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Whether you love the backchannel reference 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 backchannel referencing?

Some people call it a “backdoor” reference, but that’s just an unfortunate misnomer.

We already know that references provided by candidates tend to be skewed positive, and that’s not always particularly helpful to the person trying to decide 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’s network 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.

Is that even legal? Most of the time, yes. Is it ethical? Depends who you ask, but we’re not here to debate that. However, if you want to stay out of trouble, there are a few caveats you should consider before hopping on LinkedIn.

Before you backchannel, consider these things

You could get into legal trouble.

“Backchannel” does not mean “exempt from the law.” 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.

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”.

What to aim for when you backchannel

  1. Make a good impression. Guess what, your candidate might be backchanneling 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.
  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 not to do when you backchannel

  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

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