The Art of the Backdoor Reference Check

Vinayak Ranade
CEO at Drafted

Whether you love the backdoor reference check or hate it, two things are true:

  1. It’s common in many industries, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
  2. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.

First, what exactly is backdoor referencing? Some people call it a backchannel reference, or do this as part of a comprehensive background check. We already know that references provided by candidates tend to be skewed positive, and that’s not always helpful in deciding if a candidate is the right fit.

So how do you get a more balanced picture of what this person is actually like in the workplace? Scour your company network (both internal and external) for other people who have worked with this person, then reach out to these people and see what they have to say. Chances are, you’ll get a broader range of feedback. This feedback can be helpful to gain more context about the candidate but also help you to speed up your hiring process. Think of backchannel references as a gut check, it should be a quick thumbs up or thumbs down to help you decide whether to prioritize a candidate in the process.

The Deal with Backdoor References

Is it legal? Yes, IF you do it right. (standard disclaimer - consult your lawyer etc). Is it ethical? Depends who you ask. If you want to stay out of trouble, there are a few things you should consider before hopping on LinkedIn to reach out to your network.

You need written consent to perform any type of reference check, backchannel or otherwise. That being said, if the candidate confirms that you’re allowed to check their references, you are within your rights to do so through any method you want to. The only exception would be if the candidate specifically states that they don’t want you to use any sources other than the ones they’ve provided to you. A good way to cover your bases is to simply ask the candidate "Is it ok with you if we ask mutual connections in our network about you? We promise we'll do it without alerting your current employer."

You might be putting the candidate’s current job at risk. If you’re not careful, there’s a chance that your clandestine reference checking will tip off the candidate’s current employer that they’re on the hunt for a new job. If that happens, you could end up damaging their professional relationships, or even getting them fired.

You might be getting a one-sided account. Typically, people will provide a candid backchannel reference only if they’re promised that it will stay anonymous and confidential. This means that you might not be able to get all sides of the story since the conversation “never happened”.

Backdoor Reference Goals

  1. Make a good impression. Your candidate might backchannel you through the same person.
  2. Corroborate stories. If the candidate told you a story about their past that you wanted another perspective about, this is a great opportunity to ask about it. It's like being a good detective.
  3. Check your gut. If you have a “gut feeling”, good or bad, about a candidate’s personality, work style, or team chemistry, it’s good to check with someone who actually has experienced those things.
  4. Ask for advice. If you’re speaking with a former manager or peer, ask them what advice they have for you to make your relationship with the candidate successful.

What to Avoid

  1. Don’t try to evaluate the candidate's skills - this is what your interview process is for.
  2. Don’t dig for dirt - Unless you have a very strong reason (e.g. another negative reference or something the candidate said that didn’t seem honest), don’t go into a backchannel with the objective of uncovering new negative stuff. It won’t be productive.
  3. Don’t jeopardize the candidate’s current job and relationships. This one is huge. You have to be extremely sensitive to the fact that the candidate’s conversations with you are generally confidential, and even if you have legal permission from the candidate to check references, don’t reach out to people who currently work with the candidate, or even people that are dating someone that works with the candidate, etc.
  4. Don’t ask about their salary - This might be illegal depending on where you are

Implementing a Backdoor Reference Check Process

The point of seeking out other references about a candidate is to help you gather qualitative feedback to speed up your hiring process and make better hires. That being said, conducting a rigorous back door reference process can be quite cumbersome and the work might always be worth the reward. Here are a couple ways to think about backcdoor references to avoid reference hunting burn out: 

  1. Leverage your employees - you have a direct line of communication with them and they have a vested interest in helping your company hire great people. Tools like Scouted can integrate directly with your Greenhouse and Slack instances to put your internal backchannel reviews on autopilot. Scouted automatically compares candidate info to your employee database in Greenhouse then alerts you via Slack of any matches.
  2. Save it for when you really need it - if you don't have the funds for some new recruiting tech save your backchannel references as a tie breaker. If you have two stellar candidates up for the same role it's time to do a little more digging - reach out to people in their network to see what they have to say and pick a winner.

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