidate, and give them a call. But be honest… how well do you really know that person, and how much weight should you give their words, positive or negative? Perhaps your backdoor reference is someone who had a personal issue with your candidate, or was passed over for a promotion. We’d like to think that a true professional would be circumspect and never drink the sour grapes Kool-Aid, but it does happen. And typically a backdoor reference is done “off the record”. If a negative report comes back, your hands are tied when it comes to getting their side of the story. And the shroud of anonymity has led more than one person to let the venom drip. Just look at any comments section of a heavily-trafficked blog or message board. (Not ours! Yet.)

3. References from too far back in their employment history just focus on the wrong things. We’ve had clients ask us to comb over every single job move, dating back 25 years. We’re not sure how important it is today the reasons our top flight CFO candidate moved from one public accounting firm to another when they were two years out of school, especially if this person hasn’t been a job hopper through their career.

If you are really driven to get more information about a candidate and want to speak with a former co-worker or manager of theirs, stick to people you or someone at your company knows personally. Furthermore, make sure it is someone who worked recently and closely with that individual. That way you can vouch personally for that backdoor reference’s credibility, memories won’t be clouded with time, and the information will be current and relevant.  And you can always ask the candidate for more references and even names of co-workers with whom he or she didn’t always agree.  Remember, reference reports, especially back door references are not an exact science.  Good ones and not so good references should not be evaluated in a vacuum. 


1 Comment

January 22, 2013 AT 3:40 PM CST

marty wynne wrote:

salient points. The CFO of one of my client companies was approached on an unsolicited basis by two headhunters over a 3 month period. He was very loyal to the company and was routinely praised 360 by colleagues and Directors alike. One or both of the HH apparently contacted one or more of this CFOs former workmates. low and behold, the CFO, who never jumped ship, was moved aside to CFO of a large division. This man is certain word got out that he was looking to move when to his core he was not. he has since moved on, with very bad feelings about HH

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